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Of changelings, foundlings and ferals …

…or, A Question of Identity

Couldn’t resist re-blogging this fascinating, intriguing and ultimately mysterious account from the Georgian Gentleman‘s blog :

“Throughout the 18th Century I have come across stories of people suddenly appearing in a remote village, and no one can work out where they came from or why. Perhaps it is an indication of how little the population moved around, that strangers stood out in this way. There are echoes perhaps in the modern era with stories of children emerging from a forest claiming to have amnesia and uttering nothing but grunting sounds. You can bet that the red-tops will run with stories of ‘feral children being raised by wolves’ or whatever. They are generally found to be fakes…

Here then is a variation on that theme – as evidenced in a letter which my ancestor Richard Hall received some time in the 1780s. It is undated, so I cannot be more specific, but it appears to be in response to a query by Richard for information. Presumably he had gleaned some facts, and was intrigued to know the full story…”

Continues at Mr M.Rendell’s Blog

On reading the above I was reminded  of a couple of those more famous feral or ‘wild’ children from the late 18th and early19th centuries: the case of the wild boy, ‘Victor’ of Aveyron, who was found digging up roots and grunting, unable to communicate with humans, and the mysterious business of Kaspar Hauser who appeared out of the blue in 1812 in Nurnberg with an unsigned letter. Kaspar’s case differs from the Victor in that he was not, as initially assumed, living out in the wild; he could actually speak (two sentences), yet had difficulty walking and using his fingers. However, once he had learnt to speak more fluently, his story was no less mysterious than Victor’s – his earliest recollections were of living in a cell, visited by one human being who brought him water and bread (as a consequence, Kaspar could eat nothing else). There was never a light in his cell. Finally he was taught to say his name and taken outside where the fresh air and light made him faint. When he came to, he found himself in Nurnberg with the letter.

Victor of Aveyron, who was found digging up roots and grunting

In Victor’s case, two men who had lost sons in the French Revolution, travelled to see if he could be the missing heir; neither of them claimed him, however. Kaspar likewise caused some debate concerning his origins – to the extent that he was heir to the Baden principality, switched at birth by an ambitious relative. There are some interesting details connected with his story, including the manner of his death, but his claims remain unproven.

The idea of snatching a child at birth, either for profit or in order to save it from danger, is an ancient one, dating to prehistoric times, linked over time to the concept of the ‘changeling’ : the human child stolen away by faeries and replaced by an ugly homonid or goblin. Unpleasantly suggestive of people’s response to children born with defects, or simply not up to what had been expected – and also  a convenient cover for those born on the wrong side of the blanket.

To finish off this little trio of foundlings, changelings and ferals is the story of Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. The time: 1833. His claim was simple : he was the Dauphin, son and heir to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI who had been so careless as to lose their heads during the French Revolution. Another twenty-seven men or so had already laid claim to the title during the interim since Napoleon’s downfall in 1815. What set Naundorff apart was the evidence he put forward.

In 1795, Louis Charles de Bourbon, youngest child of the French Royal Family, was supposed to have died while in prison awaiting his fate. Yet rumour had it the child had in fact been swapped for another. Certainly the boy changed considerably in health in seven months according to General Paul Barras (hardly surprising though, given the circumstances) – what did spur on rumours however was the size of the coffin used for the funeral of the heir apparent; people wondered that such a large coffin was used for   such a young child. Twenty years later, the rumours were further fuelled by a death-bed confession from the Dauphin’s female gaoler: that she and her husband had substituted a boy for the Dauphin. “My little prince is not dead,” were her last words on the matter.

The Dauphin was supposed to have died in the Temple when he was ten

Various officials had visited the Dauphin in prison – far from the robust ten-year-old, they encountered a deaf-mute, a ‘pitiable creature’  – indeed, when the new gaoler was engaged, he immediately asserted that the Dauphin was an imposter. General de Barras organised a nation-wide search for the child.

According to Naundorff however,  Barras was complicit in the plot to save the boy by having him smuggled out on the day the substitute died, then moved to Italy, thence to Prussia.

Naundorff began a civil court action to support his claim, was expelled from France and went to work in England where an attempt was made on his life. He died nine years later in Holland – reputedly poisoned. Enough people believed in his claim to erect a tombstone to him inscribed with ‘Louis Charles de Bourbon, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’. Whether he was imposter or not, the story of substitution acquires more substance yet in the year 1846, when the presumed Dauphin’ s body was exhumed. Two doctors pronounced the bones to be those of an older child – a boy of fifteen or sixteen. In 1894 the bones were re-examined; this time, the age was set between sixteen and eighteen. In either case,speculation continued to murmur that the child in the coffin could not be the Dauphin. A quick perusal of Louis XVII, the Unsolved Mystery by H. G. Francq is suggestive – of botched mixed burials from hasty autopsies as much as anything else.

And what of the heart ? That sorry, pickled, much travelled heart on which DNA tests were carried out in 2000? Whose heart was it ? Certainly it belonged to a relative of Marie Antoinette (which Naundorff, likewise through DNA,was proven not to be) – but was it the Dauphin’s? Even there, the mystery continues.It certainly gave Baroness d’Orczy plenty of plot material . . .

