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University of Bade

When a child is born with a deformity, or a physical or mental handicap comes to light soon after its birth, many parents react to the shock with behaviour which can be best described by analogy with the formation of defence mechanisms. (A. Freud7, G. L. Bibring et a1.2, A. Ross22). The parents have to cope with feelings of frustration, inadequacy or guilt. To explain the incomprehensible event, they have recourse mainly to rationalization and projection: the blame is laid on certain occurrences during the pregnancy, supposed faults in the parents way of life, or mistakes by the doctors. It is of crucial importance how the parents come to terms with the powerful feelings of anger and aggression which are usually generated. Since open rejection is in most cases individually and socially inadmissible, the aggressive attitude must be masked as a perfectionist upbringing for the child; or the aggression is diverted from the child by displacement. The martyr-like attitude of many mothers of handicapped children can be interpreted as a turning of the aggression against themselves ; on the other hand, the inordinately reproachful attitude of some parents or parents associations towards society clearly shows what aggressive tensions are being diverted to the outside world. The ultimate form of the parents attitude depends on their personality but also on the values and opinions of the society in which they live. Hence we must take into account not only how the individual unconscious of the parents, but also how the collective unconscious of society reacts to the deformed child. If parents today not infrequently regard an abnormal child as a retribution for their sins, usually sins in the sexual field or even for sexual excesses within marriage, this is an attitude which must be explained by reference to the background of our cultural tradition. The purpose of this study is to portray an attitude towards the deformed child which was widespread in Europe from the Middle Ages down to the Enlightenment: the idea of the abnormal child as a changeling.16 I n a valuable monograph Gisela Piaschewskis- s has assembled all the material from a folklore point of view. There is also an older study in English by Hartland, which deals primarily with traditions in the British Isles. This idea was a pre-Christian superstition of Celto-Germanic origin which spread to the Slav countries but did not originally occur among the Latin peoples. (It was only the Christianized form in association with legends about saints which later appeared in Italy and Spain.) The characteristic features of these heathen ideas can be found in one of the fairy stories of the brothers GrimmO: Fairies stole a mothers child from its cradle and in its place laid a changeling with a big head and staring eyes who wanted to do nothing but eat and drink. In her distress the mother went to




a neighbor for advice. The neighbor told her to take the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the stove, make a fire and boil water in two egg-shells: this would make the changeling laugh, and if he laughed, that would be an end of him. The woman did everything the neighbor had said. When she set the egg-shells of water on the fire, the changeling said: I am as old Ad the Wester Forest Yet never have seen water boiled in a egg-shell,* and began to laugh. When it laughed, a troop of fairies came in, bringing with them the right child, which they set on the stove, and taking the changeling away with them again. As in this fairy-story, the changeling was usually peculiar in appearance: its proportions were wrong, its head was too big for its body, its face was ugly or wrinkled, it looked old, for according to the legend, it was not a child a t all but an age-old creature. Sometimes it had a thick throat and was for this reason known in many districts as Killcrop (= Kielkropj, crop in the throat). It could not stand or walk but crept round like an animal. It drank greedily and insatiably and sucked four or five wet-nurses dry. It did not laugh or talk but screamed and shouted interminably. Mentally retarded children were thus clearly taken for changelings, particularly cases with hydrocephalus and cretinism. What caused special comment was the fact that they did not laugh or talk. This was interpreted, however, in the way of some modern mothers when they say ambiguously: My child just wont talk. f The changeling deliberately refrained from laughing and talking. I it could be tricked into laughing or talking, then the spell was broken and it changed into a normal child or-in the language of the fairy tale-it was changed for the right child. Its non-responsiveness or its inappropriate behaviour were taken to be signs of obstinacy, malice and spite. Luther15 said of a 12-year-old child he had seen himself: When there was trouble in the house and harm was done, it laughed and was merry; but if things went well, it wept. All the time it dissimulated simply to annoy people. The changeling was the child of nature demons of semi-human form which lived under the earth or in the water, of brownies, pixies, fairies and the Lgood people. These creatures envied man his beauty and his immortal soul. For this reason they stole a human child and later married it to one of their own so as t o ennoble their stock. I an elf-child was suckled by a human mother, it also acquired f beauty and a soul. Sometimes the elf parents appeared voluntarily after a number of years to reverse the exchange, showed gratitude and showered gifts on the couple. The danger of a surreptitious exchange was greatest during the confinement, during the first days or weeks after the child was born, and above all during the
*Hartlands11 version of this verse is: I am as old As Bohemian gold, Yet for the first time I see Beer in an egg-shall brewed to be.



