Changelings In The Malleus Maleficarum

(A devil leaving a changeling, painted by Martino di Bartolomeo  (1389–1434), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


The Malleus Malleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger (published around 1486-1487) was the most popular text on witchcraft and witches in the age of witch-hunts and inquisition. Besides discussing witches and their powers in a question and answer format, the book also describes monsters, supernatural beasts and demonic influences on humanity.

A section in part II, question 1, and chapter 3 of The Malleus Maleficarum brought up a demonic ability that is reminiscent of the changeling, a supernatural monster often associated with fairy and elf folklore. Yet, instead of fairies, The Malleus Maleficarum suggested that the devil could cause demonic changes in children.

Kramer and Sprenger cited William of Paris’ De Uniuerso for their claim on the existence of demonic changelings. According to these sources, the religious authorities of the time believed that the devil could bring about certain changes in innocent children, if and only if God gave permission for the tragedy to occur. The Malleus Maleficarum cautiously explained that God, unfortunately, may give the devil permission to attack children if parents cursed at each other using the devil and their child in the wording of their curses. As an example, the text provided this curse a man may accidentally say to his wife: “ May you be carrying a devil” (The Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, Qn. 1, Ch. 3).

When the devil was given permission to attack a child, The Malleus Maleficarum states that the young victim could be stricken with a range of demonic influences, namely change, transformation, or a complete substitution. The symptoms supposedly exhibited by these demonic changelings were excessive crying and permanent unhappiness. Another sign of a child affected by the devil was supposedly a starved and skinny disposition paired paradoxically with an unnaturally heavy weight.

Kramer and Sprenger warned their readers that the demonic changeling topic should be kept secret, or, at least, very vague. Concerning women who asked about demonic changes in children, The Malleus Maleficarum gave this suggestion: “But this should neither be affirmed nor denied to women, on account of the great fear which it may cause them, but they should be instructed to ask the opinion of learned men” (The Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, Qn. 1, Ch. 3).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


  • From The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).

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