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Memorial to Caedmon, St Mary's Churchyard, Whitby. The inscription reads, "To the glory of God and in memory of Caedmon the father of English Sacred Song. Fell asleep hard by, 680." MemorialToCaedmon(RichardThomas)Jul2006.jpg
Memorial to Cædmon, St Mary's Churchyard, Whitby. The inscription reads, "To the glory of God and in memory of Cædmon the father of English Sacred Song. Fell asleep hard by, 680."

Cædmon ( /ˈkædmən,ˈkædmɒn/ ; fl. c. AD 657–684) is the earliest English poet whose name is known. A Northumbrian who cared for the animals at the double monastery of Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey) during the abbacy of St. Hilda, he was originally ignorant of "the art of song" but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 8th-century historian Bede. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational Christian poet.


Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in mediaeval sources, and one of only three of these for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived. [1] His story is related in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People") by Bede who wrote, "[t]here was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven."

Cædmon's only known surviving work is Cædmon's Hymn , the nine-line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honour of God which he reportedly learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry. It is also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. In 1898, Cædmon's Cross was erected in his honour in the graveyard of St Mary's Church in Whitby. [2]


Bede's account

The sole source of original information about Cædmon's life and work is Bede's Historia ecclesiastica. [3] According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which "someone" (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, "the beginning of created things." After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess, believed to be St Hilda of Whitby. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on "a passage of sacred history or doctrine", by way of a test. When Cædmon returned the next morning with the requested poem, he was invited to take monastic vows. The abbess ordered her scholars to teach Cædmon sacred history and doctrine, which after a night of thought, Bede records, Cædmon would turn into the most beautiful verse. According to Bede, Cædmon was responsible for a large number of splendid vernacular poetic texts on a variety of Christian topics.

After a long and zealously pious life, Cædmon died like a saint: receiving a premonition of death, he asked to be moved to the abbey's hospice for the terminally ill where, having gathered his friends around him, he died after receiving the Holy Eucharist, just before nocturns. Although he is often listed as a saint, this is not confirmed by Bede and it has recently been argued that such assertions are incorrect. [4]

The details of Bede's story, and in particular of the miraculous nature of Cædmon's poetic inspiration, are not generally accepted by scholars as being entirely accurate, but there seems no good reason to doubt the existence of a poet named Cædmon. Bede's narrative has to be read in the context of the Christian belief in miracles, and it shows at the very least that Bede, an educated and intelligent man, believed Cædmon to be an important figure in the history of English intellectual and religious life. [5]


Bede gives no specific dates in his story. Cædmon is said to have taken holy orders at an advanced age and it is implied that he lived at Streonæshalch at least in part during Hilda's abbacy (657680). Book IV Chapter 25 of the Historia ecclesiastica appears to suggest that Cædmon's death occurred at about the same time as the fire at Coldingham Abbey, an event dated in the E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to 679, but after 681 by Bede. [6] The reference to his temporibus "at this time" in the opening lines of Chapter 25 may refer more generally to Cædmon's career as a poet. However, the next datable event in the Historia ecclesiastica is King Ecgfrith's raid on Ireland in 684 (Book IV, Chapter 26). Taken together, this evidence suggests an active period beginning between 657 and 680 and ending between 679 and 684.

Modern discoveries

The only biographical or historical information that modern scholarship has been able to add to Bede's account concerns the Brittonic origins of the poet's name. Although Bede specifically notes that English was Cædmon's "own" language, the poet's name is of Celtic origin: from Proto-Welsh *Cadṽan (from Brythonic *Catumandos). [7] Several scholars have suggested that Cædmon himself may have been bilingual on the basis of this etymology, Hilda's close contact with Celtic political and religious hierarchies, and some (not very close) analogues to the Hymn in Old Irish poetry. [8] Other scholars have noticed a possible onomastic allusion to 'Adam Kadmon' in the poet's name, perhaps suggesting that the entire story is allegorical. [9]

Other medieval sources

Ruins of Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England-- founded in 657 by St. Hilda, the original abbey fell to a Viking attack in 867 and was abandoned. It was re-established in 1078 and flourished until 1540 when it was destroyed by Henry VIII. Whitby Abbey - Project Gutenberg eText 16785.jpg
Ruins of Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England founded in 657 by St. Hilda, the original abbey fell to a Viking attack in 867 and was abandoned. It was re-established in 1078 and flourished until 1540 when it was destroyed by Henry VIII.

