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Cædmonfree

(fl. c. 670)
  • E. G. Stanley

Cædmon (fl. c. 670), poet, is the earliest vernacular English poet whose name is known. Information about him is derived entirely from book 4, chapter 24, of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, finished in 731. Cædmon lived at the time of St Hild's abbacy (657–80) of Streanaeshalch (Whitby). The name Cædmon is of Celtic origin, but not enough is known of name giving among the Anglo-Saxons for use as evidence of Celtic descent; Bede says English was Cædmon's own tongue. Bede's account of Cædmon's saintly life and death is reflected in John Wilson's pious compilation, The English Martyrologe (first included in its second edition, published at St Omer in 1640), which was treated in the Bollandist Acta sanctorum as providing authority for the veneration of Cædmon as a saint on 11 February. However, that is not supported by the calendar of the Benedictine abbey of Whitby (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. liturg. b.1), in which local saints of the Anglo-Saxon era are specially honoured, but Cædmon is not included.

Bede relates how Cædmon came to utter his first song, 'Cædmon's Hymn' (forty-two words long), and judges that he gave to vernacular verse a sacred authority for expressing divine praise and sacred story. The account of Cædmon is to be read in the immediate context of Bede's account of St Hild. Her wisdom was accessible to all, ordinary people and kings and princes. Bede stresses the nobility of her rank, and Cædmon's humble status, as he advanced from being a monastery servant, a 'neatherd', to monkhood. His holy dying is related at length. Bede says:

He used to compose godly and religious songs; thus, whatever he learned from the holy Scriptures by means of interpreters, he quickly turned into extremely delightful and moving poetry, in English, which was his own tongue … It is true that after him other Englishmen attempted to compose religious poems, but none could compare with him … He had lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learned any songs. Hence sometimes at a feast, for the sake of providing entertainment that they should all sing in turn, when he saw the harp approaching him, he would rise up in the middle of the feasting, go out, and return home.On one such occasion when he did so … in due time he … went to sleep, whereupon he dreamt that someone stood by him, saluted him, and called him by name: ‘Cædmon,’ he said, ‘sing me something.’ Cædmon answered, ‘I cannot sing; that is why I left the feast and came here because I could not sing.’ Once again the speaker said, ‘Nevertheless you must sing to me.’ ‘What must I sing?’ said Cædmon. ‘Sing,’ he said, ‘about the beginning of created things.’ Thereupon Cædmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before in praise of God the Creator … When he awoke, he remembered all that he had sung while asleep and soon added more verse in the same manner, praising God in fitting style.In the morning he went to … his master, telling him of the gift he had received, and he took him to the abbess. He was then bidden to describe his dream in the presence of a number of the more learned men and also to recite his song so that they might all examine him and decide upon the nature and origin of the gift of which he spoke; and it seemed clear to all of them that the Lord had granted him heavenly grace. They then read to him a passage of sacred history or doctrine, bidding him make a song out of it, if he could, in metrical form. He undertook the task and went away; on returning next morning he repeated the passage he had been given, which he had put into excellent verse. The abbess … instructed him to renounce his secular habit and to take monastic vows. She and all her people received him into the community of the brothers and ordered that he should be instructed in the whole course of sacred history. He learned all he could by listening to them and then, memorizing it and ruminating over it … he turned it into the most melodious verse; and it sounded so sweet as he recited it that his teachers became in turn his audience. He sang about the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole history of Genesis, of the departure of Israel from Egypt and the entry into the promised land and of many other of the stories taken from the sacred scriptures: of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of the Lord, of His ascension into heaven, of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles. He also made songs about the terrors of future judgement, the horrors of the pains of hell, and the joys of the heavenly kingdom. In addition he composed many other songs about the divine mercies and judgements.

