Chapter 1
Bede and Cædmon

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Bede’s account of Cædmon

§ 1.1    Bede tells the story of the herdsman Cædmon and how he learned to sing in Book IV, Chapter 24 of the eighth-century Historia ecclesiastica (ed. and trans. Colgrave and Mynors 1969).

§ 1.2    According to Bede, Cædmon was an old lay herdsman in the religious community of Streanæshalch (Whitby Abbey).[1] Although the singing of vernacular songs was a customary entertainment at the abbey, Cædmon himself never learned to sing, and, as a result, used to leave feasts before he could be called upon to do so. Having left such a gathering one night and returned to his stables, Cædmon fell asleep, whereupon he was addressed in his dream by “someone” (Bede uses the Latin indefinite pronoun quidam), who asks him to sing for him. Explaining that he cannot, and, indeed, that he has just left the feast for that reason, Cædmon at first refuses. When the visitor insists, however, he gives in. Asking for a subject, he is told, Canta... principium creaturarum, “Sing... about the beginning of created things.” Almost immediately he begins his famous Hymn, which Bede paraphrases in Latin for the benefit of his readers:

Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis, potentiam Creatoris et consilium illius, facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille, cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor extitit, qui primo filiis hominum caelum pro culmine tecti, dehinc terram Custos humani generis omnipotens creauit.

Now we must praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how He, since he is the eternal God, was the Author of all marvels and first created the heavens as a roof for the children of men and then, the almighty Guardian of the human race, created the earth.

§ 1.3    When Cædmon awakes, he remembers everything that happened to him. He adds additional verses to his song and reports his vision and his new skill to his steward. Brought to the abbess, Cædmon describes his dream and sings his Hymn. He is then assigned a sacred text to translate into verse overnight by way of a test. When he proves himself able to do so, he is ordered to join the religious community.

§ 1.4    In the course of his training, it is discovered that Cædmon’s gift extends to all holy subjects: upon hearing a passage of church history or doctrine, Bede tells us, Cædmon is able after a brief period to turn his lessons into carmen dulcissimum, “most melodious verse.” In addition to the Hymn, his works are said to include poems on a wide range of subjects: the creation of the world, the beginnings of mankind, the biblical Genesis, the flight from Egypt and entry into the promised land, the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the teachings of the apostles, the terrors of hell, joys of heaven, and an account of God’s gifts to mankind.

§ 1.5    The last part of Bede’s account concerns Cædmon’s exemplary life in the abbey, and, as Kiernan has pointed out, is less congenial to modern tastes (Kiernan 1990a, 158). Bede reports that Cædmon was humble and obedient to the monastic rule and extremely zealous in his work against those who were not. After an illness of fourteen days, he is said to die like a saint: able to predict the hour of his own death, Cædmon asks to be moved to the hospice in which the terminally ill are lodged even though his own condition seems anything but serious. He gathers his friends and servants around him and asks if they have any outstanding quarrels with him. Told that they do not, he prays briefly, asks for the Blessed Sacrament, and finally expires just before nocturn.

Bede’s account and modern scholarship

§ 1.6    Bede’s account of the poet Cædmon is one of the most famous passages in Anglo-Saxon literary studies. Indeed, it is probably one of the few bits of Anglo-Saxon literary history known to anybody other than professional Anglo-Saxon scholars. The Hymn commonly is anthologised in undergraduate textbooks, where it is accompanied invariably by some version of Bede’s chapter as headword or footnote, often as an introduction to further discussion of Anglo-Saxon prosody, compositional practice, or the adaptation of traditional pagan poetic forms and vocabulary to Christian ends (e.g. Ferguson et al. 1996, 1 and n.; Mitchell and Robinson 2001, 220-225).

§ 1.7    The story is also of the greatest importance to Anglo-Saxonists. Bede’s account is one of very few surviving contemporary non-fiction references to Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetic composition, performance, and reception. It is also by far the most detailed. It is, if it is reliable, an extremely important source of information about the way in which early medieval vernacular poetry was composed, received, and appreciated. It can be used for assessing the applicability to early medieval society of theories of oral composition developed through the observation of twentieth-century cultures (e.g. Magoun 1955; Opland 1980, 106-120; Fry 1981). It gives us some insight into the patronage of vernacular poets by administratively important figures in the Anglo-Saxon church (e.g. Fell 1981, esp. 97-99; Lees and Overing 1994; Stanley 1995, 134; Hunter Blair 1985, 22-25). It is our principal evidence for Cædmon’s role in the Christianisation of traditional Germanic poetic vocabulary and forms (e.g. Smith 1978, 14-15; Robinson 1980, 29-59; Green 1965, esp. 287). And perhaps most importantly, it tells us nearly everything we know about the life and work of one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets for whom any biographical information survives.[2] It is, assuming it is reliable, perhaps the single most important piece of contemporary literary history and criticism to survive the Anglo-Saxon period.

§ 1.8    All this is true, however, only if Bede’s account is reliable. And there are some things about it that, at first glance at least, do not seem all that promising. Most importantly, of course, there is the “miracle”: modern scholars on the whole do not believe that poets learn to compose accomplished verse overnight by the grace of God at the command of dream visitors—especially poets who appear, according to their biographers at least, to have had a complete ignorance of and even distaste for the tradition their work adapts.[3] Then there is the problem of Cædmon’s training and methods of performance and composition. If scholars find it difficult to believe that untrained herdsmen can be turned overnight into technically accomplished poets through God’s intervention, they have an especially difficult time believing in those whose training and careers appear to have more in common with monastic exegetes than traditional poets (e.g. Fritz 1974; Irvine 1994, 431-435) or seem to show parallels to other well-known stories of poetic inspiration around the world (see Chapter 2: Sources and analogues, below). Finally, there is the problem of religion. In addition to being a historian, Bede was a religious scholar and extremely pious man. It is possible that his praise for Cædmon’s poetry—indeed, his account of Cædmon’s life in general—was conditioned as much by his enthusiasm for the poet’s cause as any real respect for his art (e.g. Irvine 1994, 431-435; Frantzen 1990, 143-144; Hunter Blair 1985, 24-25). If Bede’s chapter on Cædmon’s life and work is to represent anything other than a lost opportunity at recovering a near contemporary account of the production and consumption of vernacular Anglo-Saxon poetry, we need to learn to read it in a way that allows us to recover its historical truth without offending either our own reason or Bede’s understanding of the events he is recording (see most recently Rowley 2003).