No other independent accounts of Cædmon's life and work are known to exist. The only other reference to Cædmon in English sources before the 12th century is found in the 10th-century Old English translation of Bede's Latin Historia. Otherwise, no mention of Cædmon is found in the corpus of surviving Old English. The Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica does contain several minor details not found in Bede's Latin original account. Of these, the most significant is that Cædmon felt "shame" for his inability to sing vernacular songs before his vision, and the suggestion that Hilda's scribes copied down his verse æt muðe "from his mouth". [10] These differences are in keeping with the Old English translator's practice in reworking Bede's Latin original, [11] however, and need not, as Wrenn argues, suggest the existence of an independent English tradition of the Cædmon story. [12]


A second, possibly pre-12th-century allusion to the Cædmon story is found in two Latin texts associated with the Old Saxon Heliand poem. These texts, the Praefatio (Preface) and Versus de Poeta (Lines about the poet), explain the origins of an Old Saxon biblical translation (for which the Heliand is the only known candidate) [13] in language strongly reminiscent of, and indeed at times identical to, Bede's account of Cædmon's career. [14] According to the prose Praefatio, the Old Saxon poem was composed by a renowned vernacular poet at the command of the emperor Louis the Pious; the text then adds that this poet had known nothing of vernacular composition until he was ordered to translate the precepts of sacred law into vernacular song in a dream. The Versus de Poeta contain an expanded account of the dream itself, adding that the poet had been a herdsman before his inspiration and that the inspiration itself had come through the medium of a heavenly voice when he fell asleep after pasturing his cattle. While our knowledge of these texts is based entirely on a 16th-century edition by Flacius Illyricus, [15] both are usually assumed on semantic and grammatical grounds to be of medieval composition. [16] This apparent debt to the Cædmon story agrees with semantic evidence attested to by Green demonstrating the influence of Anglo Saxon biblical poetry and terminology on early continental Germanic literatures. [17]

Sources and analogues

In contrast to his usual practice elsewhere in the Historia ecclesiastica, Bede provides no information about his sources for the Cædmon story. Since a similar paucity of sources is also characteristic of other stories from Whitby Abbey in his work, this may indicate that his knowledge of Cædmon's life was based on tradition current at his home monastery in (relatively) nearby Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Perhaps as a result of this lack of documentation, scholars have devoted considerable attention since the 1830s to tracking down possible sources or analogues to Bede's account. These parallels have been drawn from all around the world, including biblical and classical literature, stories told by the aboriginal peoples of Australia, North America and the Fiji Islands, mission-age accounts of the conversion of the Xhosa in Southern Africa, the lives of English romantic poets, and various elements of Hindu and Muslim scripture and tradition. [18] Although the search was begun by scholars such as Sir Francis Palgrave, who hoped either to find Bede's source for the Cædmon story or to demonstrate that its details were so commonplace as to hardly merit consideration as legitimate historiography, [19] subsequent research has instead ended up demonstrating the uniqueness of Bede's version: as Lester shows, no "analogue" to the Cædmon story found before 1974 mirrors Bede's chapter in more than about half its main properties; [20] the same observation can be extended to cover all analogues since identified. [21]


General corpus

Bede's account indicates that Cædmon was responsible for the composition of a large oeuvre of vernacular religious poetry. In contrast to Saints Aldhelm and Dunstan, [22] Cædmon's poetry is said to have been exclusively religious. Bede reports that Cædmon "could never compose any foolish or trivial poem, but only those which were concerned with devotion", and his list of Cædmon's output includes work on religious subjects only: accounts of creation, translations from the Old and New Testaments, and songs about the "terrors of future judgment, horrors of hell, ... joys of the heavenly kingdom, ... and divine mercies and judgments." Of this corpus, only his first poem survives. While vernacular poems matching Bede's description of several of Cædmon's later works are found in London, British Library, Junius 11 (traditionally referred to as the "Junius" or "Cædmon" manuscript), the older traditional attribution of these texts to Cædmon or Cædmon's influence cannot stand. The poems show significant stylistic differences both internally and with Cædmon's original Hymn, [23] and there is nothing about their order or content to suggest that they could not have been composed and anthologised without any influence from Bede's discussion of Cædmon's oeuvre: the first three Junius poems are in their biblical order and, while Christ and Satan could be understood as partially fitting Bede's description of Cædmon's work on future judgment, pains of hell and joys of the heavenly kingdom, [24] the match is not exact enough to preclude independent composition. As Fritz and Day have shown, indeed, Bede's list itself may owe less to direct knowledge of Cædmon's actual output than to traditional ideas about the subjects fit for Christian poetry [25] or the order of the catechism. [26] Similar influences may, of course, also have affected the makeup of the Junius volume. [27]