hours of darkness, around midnight (but also around midday) on certain nights, e.g. Saturday night. During this time the child must never be left alone and a constant watch must be kept over it a t night. The father was a more effective guardian than the mother. If the father was away, the mother should put on an article of his clothing or lay it on the cradle in order to ward off the danger of an exchange. Other magical precautions were taken: A light must be left burning in the room at all times. Metals made a particularly effective defence against demons: open knives with the blade upward, scissors opened to form a cross, a key or a wedding ring; bread and salt, various herbs such as dill, blue marjoram, black cumin, garlic, orant, a ravens heart as an amulet round the childs neck. Demons could not cross the threshold if a pentagram or cross was drawn there. The Christian version of all this was that the childs best defence against exchange was baptism. Fear of the child being stolen by fairies was one of the main reasons why in many places it was baptized as soon as possible after birth. What should the parents attitude be to a child put in exchange for their own? The advice tendered could not be more contradictory and the importance of the changeling for the family was seen in entirely different ways-clearly an indication of the ambivalence the parents felt towards such a child. In some places, Ireland for instance, the changeling was regarded as bringing good luck to the house. It should be well treated, for the familys own child would receive just the same treatment from the good people as the changeling received from human hands. One might hope not only to receive ones own child back in good health but also to be generously rewarded as well (England, Hesse, Thuringia). Much more widespread was the advice on how one should proceed to reverse the exchange once it had been recognized. We have already mentioned harmless methods of exposing and outwitting the changeling by making it laugh and talk. Other methods were aimed at coercing the elf-childs parents to return the stolen child. One must treat their child so badly that they felt sorry for it and came to fetch it. It must be exposed at a crossroads at midnight or on the beach of the water whence it came. In certain places it must be beaten nine times with birch rods until it bled while the parents called out: Take yours and bring me mine! One should hold it over boiling water and threaten to plunge it in. The oven should be heated with nine different kinds of wood and the child placed on the shovel as if it was intended to thrust it into the fire. The child should be placed on the red-hot shovel, pressed into red-hot ashes, laid on a red-head grid, shots should be fired over it, it should be fed on leather and red-hot iron, it should be given poison to drink. What we have said so far refers in the main to the popular idea of the changeling uninfluenced by the teachings of the church. It explains the presence of the abnormal child by supposing that it is not a human creature at all but a subhuman one which was not borne by the mother but surreptitiously substituted for the real child shortly after birth. The blame for this was laid on the demons and their envy of humankind. This mishap was no fault of the parents provided they a t least took the necessary precautions and looked after their child carefully during its early days. It was not merely that the powers of the underworld were made responsible for the misfortune; the whole struggle with the calamity was seen as a struggle with the powers of the underworld: they must be propitiated, outwitted or rendered



docile by brutal methods. In terms of psychoanalysis, the parents were attempting to relieve their own sense of guilt by displacement and projection; rationalizing the abnormal child as a changeling allowed them to focus their aggression directly on the child since, of course, it was not their own. The tendency to impute a subhuman origin to subnormal children can be found in an attenuated form in many places where they are regarded as the descendants of more primitive peoples. Cretins, which have been described in the Pyrenees since the 11th century and are known there as cagots, were looked upon as the progeny of Saracens. In Sweden Lapps were considered to be the ancestors of And in Switzerland the idea still persists down to our day that mongoloid forms of skull and facial features are due to the fact that the Huns invaded Europe in the 5th century and mixed with our population. Langdon Downs Ethnic Classification of Idiots (1SS6)4may be regarded as a scientific formulation of this popular belief. He described not only the mongolian type of idiocy but also retarded English children who were said to be like the Ethiopian, Malayan and Indian variety. For him they are evidence that the human races did not originate independently of one another but represent varieties of the human family. The cases of idiocy described are examples of retrogression, the result of degeneracy : the foreign racial features are phylogenetic atavisms. As happened with so many of the elements of heathen superstition, the church adopted and Christianized the idea of the changeling. Now it became the devil that stole the children. From the 11th century onwards we read of various saintsStephen, Lawrence, Bartholomew and Onuphrius-that they were stolen from the cradle and replaced by a demonic changeling.*# These legends were illustrated in some churches in Italy and Spain. I n an altar picture by Bartolo di Fredi from Siena (14th century), now in the Stiidelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt A. M., depicting the legend of St. Stephen, the changeling is clearly shown as a little devil with horns. Once the holy child was safely recovered, the changeling was cast into the fire. Sprenger and In~titoris,2~ built witchcraft and the persecution of witches who into the theological system of the day, dealt a t length in two passages of their Malleus Makjicarum (1487) with the doctrine of campsores or changelings, and referred to various theological authorities. Such children always howl most piteously and even if four or five mothers are set on to suckle them, they never grow. The Reformation, as is well known, did not eradicate the belief in witches but continued to persecute them with at least as much zeal and cruelty as before. Luther~~ ideas were no different from those to be found in the Malleus MaleJicarum. He returned to the theme several times in his table talk (Convivia). Habet enim potestatem Satan, die Kinder auszuwechseln (The devil has the power, to exchange children).--That is true: they often take the children of women in childbed and lay themselves down in their place and are more obnoxious than ten children with their crapping, eating and screaming. He tells the story of a backward child whose parents wanted to take it to a place of pilgrimage to rock it in a miracle-working cradle there. When they were passing over a bridge, the devil called to his child from the water and it suddenly became capable of speech and answered him. Then the husband saw what was happening and without more ado flung the child into the water where it was received by the devils with much splashing and laughter.