§ 1.9    Fortunately, this is not an impossible task, although it does require us to learn more about Bede’s intentions in recording the Cædmon story and the intellectual framework within which he was working. For Bede’s account is primarily an interpretative performance: it is less important for what it tells us about the technical details of how Cædmon came by his gift or composed his poetry than it is for what it tells us about how this apparently important Anglo-Saxon vernacular poet was understood by at least one intellectually significant Anglo-Saxon. Bede appears, for the most part, to have believed the details of his story as it is reported in the Historia ecclesiastica. But he was not an eyewitness and does not suggest that he had the story from some specific, particularly knowledgeable informant. At times, indeed, he even appears to be uneasy with the implications of certain details of the story as it was told to him. What Bede is sure of, however, is his subject’s significance and place in vernacular literary history: we are being told the Cædmon story because Bede considered Cædmon to be a great poet whose religious vernacular verse was without compare and who had a strong effect on those who heard it. Although it reports on an apparent miracle of God’s grace and appears in a work of ecclesiastical history, the form and content of Bede’s chapter in fact align it far more closely with the modern genre of literary biography. It is, indeed, the first of our Lives of the Poets.

Cædmon’s inspiration as “miracle” story

§ 1.10    Given modern interest in the mechanics of Cædmon’s inspiration, perhaps the most surprising thing about Bede’s chapter is the extent to which it is not about the “miracle” that made Cædmon a poet. The real story in IV. 24 is not how Cædmon learned to sing as much as it is how well he learned to do so and how this ability affected his life and the lives of those lucky enough to hear him. Cædmon’s actual dream occupies a relatively insignificant structural position in the story as a whole. As Abrahams has noted, the chapter is centred around the moment Cædmon joins the religious community at Streanæshalch after the performance of his second song: the sentence in which the abbess instructs him to become a monk straddles the story’s geometric centre (Abraham 1992, 338-339); the infinitive with which she orders him to take up his vows, suscipere, falls, as the 450th word in the 899 word chapter, at its exact middle.[4] As an event in Cædmon’s life, moreover, the dream vision also occupies a correspondingly small portion of Bede’s biography. While modern résumés tend to concentrate on the exchange with the dream visitor and compress or even ignore everything after the account of Cædmon’s training and career, Bede himself devotes fewer words to Cædmon’s actual dream (196 words or 22% of the total) than to the description of his life in the monastery and death (318 words or 35%) or his interview, training, and career (222 words or 25%).[5] Even the chapter’s introduction, in which Bede describes Cædmon’s piety, old age, ignorance of secular song, and quality of verse, but not the specific means by which the poet came by his gift, is, at 162 words, just under 83% as long as Bede’s account of the actual dream vision.

§ 1.11    This relative lack of interest in the mechanism by which Cædmon came by his gift is shared by the story’s characters. When Cædmon is brought before the abbess and her counsellors, he is asked about his vision but tested on his compositional abilities. Although the examiners listen to his song and agree that his experience must represent a gift from God, they do not ask him to join their community until he proves himself able, in an act mimicking rather than directly testing his original experience, to compose a second poem on a subject of his human examiners’ choosing:

...atque ad abbatissam perductus iussus est, multis doctioribus uiris praesentibus, indicare somnium et dicere carmen, ut uniuersorum iudicio quid uel unde esset quod referebat probaretur. Visumque est omnibus caelestem ei a Domino concessam esse gratiam, exponebantque illi quendam sacrae historiae siue doctrinae sermonem, praecipientes eum, si posset, hunc in modulationem carminis transferre. At ille suscepto negotio abiit, et mane rediens optimo carmine quod iubebatur conpositum reddidit. Vnde mox abbatissa amplexata gratiam Dei in uiro, saecularem illum habitum relinquere et monachicum suscipere propositum docuit[.]

...[brought 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, who recognized the grace of God which the man had received, instructed him to renounce his secular habit and to take monastic vows.

§ 1.12    Cædmon’s success as a propagandist, likewise, is never attributed to audience knowledge of either the origins of his gift or his wondrous first composition. Although Bede tells us twice that Cædmon’s verse is able to turn men’s hearts to despise the world, the context in which this claim is made on both occasions makes it clear that Bede considers this success to be a result of Cædmon’s superb skill as a poet rather than the influence of his vision or unique quality of his first song. The first time Bede refers to Cædmon’s effect on the hearts of men, his claim is preceded by a reference to the songs he composed in response to the religious instruction he received from Hild’s counsellors after his vision:

...[Q]uicquid ex diuinis litteris per interpretes disceret, hoc ipse post pusillum uerbis poeticis maxima suauitate et conpunctione conpositis... proferret. Cuius carminibus multorum saepe animi ad contemtum saeculi et appetitum sunt uitae caelestis accensi.

...[W]hatever he learned from the holy Scriptures by means of interpreters, he quickly turned into extremely delightful and moving poetry.... By his songs the minds of many were often inspired to despise the world and to long for the heavenly life.