Cædmon's Hymn

One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Caedmon's Hymn is found in "The Moore Bede" (ca. 737) which is held by the Cambridge University Library (Kk. 5. 16, often referred to as M). The other candidate is St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (P) Caedmon's Hymn Moore mine01.gif
One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Cædmon's Hymn is found in "The Moore Bede" (ca. 737) which is held by the Cambridge University Library (Kk. 5. 16, often referred to as M). The other candidate is St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (P)

The only known survivor from Cædmon's oeuvre is his Hymn (audio version [28] ). The poem is known from 21 manuscript copies, [29] making it the best-attested Old English poem after Bede's Death Song (with 35 witnesses) and the best attested in the poetic corpus in manuscripts copied or owned in the British Isles during the Anglo-Saxon period. [30] The Hymn also has by far the most complicated known textual history of any surviving Anglo-Saxon poem. It is found in two dialects and five distinct recensions (Northumbrian aelda, Northumbrian eordu, West-Saxon eorðan, West-Saxon ylda, and West-Saxon eorðe), all but one of which are known from three or more witnesses. [31] It is one of the earliest attested examples of written Old English and one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. [32] Together with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, Cædmon's Hymn is one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry. [33]

There is continuing critical debate about the status of the poem as it is now available to us. While some scholars accept the texts of the Hymn as more or less accurate transmissions of Cædmon's original, others argue that they originated as a back-translation from Bede's Latin, and that there is no surviving witness to the original text. [5]

Manuscript evidence

All copies of Hymn are found in manuscripts of the Historia ecclesiastica or its translation, where they serve as either a gloss to Bede's Latin translation of the Old English poem, or, in the case of the Old English version, a replacement for Bede's translation in the main text of the History. Despite this close connection with Bede's work, the Hymn does not appear to have been transmitted with the Historia ecclesiastica regularly until relatively late in its textual history. Scribes other than those responsible for the main text often copy the vernacular text of the Hymn in manuscripts of the Latin Historia. In three cases, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 243, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 43, and Winchester, Cathedral I, the poem is copied by scribes working a quarter-century or more after the main text was first set down. [34] Even when the poem is in the same hand as the manuscript's main text, there is little evidence to suggest that it was copied from the same exemplar as the Latin Historia: nearly identical versions of the Old English poem are found in manuscripts belonging to different recensions of the Latin text; closely related copies of the Latin Historia sometimes contain very different versions of the Old English poem. With the exception of the Old English translation, no single recension of the Historia ecclesiastica is characterised by the presence of a particular recension of the vernacular poem. [35]

Earliest text

The oldest known version of the poem is the Northumbrian aelda recension. [36] The surviving witnesses to this text, Cambridge, University Library, Kk. 5. 16 (M) and St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (P), date to at least the mid-8th century. M in particular is traditionally ascribed to Bede's own monastery and lifetime, though there is little evidence to suggest it was copied much before the mid-8th century. [37]

The following text, first column on the left below, has been transcribed from M (mid-8th century; Northumbria). The text has been normalised to show a line-break between each line and modern word-division. A transcription of the likely pronunciation of the text in the early 8th-century Northumbrian dialect in which the text is written is included, along with a modern English translation.

nu scylun hergan   hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur   swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin   or astelidæ
he aerist scop   aelda barnum
heben til hrofe   haleg scepen.
tha middungeard   moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin   æfter tiadæ
firum foldu  frea allmectig [38]
[nuː ˈskʲylun ˈherjɑn ˈhevænriːkʲæs wɑrd
metudæs ˈmæxti end his ˈmoːdɣiðɔŋk
werk ˈwuldurfɑdur sweː heː ˈwundrɑ ɣiˈhwæs
eːkʲi ˈdryxtin or ɑːˈstelidæ
heː ˈæːrist skoːp ˈældɑ ˈbɑrnum
ˈheven til ˈhroːve ˈhɑːleɣ ˈskʲepːen
θɑː ˈmidːunɣæɑrd ˈmɔŋkʲynːæs wɑrd
ˈeːkʲi ˈdryxtin ˈæfter ˈtiadæ
ˈfirum ˈfoldu ˈfræːɑ ˈɑlːmextiɣ]
Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory [40] — as he the beginning of wonders
established, the eternal lord,
He first created for the children of men [41]
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the middle earth, the guardian of mankind
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed
the lands for men, [42] the Lord almighty.