In another instance Luther was asked for advice. There was a 12-year-old child in Dessau whose maliciously gleeful laughter we have already mentioned. He adviced that the child be flung into the water and was ready to risk the homicide involved on the grounds that he was entirely of the opinion that such changelings were merely a lump of flesh, a mama carnis, and that there was no soul in them. The motivation of child exchange now underwent a characteristic change. Even in the old heathen fairy stories we sometimes find the exchange motivated by the fact that the good people took a child from human beings because of the bad treatment it is receiving and restored it later well brought up and cared for. In the Christian version the blame was now quite clearly laid on the parents. The Malleusz3 mentions the following reason: God allows such things because of the sins of the parents, if (for example) husbands sometimes curse their pregnant wives, saying, I wish you would give birth to the devil. And Praetorius120 author of an the 17th century, took this argument a stage further: God punishes in particular parents who do not fear Him and those who are given to unchastity and bear children outside matrimony. But if they are with such children and carry them with great reluctance, and curse and wish them ill while still in the womb; and thereafter as soon as they are born and cry and scream, they wish them with all the devils together with their cradles and clouts . . . and they bless them day and night in the devils name . . . when such things happen, how should God not visit them on the father and mother? Thus the blame for the exchange was no longer projected on the wicked spirit but internalized. It is the same idea which is frequently encountered today among many parents of handicapped children: one is being punished for wicked thoughts and wishes directed against the undesired child. The Malleus goes on to mention two further motives. One is that the jealous God punishes parents for loving their children too much. Later nothing more is heard of this motive. On the other hand the last explanation the book gives of deformed children is one that had disastrous effects. The same name of changeling was used of children who had not been exchanged but were reputed to be the fruit of sexual intercourse between a woman and the devil. In the Malleus, and in all subsequent treatises on witchcraft down to the beginning of the 18th century, we find illustrations of such monsters. They are sometimes described as being similar to the changelings we have dealt with so far, but frequently also likened to grotesque animal-like monsters which were popular subjects for contemporary prints.13*0 * 21 In the Hollischer Proteus6, which appeared 2 in 1690, a diabolical birth according to Boethius was described as follows: A virgin became pregnant and said that she was visited every night by a handsome youth. Her parents lay in wait for this lover and the following night found a frightful monster in their daughters embrace. A priest was called and drove the devil out by reciting St. Johns Gospel. Thereupon the devil set all the bedding on fire, let off a terrible fart, and made away. The following day the daughter gave birth to a monster or fantastic abortion. In the list of questions for the guidance of judges during the examination under torture of alleged witches was one whether they had given birth to changelings and what they had looked like. The mere fact of having borne an abnormal child could thus be interpreted as incriminating evidence and serve to bring a woman to the