The second time, it is prefaced by a description of the poet’s entire oeuvre:

Canebat autem de creatione mundi et origine humani generis et tota Genesis historia, de egressu Israel ex Aegypto et ingressu in terram repromissionis, de aliis plurimis sacrae scripturae historiis, de incarnatione dominica, passione, resurrectione et ascensione in caelum, de Spiritus Sancti aduentu et apostolorum doctrina; item de terrore futuri iudicii et horrore poenae gehennalis ac dulcedine regni caelestis multa carmina faciebat. Sed et alia perplura de beneficiis et iudiciis diuinis, in quibus cunctis homines ab amore scelerum abstrahere, ad dilectionem uero et sollertiam bonae actionis excitare curabat.

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, in all of which he sought to turn his hearers away from delight in sin and arouse in them the love and practice of good works.

Despite the unusual method by which Cædmon is said to have learned to sing, it is clear that for Bede, as, apparently, for the poet’s contemporaries in Streanæshalch, Cædmon’s most noteworthy characteristic was the quality of his verse.

Cædmon, Imma, and the vision of Hild’s soul

§ 1.13    This relative lack of interest in the actual “miracle” by which Cædmon came by his gift sets Bede’s account of the poet apart from other tales of wonder told in the Historia ecclesiastica. Just how far apart can be seen through a comparison with two other chapters detailing the apparently supernatural experiences of similarly minor characters: the vision of Hild’s soul experienced by nuns at Hackness and Whitby (IV. 23) and the story of Imma, the thane who cannot be shackled (IV. 22).

The vision of Hild’s soul

§ 1.14    On the night of Hild’s death at Streanæshalch, two nuns in the sister abbeys of Streanæshalch and Hackness see a vision of their abbess’s soul being taken to heaven in the company of angels. At Streanæshalch, the vision was seen by an unnamed though particularly devoted nun in a distant part of the monastery who roused her companions to prayer long before the other nuns at the abbey were informed of the abbess’s demise. At Hackness, the vision was seen by Begu, a nun of “thirty or more” years’ service, who similarly led her sisters in vigil until word of Hild’s demise arrived from Streanæshalch. When the time of Hild’s death was compared to that at which the nuns at Hackness saw their vision, it was discovered that the two events coincided exactly, a beautiful coincidence, Bede tells us, by which procuratum est diuinitus ut, cum illi exitum eius de hac uita uiderent, tunc isti introitum eius in perpetuam animarum uitam cognoscerent, “it was divinely ordained that while some of them watched her [i.e. Hild’s] departure from this life, others watched her entrance into the everlasting life of the spirit.”

Imma’s bonds

§ 1.15    According to Bede, Imma was a young retainer of King Ælfwine. In the battle of Trent, at which Ælfwine was killed, Imma was wounded and ultimately captured by allies of his lord’s enemy, King Æðelred. Lying about his noble status for fear of his life, Imma was taken prisoner, and, after he recovered from his wounds, shackled. At this point, however, a miracle occurred. For no matter how many times his jailers tried to bind him, these bonds came undone whenever they left the room. Impressed by this wonder and discovering his true noble status, Æðelred’s henchmen decide to sell their prisoner to a Frisian trader. Once again, however, the thane proves impossible to bind and Imma is allowed to go home to raise an appropriate ransom. Discussing events with his brother Tunna after his release, Imma discovers why he could not be shackled: Tunna, who was a priest, had thought that Imma had been killed at the battle of Trent and had, as a result, said masses every morning for the release of his brother’s soul from purgatory. When the times of the masses are compared with the times at which Imma’s bonds had come undone, it becomes clear that the masses had been responsible for loosening his shackles: by praying for the release of his brother’s soul from purgatory, Tunna was able to free Imma from his temporal bonds. Imma goes on to tell many others about his experience and these men were inspired, in Bede’s words,

in fide ac deuotione pietatis ad orandum uel ad elimosynas faciendas uel ad offerendas Deo uictimas sacrae oblationis pro ereptione suorum, qui de saeculo migrauerant; intellexerunt enim, quia sacrificium salutare ad redemtionem ualeret et animae et corporis sempiternam.

to greater faith and devotion, to prayer and almsgiving and to the offering up of sacrifices to God in the holy oblation, for the deliverance of their kinsfolk who had departed from the world; for they realized that the saving sacrifice availed for the everlasting redemption of both body and soul.

Comparison with the Cædmon story

§ 1.16    The points of similarity between these stories and Bede’s account of Cædmon’s life and career are clear enough. In the case of the vision of Hild’s soul, the most important elements include the characters’ insignificant administrative status, their association with Hild’s monasteries, and the fact that they have a vision. In the case of Imma, the similarities include the indirect way in which Bede associates his character’s story with the death of a historically more significant figure in the history of the English church, and the claim that Imma, like Cædmon, enjoyed considerable success as a Christian propagandist after his miraculous experience.

§ 1.17    These superficial similarities, however, belie much more significant differences. While the nuns who watch Hild’s soul ascend to heaven are like Cædmon in that they are administrative non-entities—Bede tells us the name and years service (but nothing else) of one and leaves the other nameless—they are unlike Cædmon in that their vision is intimately connected with Saint Hild. While the two nuns are presented as being themselves holy women, nothing in Bede’s account suggests that this wonder could have happened only to them. Far more significant than their identities are the locations in which they experience their visions (far enough away from Hild’s deathbed to prevent them from having immediate knowledge of the abbess’s death, but close enough to receive word of it the next morning) and the fact that it was Hild’s soul they saw ascending to heaven. The real miracle in this story is Hild’s: any two pious individuals who happened to look up into the sky in the vicinity of Whitby Abbey at the appropriate time that night presumably would have served God’s plan equally well.

§ 1.18    Cædmon’s story, however, has much less of an essential connection to Hild or even Whitby Abbey. Bede implies that Cædmon had his vision at Streanæshalch during Hild’s administration and that it was Hild and her counsellors who questioned him and ultimately invited him to join their community.[6] The miracle, however, is Cædmon’s. There is no intrinsic reason, apart from the fact that Cædmon already lived in Whitby, why he could not have received the gift of song at any other monastery or under any other abbess. Bede does not mention Hild or even Streanæshalch by name in the chapter, and, while the poet’s career is often held by modern scholars to represent one of the highlights of her abbacy (e.g. Lapidge et al. 2001, “Hild”), Cædmon does not receive a mention in Bede’s earlier account of Whitby under Hild’s stewardship in IV. 23.