Bede's Latin version runs as follows:

Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis, potentiam creatoris, et consilium illius facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille, cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit; qui primo filiis hominum caelum pro culmine tecti dehinc terram custos humani generis omnipotens creavit.
"Now we must praise the author of the heavenly realm, the might of the creator, and his purpose, the work of the father of glory: as he, who, the almighty guardian of the human race, is the eternal God, is the author of all miracles; who first created the heavens as highest roof for the children men, then the earth."


  1. The twelve named Anglo-Saxon poets are Æduwen, Aldhelm, Alfred the Great, Anlaf, Baldulf, Bede, Cædmon, Cnut, Cynewulf, Dunstan, Hereward and Wulfstan (or perhaps Wulfsige). Most of these are considered by modern scholars to be spurious—see O'Donnell 2005, Introduction 1.22. The three for whom biographical information and documented texts survive are Alfred, Bede, and Cædmon. Cædmon is the only Anglo-Saxon poet known primarily for his ability to compose vernacular verse, and no vernacular verse survives that is known to have been written by either Bede or Alfred. There are a number of verse texts known to have been composed by Cynewulf, but we know nothing of his biography. (No study appears to exist of the "named" Anglo-Saxon poets—the list here has been compiled from Frank 1993, Opland 1980, Sisam 1953 and Robinson 1990.)
  2. "Time to move Caedmon's Cross?". The Heritage Trust. The Heritage Trust. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  3. Book IV, Chapter 24. The most recent edition is Colgrave and Mynors 1969
  4. Stanley 1998
  5. 1 2 O'Donnell 2005
  6. See Ireland 1986, pp. 228; Dumville 1981, p. 148
  7. Jackson 1953, p. 554
  8. See in particular Ireland 1986, p. 238 and Schwab 1972, p. 48
  9. See in particular O'Hare 1992, pp. 350351
  10. See Opland 1980, pp. 111120
  11. See Whitelock 1963 for a general discussion.
  12. Wrenn 1946, p. 281.
  13. Andersson 1974, p. 278.
  14. Convenient accounts of the relevant portions of the Praefatio and Versus can be found in Smith 1978, pp. 1314, and Plummer 1896 II pp. 255258.
  15. Catalogus testium veritatis 1562.
  16. See Andersson 1974 for a review of the evidence for and against the authenticity of the prefaces.
  17. See Green 1965, particularly pp. 286294.
  18. Good reviews of analogue research can be found in Pound 1929, Lester 1974, and O'Donnell 2005.
  19. Palgrave 1832
  20. Lester 1974, p. 228.
  21. O'Donnell 2005.
  22. On whose careers as vernacular poets in comparison to that of Cædmon, see Opland 1980, pp. 120127 and 178180.
  23. See Wrenn 1946
  24. Gollancz 1927, p. xlvi
  25. Fritz 1969, p. 336
  26. Day 1975, pp. 5455
  27. See Day 1975, p. 55, for a discussion of Christ and Satan.
  28. Loudspeaker.svg The Norton Online Archive of English Literature, Cædmon's Hymn recorded by Prof. Robert D. Fulk (Indiana University).Online, accessed 26 April 2006.
  29. Arranged by city and library, these are (sigla [symbols] commonly found in modern discussions of the text follow each shelf-mark): Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, 8245–57 (Br); Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 41 (B1); Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 5. 22 (Tr1); Cambridge, University Library, Kk. 3. 18 (Ca); Cambridge, University Library, Kk. 5. 16 ("The Moore Bede") (M); Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 574 (Di); Hereford, Cathedral Library, P. 5. i (Hr); London, British Library, Additional 43703 (N [see also C]); † Cotton Otho B. xi (London, British Library, Cotton Otho B. xi + London, British Library, Otho B. x, ff. 55, 58, 62 + London, British Library, Additional 34652, f. 2) (C [see also N]); London, College of Arms, s.n. (CArms); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 163 (Bd); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 43 (H); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 243 (Ld); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 10 (T1); Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 279, B (O); Oxford, Lincoln College, lat. 31 (Ln); Oxford, Magdalen College, lat. 105 (Mg); Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 5237 (P1); St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 ("The St. Petersburg Bede"; "The Leningrad Bede") (P); San Marino CA, Huntington Library, HM 35300 formerly Bury St. Edmunds, Cathedral Library, 1 (SanM); † Tournai, Bibliothèque de la Ville, 134 (To); Winchester, Cathedral I (W).
  30. See Dobbie 1937 and the additional manuscripts described in Humphreys and Ross 1975; the most recent account is in O'Donnell 2005
  31. Dobbie 1937 with important additions and revisions in Humphreys and Ross 1975; O'Donnell 1996; and Orton 1998.
  32. Stanley 1995, p. 139.
  33. Ó Carragáin 2005
  34. See Ker 1957, arts. 341, 326 and 396; also O'Keeffe 1990, p. 36.
  35. Compare the recensional identifications for witnesses to the Old English Hymn in Dobbie 1937 with those for manuscripts of the Latin Historia in Colgrave and Mynors 1969, pp. xxxix–lxx.
  36. As O'Donnell 2005 argues, however, this does not mean that this version must most closely resemble Cædmon's original text. The West-Saxon eorðan recension in particular shows several readings which, although attested later, are for a variety of reasons more likely to represent forms found in the original poem than those of the aelda text.
  37. See O'Donnell 2005.
  38. Text from Richard Marsden, The Cambridge Old English Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 80, collated with manuscript facsimile.
  39. Based on the information in A. Campbell, Old English Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959)
  40. This is the traditional translation of these lines, in agreement with Bede's Latin version. An alternative translation of the eorðan and aelda texts, however, understands weorc as the subject: "Now the works of the father of glory must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his mind's purpose". See Mitchell 1985, Ball 1985, pp. 3941, and Howlett 1974, p. 6.
  41. This is the reading of the West-Saxon ylda and Northumbrian aelda recensions. The West-Saxon eorðan, Northumbrian eordu, and with some corruption, the West-Saxon eorðe recensions would be translated "for the children of earth".
  42. The Northumbrian eordu and West-Saxon ylda and eorðe recensions would be translated "for men among the lands" at this point.

