Medieval Mondays: Switched at Birth

Ever heard someone declare that they or a relative might have been switched at birth? This is often jokingly said due to an individual having a different physical appearance or personality trait from the rest of their family members.

Well, in the Medieval Period, this was no joking matter! In fact, children being switched at birth was a common fear. According to legend, fairies and trolls would steal newborn children in the night and replace them with Changelings–a fairy or troll child which looked eerily similar to the abducted infant. Common belief held that fairies were drawn to the beauty and innocence of the children (particularly blondes), while trolls targeted the unbaptized. If a child was taken by the fairies, they were raised as one of them. If they were taken by trolls…well…

If a parent suspected their child of being a Changeling, they could perform a number of tests to check and make sure. One of these tests was to try and mix a loaf of bread in an egg shell. If the baby giggled (signaling they could understand what was funny about the situation), then it was not a human child. Another test was to place a set of bagpipes next to the child. If the infant began to play the instrument, then it was a Changeling. The logic behind this test was that no magical creature could resist the sounds of this instrument.

So, how did a parent get rid of the Changeling and get their child back? In some places it was believed that if the Changeling was treated poorly by its human family its actual parents would rescue it and return the child.

The Changeling superstition was known well into the 19th century. In fact, there were two court cases where murderers claimed innocence based on the fact that they had killed a Changeling and not a human being.


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