This peculiar illustration, painted by the Italian artist Martino di Bartolomeo (c. 1389–1434) for The Legend of St. Stephen, depicts the planting of a feared monster into the home of a couple that recently had a child. The scene of the diabolical crime is shown occurring in the lower half of the panting. There, a demon can be seen zipping across the room with the help of some fiery back-end propulsion. With its speed and stealth, the fiendish devil made a cruel swap—it kidnapped the couple’s saintly baby and left behind a devil-horned changeling. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, two witch-hunting Inquisitors from the Dominican Order, reported the latest folklore and theories about changelings in their 15th-century text, The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches):
“Another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men is when their own children are taken away from women, and strange children are put in their place by devils. And these children, which are commonly called changelings, or in the German tongue Wechselkinder, are of three kinds…But all three kinds have this in common, that though they are very heavy, they are always ailing and do not grow, and cannot receive enough milk to satisfy them, and are often reported to have vanished away” (Malleus Maleficarum, part 2, question 2, chapter 8).
Such is the scene that Martino di Bartolomeo painted. Unfortunately, the Malleus Maleficarum’s description of how to spot a changeling did little to assure worrisome parents. After all, few babies spare their parents from frequent crying. In this illustration, the changeling’s nature is easily betrayed by its devilish horns, yet in the usual folklore and legends about these supernatural imposters, changelings were much more difficult to identify, making the creatures all the more fearful to skeptical and doubting parents.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).