stake. It may be imagined what fear was inspired by the birth of a deformed child and how determined parents must have been to keep the birth concealed or clandestinely to do away with the evidence. As late as 1780, Frank5 still had to contend against this superstition: Although this ridiculous opinion had already been rejected as false by the scholars of earlier times, every deformed child, every child with the so-called English disease, was in extreme danger of being regarded as a changeling whose removal from this world would be a laudable act . . . What neglect, how many poor, sick infants done to death, what dreadful suspicion cast on innocent mothers! In his System einer vollstandigen medicinischen Polizey6, Frank calls for laws to protect such cases : 1. a law forbidding the killing of any deformed child born alive; 2. the obligation to notify the authorities of the birth of such children and to have them medically examined; 3. the obligation of the strictest discretion imposed on all concerned, particularly the garrulous midwives. But in some parts of Germany even the mothers of well-formed children lived in the fear that their children might be taken from them by the devil until late into the 18th century. They believed they had to guard against such a danger by taking their newborn child to bed with them. As a result it often happened that the children were overlain or suffocated. A decree in Kurpfalz dated 1765 forbade this bad habit and instructed midwives, doctors and the clergy to warn people against it.5 The last remnants of the old belief in the possibility of reversing the exchange by tormenting the changeling can be traced down to the second half of the 19th century. I n West Prussia, Posen, Schleswig-Holstein, Scotland and Ireland a t least 8 cases involving the maltreatment or death of children, large and small, as changelings were the subject of judicial inquiries between 1850 and 1895. I n America there was a case in New York in 1877 in which Irish immigrants burnt their child., I s As everyone knows, the demonology of the prevailing theological and juridical system was attacked by independent thinkers from as far back as the Renaissance, yet it took a full three hundred years for its power to be broken and the trial of witches to be discontinued. Doubts were cast upon the doctrine of the changeling as early as 1455 by the physician Johannes HartliebI2; it was also refuted in 1563 by the physician Johann Weyer24 his great polemic against belief in witchcraft. in Among the reformed theologians Augustin Lercheimer 1585 and Balthasar Bekker 1691 were the first enlightened opponents.. l4 In 1725, the theme was the subject of a medical dissertation by J. G. de Broke in Helmstadt3 (usually quoted under the name of the Dean, Laurenz Heister). It propounds the thesis: injantes pro a diabolo suppositis habitos quos vulgo Wechselbiilge appellarunt rhachiticos fuisse (children regarded as having been exchanged by the devil and called changelings are rachitic children). The transformation of the idea of the changeling within the framework of Christian demonology showed a shift from projection to the relatively harmless or even benevolent good people to the unequivocally wicked devil. He was the instrument of a vengeful God. The blame for what happened was internalized: diabolism, superstition and unbelief were a t first generally regarded as sins of the parents which were punished by the child being stolen and another put in its place.



Finally the fault was seen with ever greater clarity to be a sin in thought against the child; if before or after its birth the parents cursed the child and wished the devil would take it, then the devil would do precisely that. The deformed or otherwise abnormal child now became a cause of great fear and pangs of conscience: have we offended against God? It also became a shameful stigma in the eyes of society and a reason for isolation, -ostracism and even persecution.

1. BEKKER, BALTHASAR. Bezauberte Welt. Dutch edition 1691-93, German translation 1782, Leipzig. 2. BIBRING, L. el al. Psychoan. Stud. Child 16. (1961). 9-72. G. 3. DE BROKE, G. Dissertatio Medicu. Helmstadt (1725). J. 4. DOWN, L. H. London Hosp. Rep. 3. (1886). 259-262. J. J. P. 5. FRANK, System einer vollstandigen medicinischen Polizey. Mannheim (1780). E. Der 6. FRANCISCUS, Hollische Proteus. Nurnberg (1690). 7. FREUD, Das Zch und die Abwehrmechanismen. Wien (1936). A. B. 8. DE GAIFFIER, Le diable voleur denfants. Miscellania dEstudis Lderaris 2. Barcelona (1936). 33-58. B. 9. DE GAIFFIER, Analecta Bollandiana 67. (1939). 204. J. 10. GRIMM, u. W. Kinder- und Hausmarchen. 7 . Auflaae (1857) E. 11. HARTLAND, S. The Science of Fairy Tales. London-(l891). J 12. HARTLIEB,. Puch aller verpotten kunst, unglaubens und tier zaubrey, ca. 1456. %-edited by Dora Ulm. Heidelberg (1914). 13. HOLLXNDER, Wunder, Wundergeburt u. Wundergestalt. Stuttgart (1931). E. 14. LERCHEIMER, Christlich Bedencken und Erinnerung von Zauberey. Heidelberg (1585). ReA. edited by Binz. Strassburg (1888). 15. LUTHER, Ges. Werke. Weimar (1913). Convivia 2528 b, 2529 a, 4513, 5207. M. M. 16. MACCULLOCH J. A. Changeling, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. (ed.) Hastings. Edinburgh (1910). 17. MERKE F. Karger Gazette. Basel, N r . 9/10, (1964). 18. PIASCHEWSKI, Wechselbalg. Breslau (1935). G. Der G. Artikel Wechselbalg in Handworterbuch des h e t s c h e n Aberglaubens. Berlin 19. PIASCHEWSKI, (1928). ff. 20. PRAETORIUS,Neue Weltbeschreibung von allerly Wunderbarlichen Menschen. Magdeburg J. (1666). 21. REMIGIUS, Daemmlatria. Lyon (1590). German translation Hamburg (1693). N. 22. Ross, A. 0.The Exceptional Child in the Family. New York/London (1964). 23. SPRENGER, u. H. Institoris: Malleus Maleficarum, I@?. German translation by Schmidt. J. (Berlin) 1906. J. 24. WEYER, De Praestigiis Daemonum. Bade (1563). German translation by Fuglinus. Frankfurt a. M. (1586).