§ 1.19    In the case of the stories of Imma’s bonds and Cædmon’s Hymn, the principal difference between the two stories lies in the nature of the main characters’ miracles and the way in which, in his chapter on Imma, Bede attempts to tie his character’s experiences into the main narrative of the Historia ecclesiastica.[7] In Cædmon’s story, as we have seen, the actual wonder of the poet’s inspiration and initial performance plays a relatively minor role in the events of the chapter as a whole. Bede refers to the dream only as it occurs in the story’s narrative and he attributes little or none of Cædmon’s later success as a propagandist to direct audience knowledge of his dream vision or initial song. Imma’s story, on the other hand, is far more about the main character’s miracle: Imma is released from his bonds on more than one occasion and a considerable amount of narrative space is devoted to speculation as to why he cannot be shackled. Just as importantly, Bede himself is much more explicit in accounting for the significance of the wonder he relates. He begins the chapter on Imma by stating that he believes the account “should certainly not be passed over in silence, since the story may lead to the salvation of many” (nequaquam silentio praetereundum arbitror, sed multorum saluti, si referatur, fore proficuum). Destroying the suspense inherent in his narrative, moreover, he goes on to tell us twice about the miracle’s significance as a demonstration of the efficacy of the mass even before Imma returns to his brother and discovers the real cause of his freedom: first in his own voice, noting that no one could bind Imma quarum celebratione, “on account of the celebration of these [masses],” and subsequently, when Imma is questioned by his first captor, in that of the captive himself, who immediately and correctly guesses the solution to the puzzle:

“Sed habeo fratrem” inquit “presbyterum in mea prouincia, et scio quia ille me interfectum putans pro me missas crebras facit; et si nunc in alia uita essem, ibi anima mea per intercessiones eius solueretur a poenis.”

“However,” said he, “I have a brother in my country who is a priest and I know he believes me to be dead and offers frequent masses on my behalf; so if I had now been in another world, my soul would have been loosed from its punishment by his intercessions.”

§ 1.20    To make sure the point is not lost, moreover, Bede concludes the narrative section of the chapter with one more explicit discussion of what has happened and why it is important: when Imma returns and compares stories with his brother he discovers not only that he was correct about the correspondence between the release of his bonds and his brother’s masses, but also that alia, quae periclitanti ei commoda contigissent et prospera, per intercessionem fraternam et oblationem hostiae salutaris caelitus sibi fuisse donata, “the other comforts and blessings which he had experienced during his time of danger had been bestowed by heaven, through the intercession of his brother and the offering up of the saving Victim.” At the chapter’s end, finally, Bede returns to his rationale for including the story in the Historia ecclesiastica, commenting on its reliability and necessity (see Lerer 1991, 39-40):

Hanc mihi historiam etiam quidam eorum, qui ab ipso uiro in quo facta est audiere, narrarunt; unde eam quia liquido conperi, indubitanter historiae nostrae ecclesiasticae inserendam credidi.

This story was told me by some of those who heard it from the very man to whom these things happened; therefore since I had so clear an account of the incident, I thought that it should undoubtedly be inserted into this History.

Cædmon’s career as literary history

§ 1.21    If Bede’s chapter on Cædmon is unusual for the relative lack of attention it pays to the apparent wonder by which the poet came by his gift, it is just as unusual for the amount of space it devotes to describing the rest of his life, career, and oeuvre. IV. 24 is an instalment in the literary history of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than, primarily at least, the history of the establishment of the English church. The two histories are related in as much as Cædmon is a religious poet and his story takes place at Hild’s abbey. But Bede’s preference for the biographical, literary, and aesthetic details of Cædmon’s oeuvre over the sacramental or institutional implications of his vision ensures that the chapter remains generically distinct.[8] In this one instance, Bede gives modern scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature what they most lack from the period: an approximately contemporary account of literary life in Anglo-Saxon England written by somebody who, if we are to believe the claims of his student Cuthbert (see below, § 1.24), was himself well trained in the vernacular poetic tradition. No comparable non-fiction account of Anglo-Saxon literary life survives from the entire period.

§ 1.22    Indeed, it is hard to overestimate how unusual Bede’s account is as a literary document. From a vernacular tradition spanning nearly half a millennium, literary history records the names of no more than a dozen Old English poets: Æduwen, Aldhelm, Alfred, Anlaf, Baldulf, Bede, Cædmon, Cnut, Cynewulf, Dunstan, Hereward, and Wulfstan (or perhaps Wulfsige).[9] Of these, most are almost certainly spurious. Later English writers, particularly those of the twelfth century, seem to have developed quite a taste for discovering the names of traditional Anglo-Saxon poets (see esp. Frank 1993, 30-35). Thus it is from Geoffrey of Monmouth that we know the name of the monk Baldulf, a vernacular poet of whom no trace otherwise survives (Historia regum [ed. Wright and Crick 1985-1991], § 143, 101). From a similar source, the Liber Eliensis (ed. E.O. Blake 1962), we learn of the poetic activity of the Anglo-Saxon King Cnut, although the text this source attributes to him is not in a recognisable Old English metre and seems unlikely to have been composed by him (see Opland 1980, 188-189). Other names attached to vernacular poetic activity in the twelfth century, apparently for the first time, include Saints Aldhelm and Dunstan,[10] Anlaf, and Hereward (William of Malmesbury, De gestis pontificum Anglorum [ed. Hamilton 1870], V. 190 [Aldhelm] and II. 131 [Anlaf]; Eadmer, Vita sancti Dunstani [ed. Stubbs 1874], ch. 4; Gesta Herwardi [ed. Hardy and Martin 1966], 2: 351).