How on earth did I get here? What links all of these cases, including the poor man from Leicester is that of identity – personal, individual, human. It lies at the heart of the human psyche, and operates at all levels of our lives. No wonder there is a constant absorbing interest every time a mummy is x-rayed, or Mozart’s skull is re-examined, or another portrait purporting to be of Shakespeare comes to light – are they who we thought they were?  And are we who we thought we were? Every time we suggest doubt of a person’s identity, past or present, we take a step towards challenging our own identity – understandably, passions run high. We take sides and perceive insults when academic and scientific clash with our favourite legends and prove them hollow and worthless.

The story of individual identity continues to appeal, attract, absorb and mystify, testifying as it does to our life-long, centuries-long obsession with who we are, where we come from, where we are going….

(Shall I finish with *the* quote? Or will you ?)

Related links of interest :


Eldorado by Baroness d’Orczy

Of masks & masquerades,alter egos & avatars . . .


Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, by Giuseppé Grisoni, 1724, Victoria & Albert Museum


 The ball is arrived. Long live the ball. With its laces and petticoates, and fans and bows, and powder and masks . . .  no one knows who is who (or affects not to know) and as the evening progresses, no one much cares. Not to be outdone by the fine gentry of Vauxhall, the local gentry of Lichfield have chosen to compete even in this area of fashion.

Enter a large red Cabbage (Mrs Rotundity with trimmings), followed by a purple Pencil (Lord Withered) and a green Peacock (Lady Withered). A quadrille commences, and the Peacock is engaged by a grey Spider, (Mr Lucrative), while the Pencil makes do with the Cabbage.

The room is already half-full, with many coy guesses as to identity being tossed about; there are various innocent looking Turtles, a few Kittens and Puppies, a white Hen or two (probably Mrs Glass and Mrs Rawnsley) all jostling and slipping and capering. It is well past nine before another carriage of any significance arrives, producing one up-turned purple Tulip and one Beetroot (Lady and Lord Puffball respectively), who linger a while to adjust themselves in the court yard before joining the revellers within . . .

 (Chapter 6, Greenwood Tree)

From Tom Jones, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison to Faulkner’s Lost Stradivarius, the masked ball offered more than flirtatious subterfuge. The poor, the rich, risk-takers and gamblers could intermingle at leisure – although not always to their mutual benefit, for the same function also provided ample opportunity to thieves, thwarted suitors and assassins. Ladies’ pockets and ladies’ virtue were both besieged, warned of by writers and cartoonists alike; it was the place for seductions, elopements, kidnappings (as Fielding and Richardson illustrate) and even murder (as in Faulkner’s Lost Stradivarius).

The Return from a Masquerade, A Morning Scene, Museum of London

Vauxhall, Ranelagh, the Pantheon and Carlisle House were among the most popular resorts for such unexpected excitement and pleasantries, ready for those bored with their lot in life to wander about, whispering invitations, offering, informing, discovering . . . agents and spies could benefit as much as anyone else at these gatherings : for about the time that Tom Jones was ploughing fields of petticoats and Clarissa and Grandison were verbally mortifying themselves, the ‘sbirri’ of Venice were going about their business very comfortably in their bauté and tricorni – because virtually everyone else was similarly disguised. For six months of the year the Carnival in Venice allowed the domino to throw a convenient veil not only over social distinction, allowing gamblers both poor and rich alike to scrabble for their coins on the ridotto tables, but over informers, intriguers and spies too. The same masks that sheltered their identities travelled as far as England where the idea of disguise appealed mainly for its piquancy. The loose behaviour at the public functions caused various condemnations, yet public demand saw to it that these licentious affairs continued well up nigh to the end of the 18th century.

Exhibition of a Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi, National Gallery

The masquerade ball goes on all the time now, costumes have become avatars or profile pictures, offering the user an identity as mysterious as the domino ever was; covering up, transforming, offering  total metamorphosis : ideal as ever for flirting, gossiping and sadly some not so innocent mischief-making. The bauté and tricorno sit hovering in the ether,  their variations many and manifold, to be plucked at a moment’s notice . . . kittens and puppies, bears and baubles, wine bottles, corks, koalas with berets . . .

Aether user : “Well, what have you for me today ? Mind, I am to attend Lady HaHa’s forum this very evening, and wish to make a splash !”

Website costumier : “A splash? Why, I have the very thing – take this image of a great pool, with a fluorescent penguin adorned in grass skirt raising a cocktail in his left flipper !”

A : “ Yes, I think when I said ‘Splash’, I did in fact intend something a little less literal – have you not some fine picture of an antelope with feathers ?”

W : “But of course, I have many – look here – and here – and here : flamingo pink, with a pineapple, or celestial blue with a drunken dog, or what about a little sparkle, an explosion of fireworks with an apple peel judiciously displayed in the foreground ?

A : “Drat, I have no more time – I’ll take it ! No, wait, what is that drunken unicorn doing with those bananas ? Excellent ! I’ll have that one instead !”

(And another final vestige of sanity bites the dust . . .)

And yes, I have a kidnapping or two going on in Greenwood Tree as well . . .should I have mentioned that earlier ?

View of all the principal masquerade figures at the Rotunda, May 12th 1789, Ranelagh Gardens.Museum of London


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