Author of Biblical poems in Anglo-Saxon, date of birth unknown; d. between 670 and 680
Caedmon, Saint, author of Biblical poems in Anglo-Saxon, date of birth unknown; d. between 670 and 680. While Caedmon’s part in the authorship of the so-called Caedmonian poems has been steadily narrowed by modern scholarship, the events in the life of this gifted religious poet are definitively established by the painstaking Bede, who lived in the nearby monastery of Wearmouth in the following generation (see Venerable Bede). Bede tells us (Hist. Eccles., Bk. IV, ch. xxiv) that Caedmon, whose name is perhaps Celtic (Bradley), or a Hebrew or Chaldaic pseudonym (Palgrave, Cook), was at first attached as a laborer to the double monastery of Whitby (Streoneshalh), founded in 657 by St. Hilda, a friend of St. Aidan. (See Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne.) One night, when the servants of the monastery were gathered about the table for good-fellowship, and the harp was passed from hand to hand, Caedmon, knowing nothing of poetry, left the company for shame, as he had often done, and retired to the stable, as he was assigned that night to the care of the draught cattle. As he slept, there stood by him in vision one who called him by name, and bade him sing. “I cannot sing, and therefore I left the feast.” “Sing to me, however, sing of Creation.” Thereupon Caedmon began to sing in praise of God verses which he had never heard before. Of these verses, called Caedmon’s hymn, Bede gives the Latin equivalent, the Alfredian translation of Bede gives a West-Saxon poetic version, and one manuscript of Bede appends a Northumbrian poetic version, perhaps the very words of Caedmon. In the morning Caedmon recited his story and his verses to Hilda and the learned men of the monastery, and all agreed that he had received a Divine gift. Caedmon, having further shown his gift by turning into excellent verse some sacred stories recited to him, yielded to the exhortation of Hilda that he take the monastic habit. He was taught the whole series of sacred history, and then, like a clean animal ruminating, turned it into sweet verse. His poems treated of Genesis, Exodus, and stories from other books of the Old Testament, the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Ghost, the teaching of the Apostles, the Last Judgment, Hell and Heaven. Bede ends his narrative with an account of Caedmon’s holy death. According to William of Malmesbury, writing 1125, he was probably buried at Whitby, and his sanctity was attested by many miracles. His canonization was probably popular rather than formal.
The Caedmonian poems, found in a unique tenth-century MS., now in the Bodleian Library, were first published and ascribed to Caedmon in 1655 by Francis Junius (du Jon), a friend of Milton, and librarian to the Earl of Arundel. The MS. consists of poems on Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and a group of poems in a different hand, now called collectively “Christ and Satan”, and containing the Fall of the Angels, the Descent into Hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Last Judgment, and the Temptation in the Wilderness. The tendency among Anglo-Saxon scholars has been to deny the Caedmonian authorship of most of these poems, except part of the “Genesis“, called A, and parts of the “Christ and Satan”. In 1875 Professor Sievers advanced the theory, on grounds of metre, language, and style, that the part of the “Genesis” called B, 11. 235-370, and 11. 421-851, an evident interpolation, was merely a translation and recension of a lost Old Saxon “Genesis” poem of the ninth century, whose extant New Testament part is known as the “Heliand“. Old Saxon is the Old Low German dialect of the continental Saxons, who were converted in part from England. The Sievers theory, whose history is one of the brilliant episodes of modern philology, was established in 1894 by the discovery of fragments of an Old Saxon “Genesis“. (Parallel passages in Cook and Tinker.)
Bede tells us that many English writers of sacred verse had imitated Caedmon, but that none had equalled him. The literary value of parts of the Caedmonian poems is undoubtedly of a high order. The Bible stories are not merely paraphrased, but have been brooded upon by the poet until developed into a vivid picture, with touches drawn from the English life and landscape about him. The story of the flight of Israel resounds with the tread of armies and the excitement of camp and battle. The “Genesis” and the “Christ and Satan” have the glow of dramatic life, and the character of Satan is sharply delineated. The poems, whether we say they are Caedmon’s or of the school of Caedmon, mark a worthy beginning of the long and noble line of English sacred poetry.
J. VINCENT CROWNS