§ 1.23    For a few other named poets, evidence that they actually composed vernacular verse is a bit stronger. A few Old English poems contain internal clues to the identity of their authors. The most famous of these, of course, are the four texts from the Exeter and Vercelli Books that preserve Cynewulf’s runic “signature.” A fifth internal attribution may be found in a metrical runic inscription on a small brooch found on Ely, in which a certain Æduwen is identified as the ornament’s owner in a way that suggests she also might have composed the inscription.[11] In neither case do we know very much about these poets other than their names and the identity of their signed works. A sixth example is a verse preface to the Old English translation of Gregory’s Dialogues preserved in British Library, Cotton Otho C. i, in which Wulfstan is identified as the bishop responsible for commissioning the volume as a whole and it is suggested that he may have been responsible for the composition of the preface itself (Sisam 1953, 225-231). Unfortunately, however, this last attribution is certainly incorrect: Wulfstan’s name is written over an erasure (Sisam 1953, 225), and the implicit date of the poem’s original composition (it mentions King Alfred in the present tense) rules out any known bishop by that name (see esp. Sisam 1953, 226).[12]

§ 1.24    This leaves us with three poets from the entire Anglo-Saxon period for whom we know something specific about their work and biography: King Alfred, to whom the metrical translation of Boethius’s Metres is attributed in two prefatory texts; Saint Bede, to whom the Old English poem Bede’s Death Song may be attributed in a letter describing his last days; and the herdsman Cædmon. In the case of the first two, these attributions should come as no surprise. Bede and Alfred were prominent Anglo-Saxons, well known to their own and subsequent generations for both their literary significance and their accomplishments in other fields, and not shy about discussing their own literary endeavours[13]; both were the type of dynamic figure we might expect to attract attention from later biographers and historians. The real surprise, indeed, is how few and, in the case of Bede at least, how hesitantly the surviving attributions are made. Despite Alfred’s well-documented and life-long interest in vernacular poetry, no composition apart from the Metres is attributed to him in contemporary sources.[14] Bede’s work as a vernacular poet is even more tenuously attested: the sole contemporary reference comes in a letter by Bede’s disciple Cuthbert (ed. and trans. Colgrave and Mynors 1969) describing the master’s last days, in which he records that Bede uttered five lines of a vernacular poem known to modern scholars as Bede’s Death Song[15]:

Canebat autem sententiam sancti Pauli apostoli dicentis “Horrendum est incidere in manus Dei uiuentis,” et multa alia de sancta scriptura, in quibus nos a somno animae exurgere praecogitando ultimam horam admonebat. In nostra quoque lingua, ut erat doctus in nostris carminibus, dicens de terribili exitu animarum e corpore[16]:

    Fore ðæm nedfere      nænig wiorðe

    ðonc snottora      ðon him ðearf siæ

    to ymbhycgenne      ær his hinionge

    hwæt his gastæ      godes oððe yfles

5    æfter deað dæge      doemed wiorðe.

And he used to repeat that sentence from St. Paul “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other verses of Scripture, urging us thereby to awake from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time of our last hour. And in our own language,—for he was familiar with English poetry,—speaking of the soul’s dread departure from the body:

    Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

    More prudent than he has good call to be,

    If he consider, before his going hence,

    What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

5    After his day of death shall be determined.

As Opland notes, however, it is not entirely clear that Cuthbert is attributing this text to Bede: most manuscripts of the letter do not use a finite verb to describe Bede’s presentation of the song, and the theme was relatively common in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature. The fact that Cuthbert’s description places the performance of the Old English poem in the context of a series of quoted passages from sacred scripture, indeed, might be taken as evidence simply that Bede also cited analogous vernacular texts (see Opland 1980, 140-141). On the other hand, the inclusion of the Old English text of the poem in Cuthbert’s Latin letter, the observation that Bede “was learned in our song,” and the fact that Bede composed a Latin poem on the same subject all seem to suggest that his connection to the vernacular poem was stronger than mere quotation. By citing the poem directly, Cuthbert seems to be implying that its specific wording was in some way important, either as a vernacular poem endorsed by a scholar who generally appears to have frowned upon secular entertainment (see McCready 1994, esp. 14-19) or as a direct quotation of Bede’s final original composition (see Opland 1980, 140-141, for a discussion of some of the implications of this passage).

§ 1.25    The fact that Cuthbert’s reference to Bede’s Death Song and the attribution of the verse translation of the Metres of Boethius to Alfred in proems to the prose and verse texts—documents that do little more than connect a known historical figure to the composition or performance of a documented poem—provide us with our second and third most detailed contemporary non-fiction accounts of vernacular poetic production and reception in Anglo-Saxon England says something about the paucity of the surviving records. But Bede’s account of Cædmon’s inspiration is exceptional not only for its length and detail. It is also set apart by the nature of its subject. For Cædmon, unlike Alfred and Bede, is known primarily because he could sing. No trace of the herdsman’s story is found in any other document surviving from the Anglo-Saxon period.[17] His name is unattested outside of Bede’s Historia and its Old English translation. Even within the Historia ecclesiastica, Cædmon is not named until the moment he is asked to sing by his dream-interlocutor (see Lerer 1991, 43-44). In addition to providing us with an unparalleled amount of information about the life, work, and reception of an approximately contemporary poet, Bede also provides us with an account of an unparalleled type of poet: one whose claim to our attention lies almost exclusively in his skill at composition and his significant position (in his biographer’s opinion) in vernacular literary history.

