A changeling is a human-like fairy child found in folklore throughout Europe left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies and swapped for a poor deformed or ailing child that did not thrive.. Stories of changelings were believed by many and are common in medieval literature. These tales show us the difficulty of surviving in a harsh cruel world before medicines and monetary aid were able to be found for an ill or deformed child born into a poor family.
A peasant family’s very existence depended upon every member of the family working and labouring for their share of meagre resources especially in a harsh winter when an ailing child might be born to a malnourished mother, and it was difficult to provide for a person who was a permanent drain on the family’s scant resources. So it was kinder, easier and a balm to the soul and heart for the family to believe their bonny and happy child was taken by the fairy folk ; to act as a servant, for the fairies to receive the love of a human child, or for malice/revenge.
Usually the exchange was made with a fairy child but it was ‘known’ that occasionally an elderly fairy would be swapped for a beloved grandparent or relative, either so that it could live out its life in the comfort of the care of a human, or so that it could die.
Usually, it was the fairest, most beautiful children who were taken, because the fairies craved and admired beauty and grace.
If a baby or child mysteriously became ill, had a strange appearance, or perhaps suddenly unable to move their limbs, they had been ‘fairy-struck’ and fairy work was suspected.
children with deformities and illnesses were abandoned or even killed, with the excuse that they were changelings but there were still loving kind parents who,whilst not accepting their child could be this way, still , loved and cared for their ‘changeling child’ , hoping one day to have their child returned to them in gratitude for their care of the fairy child.
Infanticide was a terrible yet very real medieval practise, changeling tales often mention ravenous appetites giving cause for the parents to fear for the whole family when food was scarce, and so allowing them to die might be the only way to save everyone else. The changeling stories just helped them down the horribly inevitable path.