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De abbatibus is a Latin poem in eight hundred and nineteen hexameters by the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon monk Æthelwulf (Ædiluulf), a name meaning "noble wolf", which the author sometimes Latinises as Lupus Clarus. It recounts the history of his monastery from its foundation through its six first abbots and ending with Æthelwulf's two visions. It is addressed to the Bishop of Lindisfarne, Ecgberht, and dates to between 803 and 821.

<i>Anglo-Saxon Chronicle</i> Set of related medieval English chronicles

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Cædmon's "Hymn" is a short Old English poem originally composed by Cædmon, a supposedly illiterate cow-herder who was, according to Bede, able to sing in honour of God the Creator, using words that he had never heard before. It was composed between 658 and 680 and is the oldest recorded Old English poem, being composed within living memory of the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England. It is also one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse.

Michael Lapidge, FBA is a scholar in the field of Medieval Latin literature, particularly that composed in Anglo-Saxon England during the period 600–1100 AD; he is an emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and Fellow of the British Academy, and winner of the 2009 Sir Israel Gollancz Prize.

Bedes Death Song

"Bede's Death Song" is the editorial name given to a five-line Old English poem, supposedly the final words of the Venerable Bede. It exists in multiple copies, in both Northumbrian and West Saxon dialects.

Durham, also known as De situ Dunelmi, Carmen de situ Dunelmi or De situ Dunelmi et de sanctorum reliquiis quae ibidem continentur carmen compositum, is an anonymous late Old English short poem about the English city of Durham and its relics, which might commemorate the translation of Cuthbert's relics to Durham Cathedral in 1104. Known from the late 12th-century manuscript, Cambridge, University Library, Ff. 1. 27, and generally considered to date from the first decade of the 12th century, Durham has been described both as "the last extant poem written in traditional alliterative Old English metrical verse" and as being placed "so conveniently on the customary divide between Old and Middle English that the line can be drawn right down the middle of the poem." Some scholars, however, consider that the poem might have been written as early as the mid-11th century.