§ 1.26    There is, moreover, some structural evidence to suggest that this essentially literary interest in Cædmon was deliberate. For just as it can be shown that the “miracle” of Cædmon’s inspiration is not the primary focus of Bede’s chapter, so too is it possible to show that the artistry and impact of his poetry is. In order to see this, however, it is first necessary to consider just how unusual a life Cædmon led. For Cædmon was privileged to experience not one but two potential miracles in the course of his life: the first, as we have seen, was his gift of poetic inspiration. The second, as Wieland points out, was his apparent foreknowledge of impending death (Wieland 1984, 198).[18] As Colgrave suggests, such foreknowledge is a common feature of hagiographic narratives, where it serves as a special dispensation to allow saints who receive it to prepare for their deaths (Colgrave 1966, 213). The miracle was also a favourite of Bede’s own hagiographic writing, appearing in both saints’ stories told in the Historia ecclesiastica and in other more exclusively hagiographic works (Colgrave 1966, 211-214). As we shall see (§ 1.38), indeed, Cuthbert implies in his letter describing Bede’s last days that the master himself had a similar premonition.

§ 1.27    This second miracle is significant because we find no reference to it, or its potentially saintly implications, at the beginning of Bede’s chapter. Instead of describing Cædmon as a saintly man who learned how to compose wonderful songs, became a zealous monk, and foresaw the end of his life, Bede instead describes him as a great singer who was a good and pious man—ignoring entirely his apparently saintly end and concentrating exclusively on the beauty of his poetry, his position as the premier vernacular religious poet of his day, and his success as a religious propagandist:

In huius monasterio abbatissae fuit frater quidam diuina gratia specialiter insignis, quia carmina religioni et pietati apta facere solebat, ita ut, quicquid ex diuinis litteris per interpretes disceret, hoc ipse post pusillim uerbis poeticis maxima suauitate et conpunctione conpositis in sua, id est Anglorum, lingua proferret. Cuius carminibus multorum saepe animi ad contemtum saeculi et appetitum sunt uitae caelestis accensi. Et quidem et alii post illum in gente Anglorum religiosa poemata facere temtabant, sed nullus eum aequiperare potuit. Namque ipse non ab hominibus neque per hominem institutus canendi artem didicit, sed diuinitus adiutus gratis canendi donum accepit. Vnde nil umquam friuoli et superuacui poematis facere potuit, sed ea tantummodo, quae ad religionem pertinent, religiosam eius linguam decebant. Siquidem in habitu saeculari usque ad tempora prouectioris aetatis constitutus, nil carminum aliquando didicerat.

In the monastery of this abbess there was a certain brother who was specially marked out by the grace of God, so that 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. By his songs the minds of many were often inspired to despise the world and to long for the heavenly life. It is true that after him other Englishmen attempted to compose religious poems, but none could compare with him. For he did not learn the art of poetry from men nor through a man but he received the gift of song freely by the grace of God. Hence he could never compose any foolish or trivial poem but only those which were concerned with devotion and so were fitting for his devout tongue to utter. He had lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learned any songs.

While there is much in the actual details of Cædmon’s life that could be understood as suggesting that he was much more than a good poet and pious monk, Bede does not exploit this aspect of his material: he downplays the importance of Cædmon’s vision in describing his success as a propagandist, and he largely ignores the evidence of saintliness implicit in his final foreknowledge of death. For Bede, Cædmon’s primary significance was as a poet, not as a saint: the origins of his gift and the holiness of his life were all secondary to the beauty and power of his verse.

Bede’s account as Christian propaganda

§ 1.28    The suggestion that Bede’s account of Cædmon is different from other wonder tales in the Historia ecclesiastica and, apparently, focuses more on describing a moment in the literary than ecclesiastical history of Britain does not necessarily mean that it is any more or less reliable as a source of factual information about how Anglo-Saxon poets worked or were received. Modern readers still find it difficult to accept that a poet can learn to compose traditional verse overnight at the command of a dream visitor and Bede’s account, even if it is unusual for the Historia ecclesiastica in its concentration on the practice of Cædmon’s art over the wonder of his inspiration, nevertheless still appears in a work of church history written by a prominent religious scholar and historian: we would hardly expect to find him including a chapter on the life and work of the Beowulf or Deor poets after all, and it is difficult to forget that Bede would have had a doctrinal stake in promoting the work of the Whitby herdsman. His praise for Cædmon’s poetry, his depiction of the reactions of the abbess and her counsellors, even his presentation of Cædmon as a poet taught not by men but by the grace of God may all have been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, as much or more by his support for Cædmon’s goals as by any real knowledge of how the poet learned to sing, his subsequent methods of composition, the extent of his oeuvre, or perhaps even the real aesthetic quality of his verse. Given the generally low opinion of the poem held by modern scholars,[19] indeed, it is even possible that Bede’s account represents simply wishful thinking—an attempt to claim that Cædmon’s poetry is as good, as important, and as unusual as Bede wished it were. Even if Bede set out on this one occasion to write what best can be described as an ancestor to the literary biography, his account may be so ideologically, historically, and theologically bound as to prevent us from learning very much from him about his subject.

§ 1.29    Demonstrating Bede’s biases in recording the Cædmon story has been the focus of a persistent trend in Anglo-Saxon studies. Since Palgrave in the early 1830s first used the existence of supposed analogues to Bede’s chapter in biblical, classical and other Germanic literatures to call the authenticity of the Cædmon story into doubt (Palgrave 1832),[20] numerous scholars have suggested that Bede’s version of the story must be in some way more or less deliberately false—by arguing that he either created his central character out of whole cloth (Palgrave 1832; O’Hare 1992), or, in casting the story as a wonder, failed to acknowledge other evidence of the poet’s previous literacy and training in Christian exegetical teachings (Fritz 1969; Fritz 1974) or debts to pre-Christian Germanic or Celtic poetic tradition (e.g. Morland 1992, 341-342; Kleiner 1988; Orton 1983, 169; Magoun 1955).

