Cædmon ( /, / ; 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.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.
The sole source of original information about Cædmon's life and work is Bede's Historia ecclesiastica.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.
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.
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 (657–680). 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. 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.
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). 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. Other scholars have noticed a possible onomastic allusion to 'Adam Kadmon' in the poet's name, perhaps suggesting that the entire story is allegorical.
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".These differences are in keeping with the Old English translator's practice in reworking Bede's Latin original, however, and need not, as Wrenn argues, suggest the existence of an independent English tradition of the Cædmon story.
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)in language strongly reminiscent of, and indeed at times identical to, Bede's account of Cædmon's career. 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, both are usually assumed on semantic and grammatical grounds to be of medieval composition. 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.
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.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, 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; the same observation can be extended to cover all analogues since identified.
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,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, 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, 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 or the order of the catechism. Similar influences may, of course, also have affected the makeup of the Junius volume.
The only known survivor from Cædmon's oeuvre is his Hymn (audio version). The poem is known from 21 manuscript copies, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.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.
The oldest known version of the poem is the Northumbrian aelda recension.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.
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.
Bede's Latin version runs as follows:
Bede, also known as Saint Bede, Venerable Bede, and Bede the Venerable, was an English Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles.
Old English literature, or Anglo-Saxon literature, encompasses literature written in Old English, in Anglo-Saxon England from the 7th century to the decades after the Norman Conquest of 1066. "Cædmon's Hymn", composed in the 7th century, according to Bede, is often considered as the oldest surviving poem in English. Poetry written in the mid-12th century represents some of the latest post-Norman examples of Old English; for example, The Soul's Address to the Body found in Worcester Cathedral Library MS F. 174 contains only one word of possible Latinate origin, while also maintaining a corrupt alliterative meter and Old English grammar and syntax, albeit in a degenerative state. The Peterborough Chronicle can also be considered a late-period text, continuing into the 12th century. The strict adherence to the grammatical rules of Old English is largely inconsistent in 12th century work – as is evident in the works cited above – and by the 13th century the grammar and syntax of Old English had almost completely deteriorated, giving way to the much larger Middle English corpus of literature.
The Kingdom of Northumbria was a medieval Anglian kingdom in what is now Northern England and south-east Scotland. The name derives from the Old English Norþan-hymbre meaning "the people or province north of the Humber", which reflects the approximate southern limit to the kingdom's territory, the Humber Estuary. Northumbria started to consolidate into one kingdom in the early seventh century, when the two earlier core territories of Deira and Bernicia entered into a dynastic union. At its height, the kingdom extended from the Humber, Peak District and the River Mersey on the south to the Firth of Forth on the north. Northumbria ceased to be an independent kingdom in the mid-tenth century, though a rump Earldom of Bamburgh survived around Bernicia in the north, later to be absorbed into the medieval kingdoms of Scotland and England.
The Old English Bible translations are the partial translations of the Bible prepared in medieval England into the Old English language. The translations are from Latin texts, not the original languages.
Cynewulf is one of twelve Old English poets known by name, and one of four whose work is known to survive today. He presumably flourished in the 9th century, with possible dates extending into the late 8th and early 10th centuries.
The Junius manuscript is one of the four major codices of Old English literature. Written in the 10th century, it contains poetry dealing with Biblical subjects in Old English, the vernacular language of Anglo-Saxon England. Modern editors have determined that the manuscript is made of four poems, to which they have given the titles Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan. The identity of their author is unknown. For a long time, scholars believed them to be the work of Cædmon, accordingly calling the book the Cædmon manuscript. This theory has been discarded due to the significant differences between the poems.
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by the Venerable Bede in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity. It was originally composed in Latin, and is considered one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history and has played a key role in the development of an English national identity. It is believed to have been completed in 731 when Bede was approximately 59 years old.
The Heliand is an epic poem in Old Saxon, written in the first half of the 9th century. The title means saviour in Old Saxon, and the poem is a Biblical paraphrase that recounts the life of Jesus in the alliterative verse style of a Germanic epic. Heliand is the largest known work of written Old Saxon.
Northumbrian was a dialect of Old English spoken in the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria. Together with Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon, it forms one of the sub-categories of Old English devised and employed by modern scholars.
The Saint Petersburg Bede, formerly known as the Leningrad Bede, is an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, a near-contemporary version of Bede's 8th century history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Although not heavily illuminated, it is famous for containing the earliest historiated initial in European illumination. It is so named because it was taken to the Russian National Library of Saint Petersburg in Russia at the time of the French Revolution by Peter P. Dubrovsky.
Franciscus Junius, also known as François du Jon, was a pioneer of Germanic philology. As a collector of ancient manuscripts, he published the first modern editions of a number of important texts. In addition, he wrote the first comprehensive overview of ancient writings on the visual arts, which became a cornerstone of classical art theories throughout Europe.
The Tribal Hidage is a list of thirty-five tribes that was compiled in Anglo-Saxon England some time between the 7th and 9th centuries. It includes a number of independent kingdoms and other smaller territories and assigns a number of hides to each one. The list of tribes is headed by Mercia and consists almost exclusively of peoples who lived south of the Humber estuary and territories that surrounded the Mercian kingdom, some of which have never been satisfactorily identified by scholars. The value of 100,000 hides for Wessex is by far the largest: it has been suggested that this was a deliberate exaggeration.
The Moore Bede is an early manuscript of Bede's 8th-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. It was formerly owned by Bishop John Moore (1646–1714), whose collection of books and manuscripts was purchased by George I and donated to Cambridge University.
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.
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.
"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.
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