Bede, Hist. eccl., 4.24

The divine gift of song has been claimed by or for the first poets in many languages, and scholarly doubts in this miracle have been expressed. Yet Bede claims for Cædmon only that he, who had not previously shown any aptitude for verse or song of any kind, was given the art of sacred song in a dream, and that he was the first to use English for sacred poetry. By way of evidence Bede translates freely 'Cædmon's Hymn', and in some twenty manuscripts and in versions of the Old English translation of the Historia the poem itself is recorded, in Cædmon's Northumbrian and in later West Saxon. It is a typical piece of Old English alliterative poetry, using well the traditional devices of Anglo-Saxon verse, and adapting the heroic poetic diction to Christian use, for it is thought that the inherited verse of England before Cædmon was heroic, perhaps epic when long, perhaps in the form of lays when short, but none survives untouched by Christianity (or only in forms fragmentary and not necessarily early). The harp is not mentioned among Cædmon's new-found skills, though his fellow servants had sung their songs to the harp—secular songs, of a kind presumably not now known. Cædmon was not literate: memory played a great part in his verse composition, both in retaining what he was taught, and in retaining the poetry he himself composed from what he had learnt so that he in turn could deliver it and, according to the Old English translation of Bede's Historia (of c.900), dictate it to his teachers.

Bede says that 'after him other Englishmen attempted to compose religious poems, but none could compare with him'. One poetic manuscript has been associated with his name since the seventeenth century, ‘the Cædmon manuscript’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Junius 11, c.1000). It contains substantial poetic paraphrases of the kind Bede says that Cædmon composed. Since being first edited by Francis Junius in 1655, they were ascribed to Cædmon, but are no longer regarded as his. In 1875 Eduard Sievers demonstrated that Genesis, lines 235–851, are not of a piece with the surrounding poem, but are a translation of a poem written in Old Saxon, the language of Heliand. Less than twenty years later, poetic fragments were found (in Vatican MS Palatinus latinus 1447) both of Heliand and of a hitherto unknown Old Saxon Genesis, lines 1–26 of the latter being the source of lines 790–817 of the Old English poem.

Soon after Cædmon's authorship was rejected for parts of Genesis, his authorship was rejected also for the other poems in the manuscript, because of variation in style, use of allegorical exegesis (nowhere extensive), and different textual transmission. These poems are Cædmonian only in that Old English biblical paraphrase was begun by Cædmon, and they form part of that tradition. It is thought possible that when Junius 11 was put together such poems were selected as recalling Cædmon's programme of verse composition according to Bede.

The connection with Heliand is no irrelevance when the Cædmonian tradition is considered. It seems likely that both Heliand and the Old Saxon Genesis resulted from Anglo-Saxon missionary activity on the continent, or from subsequent contacts, so that the influence of Cædmon was felt even beyond England, where he shaped the language of religious poetry for four hundred years, and gave to the vernacular a sacred authority for verse on many themes of divine praise and sacred story, religious alliterative poetry more varied and extensive than that in any other early Germanic language.

Sources

  • F. C. Robinson and E. G. Stanley, eds., Old English verse texts from many sources: a comprehensive collection, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, 23 (1991), 2.1–21
  • E. V. K. Dobbie, ed., The manuscripts of Cædmon's ‘Hymn’ and Bede's ‘Death song’ (1937)
  • F. Junius, ed., Cædmonis monachi paraphrasis poetica Genesios ac praecipuarum sacrae paginae historiarum (1655)
  • I. Gollancz, ed., The Cædmon manuscript of Anglo-Saxon biblical poetry (1927)
  • G. P. Krapp, ed., The Junius manuscript, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 1 (1931)
  • E. Sievers, Der Heliand und die angelsächsiche Genesis (1875)
  • K. Zangemeister and W. Braune, eds., ‘Bruchstücke der altsächsischen Bibeldichtung aus der Bibliotheca Palatina’, Neue Heidelberger Jahrbücher, 4 (1894), 205–94
  • A. N. Doane, ed., The Saxon Genesis: an edition of the West Saxon Genesis B and the Old Saxon Vatican Genesis (1991)
  • K. Jackson, The language and history of early Britain (1953), 244
Early English Text Society
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)