§ 1.30    That Bede’s praise for Cædmon is at least partially doctrinal is suggested in part by his otherwise well-known opposition to the enjoyment of secular culture for its own sake. In his commentary on 1 Sam xiv (ed. Hurst 1962), in which Jonathan inadvertently disobeys Saul’s injunction to fast by dipping his stick into a honeycomb and tasting, Bede both criticises Christians who read pagan literature for mere pleasure and praises those whose knowledge of secular letters allows them to become more effective preachers (Ray 1987, esp. 2-4). In an allusion to Jerome’s Epistle xxii—in which Jerome reports on a dream in which Christ scourged him for being more Ciceronian than Christian in his literary taste—Bede points out the ease with which even the greatest doctors of the church can fall into the sin of reading secular literature primarily for its own sake (lines 2173-2179; discussed in Ray 1987, 2-3). He follows this criticism of Jerome, however, with an endorsement of Jonathan’s breaking the fast, by arguing that his behaviour is justified by the practice of Moses and Daniel and can serve as a model for those who are able to use pagan rhetoric in the service of religion (lines 2222-2236; trans. Ray 1987, 4):

Vidistis ipsi quia inluminati sunt oculi mei eo quod gustauerim paululum de melle isto; quanto magis si comedisset populus de praeda inimicorum suorum quam repperit, nonne maior facta fuisset plaga in Philisthiim. Haec eius personae uerba conueniunt qui doctis in ecclesia siue etiam doctoribus lectionem litterarum gentilium non autumat esse nociuam. Videtis, inquit, quia efficacior sum factus et acutior promptiorque ad peroranda quae decent eo quod gustauerim paululum de flore Tullianae lectionis; quanto magis si didicisset populus christianus sectas et dogmata gentilium, nonne multo confidentius et certius eorum derideret simul et conuinceret errores multo deuotius de sua sana fide gauderet patrique luminum pro hac gratias redderet. Neque enim aliam ob causam putandum est Moysen uel Danihelem sapientiam uoluisse discere saecularem quam ut cognitam destruere melius et deuincere possent.

See how my eyes are brightened because I have tasted a little of this honey; how much better it would have been if the people had eaten from the spoils of their enemies, for the injury to the Philistines would have been greater. These words are appropriate to the character of the person who, taught in the church or by the authorities, does not claim that the reading of secular books is harmful. “See,” one responds, “how I have become more effectual, keen, and instant to sum up apposite things because I have tasted somewhat from the flower of a Tullian text; how much better if the Christian people had learned the disciplines and doctrines of the gentiles, for now it has not the more boldly and surely mocked and refuted their errors, nor the more faithfully rejoiced out of its own true faith and gave thanks to the father of light for this.” It was for no other reason that Moses and Daniel wished to study secular letters than to know to defend and conquer better.

§ 1.31    In other contexts, Bede also devotes considerable attention to demonstrating the superiority (and at times the priority) of Christian writings over classical pagan rhetoric (McCready 1994, 12-14). His rhetorical and grammatical works, De orthographia, De arte metrica, and De schematibus et tropis, for example, commonly substitute passages from Christian authors for non-Christian excerpts in their sources. As he notes in his preface to De schematibus et tropis (ed. Kendall 1975 trans. Tannenhaus 1973), moreover, this is done often with as much an eye to demonstrating their age and superior aesthetic quality as to propagating their doctrine (II. 1; trans. Tannenhaus 1973, 97):

Solet aliquoties in Scripturis ordo uerborum causa decoris aliter quam uulgaris uia dicendi habet figuratus inueniri. Quod grammatici Graece schema uocant, nos habitum uel formam uel figuram recte nominamus, quia per hoc quodam modo uestitur et ornatur oratio.... Et quidem gloriantur Graeci talium se figurarum siue troporum fuisse repertores. Sed ut cognoscas, dilectissime fili, cognoscant omnes qui haec legere uoluerint quia sancta Scriptura ceteris omnibus scripturis non solum auctoritate, quia diuina est, uel utilitate, quia ad uitam ducit aeternam, sed et antiquitate et ipsa praeeminet positione dicendi, placuit mihi collectis de ipsa exemplis ostendere quia nihil huiusmodi schematum siue troporum ualent praetendere saecularis eloquentiae magistri, quod non in illa praecesserit.

It is quite usual to find that, for the sake of embellishment, word order in written compositions is frequently fashioned in a figured manner different from that of ordinary speech. The grammarians use the Greek term “schema” for this practice, whereas we correctly label it a “manner,” “form,” or “figure,” because through it speech is in some way clothed or adorned.... The Greeks pride themselves on having invented these figures or tropes. But, my beloved child, in order that you and all who wish to read this work may know that Holy Writ surpasses all other writings not merely in authority because it is divine, or in usefulness because it leads to eternal life, but also for its age and artistic composition, I have chosen to demonstrate by means of examples collected from Holy Writ that teachers of secular eloquence in any age have not been able to furnish us with any of these figures and tropes which did not appear first in Holy Writ.

§ 1.32    In the case of his account of Cædmon and his poetry, this partisan interest may show up in both the terms Bede uses to praise Cædmon’s verse and the attention he devotes to showing how Cædmon learned to sing non ab hominibus neque per hominem... sed diuinitus adiutus gratis..., “not... from men nor through a man, but... freely by the grace of God.” In describing Cædmon’s poetry as carmen dulcissimum, “most melodious verse,” and in praising it for its use of uerbis poeticis maxima suauitate, “extremely delightful and moving poetry,” Bede calls to mind his commentary on 1 Sam xiv, in which the same terms are used to describe both the temptation and rewards offered Christian teachers by pagan rhetoric (lines 2143-2164; trans. Brian Smart, personal communication):

Adiurauit autem Saul populum dicens, Maledictus uir qui comederit panem usque uesperam, et cetera usque ad id quod scriptum est, Porro Philisthiim abierunt in loca sua. Haec lectio doctores ueritatis instruit sicut a ceteris mundi illecebris sic etiam ab appetenda saecularis eloquentiae dulcedine temperare nec non et eos quos imbuunt in petra fidei ab omni prioris uitae corruptione mactare. Adiurauit igitur Saul populum fugientes Philistheos persequentem ne panem quisquam nisi completa de hoste uictoria comederet qui timens iuramentum et pane sedulus et melle quod fluens in saltu uidit abstinuit.... Siue enim caro aduersus spiritum et spiritus aduersus carnem concupiscat siue hereticus catholico siue Iudaeus aut gentilis christiano contradicat seu quilibet immundus spiritus obsistat cuncta temptationum molimina melius continentiae superantur industria cuius adeo late patet uirtus ut etiam a diligenda nimium sequendaque saecularis eloquentiae suauitate qua superbus incultusque philosophorum quasi saltus fluit abstinere conueniat.

