Every mother of a screaming infant has probably looked at him, bleary-eyed with frustration and sleep deprivation, and wondered: Did I actually give birth to this person?
Then of course, most of us go on with our days. We don’t assume the misbehaving child is actually an imposter. That was a little different during the Middle Ages. Back then, many people believed that fairies (not nice ones like Glinda, apparently) snatched babies from their cradles and left doppelgängers, known as changelings, in their place.
How did these parents know they had a fake baby on their hands? Well, the changelings wept frequently, and were weak, hungry and often sick, according to Paul B. Newman in Growing Up in the Middle Ages. (This, of course, was a huge change from your average baby, who was always quiet, hale and hearty—and watching his waistline.)
Sometimes parents fearful of trickster fairies would leave out food in the hopes the magical creatures would think, Oh the hell with baby-stealing, I see a bowl of sop! Disturbingly, some who thought the deed was already done would hurt or abandon the baby, in the hopes the fairy would come back to rescue it. (This is especially distressing since some folklore experts have surmised that the changeling legend came about to explain why some children were born disabled, or died prematurely.)
For more depictions of changelings in art, go to Cindy Bruchman’s fascinating blog.