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  • Changelings and the Law August 11, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    ‘Changeling’, as noted in a recent post, was the name given by country folk on the Celtic fringe prior to children who were bewitched (i.e. ill): they were called ‘changelings’ because it was believed that fairies had come and had exchanged the child with a fairy. Parents’ reactions on having their children spirited away and replaced with a cuckoo were sometimes extreme. ‘Some wanted her to put [the changeling] out on a hot shovel; others to make egg-broth before it, that is, to boil egg-shells and offer it the water they were boiled in for its dinner, which would make it speak at once; others to keep its head under water for twenty and five minutes, when, if it was a right child, it would be drowned; if it was not, why it would be alive in the face of the country’. And sometimes the stress or rumour of a changeling child was enough to lead to violence: consequently an interesting and largely untapped source of changeling material is to be found in court cases.

    A random example. The following comes from a murder case in which an Irish father and the sinister Mrs Rainey did away with his six year old child.  Though the court does not really grapple with the changeling issue some of the questions suggest that the idea the child was a changeling was either behind the act or served as an excuse for the wretched man.  As is typical of court records from the nineteenth-century it is necessary to guess at the questions that were asked. The following are the answers of the accused’s sister.

    Before the child took the small pox it was a healthy, fine child. I know Mrs Rainey – she is a rather passionate woman. The report was that she alleged she had no luck in selling anything in her shop, from the time it came about the house, because it was ‘bewitched like’. The opinion of the country people is that a bewitched child is a sickly one which has been left in place of a fine child taken away by the fairies. It was reported that Mrs Rainey advised the prisoner to take the head off the child and throw it behind the fire.

    The following are the answers of Mrs Rainey: after the child

    ‘had been a week in my house, I began to wish its father would provide another lodging for it… We don’t tell old stories, about fairies and so on – how should I know any thing about fairies? (laughter) I never said any thing to prisoner about fairies, I merely said to him, that his child was ‘not right looking’, and that it should be with me no longer; if it had had good clothes it would have been like other children. I never called it a witch. I heard my children say, that, when it was up stairs, it used to sing foolish little songs, and that it played little tricks among the ashes, and was bringing ‘wee things (fairies) about the fire’. I don’t know what wee things or ‘wee people’ are. I never saw the deceased child do more than play a little trick, as if to frighten the others.’

    The child was dead days later. Chilling stuff.

    Sometimes Changeling medicine took on elements of pantomime: this remarkable account is from Ireland, 1862.

    Bridget Peters, a decent-looking woman, was indicted for having caused the death of Mary Anne Kelly, by administering large quantities of fox-glove… It appeared that the deceased was a child almost six years of age, and had been delicate almost from its birth, being affected with a softening of the brain and partial paralysis… The prisoner is what is called a ‘Fairy Doctor’ and the mother of Mary Anne Kelly having consulted her, she promised to recover her, or not charge anything unless her skill was successful. The consequence was that this unlicensed general practitioner made up some mysterious, preparations in a cauldron, which acts very peculiarly on the nervous system, and vervani, which is regarded as a very wonderful medicine by those who are superstitious. But the prisoner, after examining the child, very significantly nodded her head, and told Mrs Kelly that it was not her child but a ‘changeling’ and that something must be done to recover the missing girl, who was with the fairies; accordingly after every dose of the doctress, she had the deceased stripped Mary Maher, the servant in the family, and carried out naked on a shovel and laid on a dunghill, the poor patient calling out mamma, and in a state of great alarm. The shock of such an exposure and this while under the depressing influence of foxglove, caused a great shock to the system and on the morning of the 4th of September, another dose having been administered, the poor victim of this superstition died, although the prisoner concealed the fact until evening, pretending that she was in a sound sleep and getting well.

    How many treatments like this were carried out where the child survived or, the parents’ facing ridicule, no action was taken?

    Other changeling stories? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    11 August 2011: This from Invisible. ‘According to one story told in Table Talk, Martin Luther advised the murder of a changeling because it was just a lump of flesh without a soul. Here’s his account. Eight years ago [in the year 1532] at Dessau , I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the fact that it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues. I said to the Princes of Anhalt: “If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water–into the Molda that flows by Dessau . I would dare commit homicidium on him!” But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau , and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice. Therefore, I said: “Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil.” They did this daily at Dessau , and the changeling child died in the following year…. Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul. Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 5, p. 9. An analysis of Luther’s views on changelings and the disabled.  I will add that one of my pastors, a Methodist, after listening to a talk about Luther’s views on the Jews, protested that some of the more virulently anti-Semitic views expressed in the table talks were gross exaggerations for effect, giving as an example that anyone transcribing him [the pastor] saying ‘I’m going to nail my kid to the wall!’ when his son misbehaved, would be technically accurate in capturing an unguarded moment of speech, but wrong about his relationship with his son. This pastor MIGHT suggest the same about this changeling passage–that Luther was testing the Elector, playing Devil’s advocate, as it were. I have my doubts.’ Thanks Invisible, a passage that will make Mrs B dance on the ceiling!

    13 August 2011: Fairyman writes in with a useful reference to changelings and disability: Susan Schoon Eberly ‘Fairies and the Folklore of Disability: Changelings, Hybrids and the Solitary Fairy’ Folklore 99 (1988), 58-77. Then LH on specifics: ‘I guess the modern changeling phenomenon would be autism spectrum disorders. I know several families with autistic and aspie kids and they tell similar stories about normal kids being ‘substituted’ with changelings. Doctors, vaccines, virus, genes and bad nutrition have replaced fairies. Luther may have been describing a child with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Early renaissance thinkers are chimeras, they have beautiful, brilliant minds in their area of study but simultaneously display monstrous medieval traits.’ Thanks LH and Fairyman!