The mediaeval Roman Catholic custom of using salt to protect infants from evil prior to their baptism is frequently alluded to in early romantic literature. In an ancient ballad entitled "The King's Daughter," the birth of a child occurs under circumstances which prevent the administration of the rite of baptism. The mother, therefore, exposes the baby in a casket, and is careful to place by its side salt and candles. The words of the ballad are:--
The bairnie she swyl'd in linen so fine,
In a gilded casket she laid it syne,
Mickle saut and light she laid therein,
Cause yet in God's house it had'na been.'
Mr. William G. Black, in his work on Folk-Medicine, says that in some districts of Scotland it was formerly a custom, previous to baptism, to carry some salt around the child "withershins," or backwards,--a procedure which was believed to protect the child from evil during its oftentimes long journey from the house to the church where the ceremony was to be performed. In Marsala the relatives of a new-born child do not sleep the first night, for fear of the appearance of witches. Indeed, a watch is often kept for many nights, or until the child's baptism. A light burns in the room constantly, and an image of some saint is fastened upon the house-door. A rosary and a raveled napkin are attached to the image, and behind the door are placed a jug of salt and a broom. When a witch comes and sees the saint's image and the rosary, she usually goes away at once; but even if these talismans are wanting, the salt, napkin, and broom afford adequate protection. For any witch before entering must count the grains of salt, the threads of the napkin's fringe, and the twigs of which the broom is made. And she never has time enough for these tasks, because she cannot appear before midnight, and must hide herself before the dawn.
This popular belief in the magical power of salt to protect infants from evil, especially in the period between birth and baptism, is exemplified in the following allusion to a foundling in a metrical "History of the Family of Stanley," which dates from the early part of the sixteenth century (Harleian MSS. 541, British Museum): "It was uncrisned, seeming out of doubt, for salt was bound at its neck in a linen clout."
In Sicily, too, it is sometimes customary for the priest to place a little salt in the child's mouth at baptism, thereby imparting wisdom. Hence the popular local saying in regard to a person who is dull of understanding, that the priest put but little salt in his mouth. A similar usage is in vogue in the district of Campine in Belgium. The use of salt at baptism in the Christian Church dates from the fourth century. It was an early practice to place salt, which had been previously blessed, in the infant's mouth, to symbolize the counteraction of the sinfulness of its nature.
So, too, in the baptismal ceremonies of the Church of England in mediaeval times, salt, over which an exorcism had been said, was placed in the child's mouth, and its ears and nostrils were touched with saliva,--practices which became obsolete at about the time of the reign of Henry VIII.
An octagonal font of the fifteenth century, in St. Margaret's Church, Ipswich, Suffolk, has upon one of its sides the figure of an angel bearing a scroll, on which appears a partially illegible inscription containing the words Sal et Saliva.
Thomas Ady, in "A Perfect Discovery of Witches" (London, 1661), says that holy water, properly conjured, was used to keep the Devil in awe, and to prevent his entering churches or dwellings.
With such holy water Satanic influences were kept away from meat and drink, and from "the very salt upon the table."
In the Highlands of Scotland, instead of using salt as an amulet for the protection of young babies, it was customary for watchers to remain constantly by the cradle until the christening. For it was believed that spiteful fairies were wont to carry off healthy infants, leaving in their stead puny specimens of their own elfish offspring;--and infants thus kidnapped were sometimes kept in fairyland for seven years. This well-known popular belief gave rise to the word "changeling," which signifies a "strange, stupid, ugly child left by the fairies in place of a beautiful or charming child that they have stolen away." And inasmuch as baby elves were invariably stunted and of feeble intellect, all idiotic and dwarfish children were thought to be changelings.
From thence a faery the unweeting reft,
There as thou slepst in tender swadling band,
And her base elfin brood there for the left:
Such men do chaungelinges call, so chaunged by fairies' theft.