However Saul adjured the people saying, cursed the man who will have eaten any food before evening and so forth right up to where it is written, then the Philistines went away into their own territory. This reading instructs, as it were, teachers of truth to abstain from the other allurements of the world, yes even from seeking the sweetness of secular eloquence, and also from destroying those whom they instruct in the rock of the faith by every corruption of a former life. Saul therefore adjured the people pursuing the fleeing Philistines that no one who, fearing the law, abstained diligently both from bread and the honey he saw flowing in the forest should eat bread unless the victory over the enemy had been completed... For whether the flesh strives against the spirit and the spirit strives against the flesh, or the heretic speaks against the catholic or Jew or gentile speaks against the christian or any unclean spirit resists, all the endeavours of temptations are better overcome by the diligence of continence whose virtue extends so widely that it is fitting to abstain even from loving excessively and pursuing the pleasantness of secular eloquence from which the arrogant and uncultivated philosopher arises like a forest.

§ 1.33    The same partisanship may also influence Bede’s treatment of Cædmon as a poet untouched by native tradition. Although, as we shall see below (Chapter 3: Cædmon’s Hymn and Germanic convention), Cædmon’s Hymn is, formally speaking, a profoundly Germanic poem, Bede’s discussion of the poet’s methods of performance and composition establish the herdsman poet as what we might describe as an “anti-guslar”: a poet whose training, performance, and career is contrasted at almost every point with those of the presumably traditional and secular singers he abandons at the conuiuium. The opening lines of Bede’s chapter establish both that Cædmon had never learned any songs before his dream vision and that he could not sing songs of pure entertainment even after his encounter with his dream visitor. Cædmon’s subsequent career, likewise, is implicitly contrasted with that of traditional singers at almost every stage (Frantzen 1990, 139-144; Kleiner 1988). While modern scholarship in oral and traditional verse performance suggests that poets learn their craft while young men by listening to more experienced and accomplished singers (see Lord 2000), Cædmon is said to have been an old man who habitually left festivities when singing began in order to avoid being called upon to perform. For Cædmon’s fellows, the singing of songs is a pleasant social event: they perform inside on joyful occasions, accompanied by the harp, and take turns singing to an audience made up of their peers. For Cædmon, however, poetry is a solitary obligation: he receives his inspiration outside after he leaves the hall in which his colleagues are feasting; he is commanded to sing by an apparently otherworldly visitor who neither accepts his first refusal nor asks for a song after first singing something himself; and he performs without instrumental accompaniment to an audience consisting solely of his interlocutor and, presumably, the animals he was watching over that night. Cædmon’s training, moreover, as Fritz and others have pointed out, resembles not so much that accorded a traditional vernacular poet as a monk destined to become a scriptural exegete (Fritz 1974; Irvine 1994, esp. 433; Schrader 1980, esp. 66-68; Lerer 1991, 33): instead of being given additional practice in the art of his native tradition, Cædmon is instead taught scripture, patristics, and church history, a training which, as Fritz and Day have demonstrated, produces a corpus of verse almost exactly in keeping with that prescribed by Augustine for religious scholars and Latin poets (Fritz 1969, 335-336; Day 1975, 54-55). In suggesting that Cædmon was a better poet than his contemporaries, Bede emphasises the differences between his and their careers, training, methods of composition, and performance. Given his interest in demonstrating the superiority of Christian literature over its pagan counterpart, it is entirely possible that Bede in this case allows his desire to influence the details of the story he tells.

Did Bede believe Cædmon’s story?

§ 1.34    Taken together, this evidence suggests that Bede was more interested in Cædmon as a poet of the English language than as a saint of the English church, and that he had a strong interest in demonstrating the superiority and independence of Cædmon’s verse from previous vernacular tradition. But proving that Bede had a partisan interest in promoting Cædmon’s uniqueness, artistic skill, and value as a propagandist is not the same thing as demonstrating that he made up or consciously distorted his evidence for Cædmon’s reputation, quality, or methods of composition. Bede was a pious man who believed that God could directly intervene in the affairs of men. His predilection for Cædmon’s poetry, though ideologically convenient, is also perfectly in keeping with the taste for religious orthodoxy demonstrated in his own Latin poetry, and, even if he did not actually compose it, his performance of the Death Song from his death bed. The fact that it was handy for Bede to believe that Cædmon’s poetry was of such exceptional quality does not mean that he actually considered the Whitby herdsman to be a poor poet, or thought that Hild and her scholars did not set Cædmon to composing the rest of his now lost body of religious verse. Certainly the rest of the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus, in which pagan works are essentially absent and even secular poems dealing with religious themes such as Beowulf are outnumbered by explicitly pious texts like Soul and Body, Phoenix, and Prayer, suggests that more than one Anglo-Saxon agreed with Bede in his estimation as to what made for good Old English verse.

§ 1.35    The same is also true of the “miracle” of Cædmon’s inspiration. Bede believed in miracles, but had a different understanding of what a miracle was. Where we tend to see miracles as being a technical explanation of last resort, as a means of explaining events that cannot be accounted for in any non-supernatural way, Bede saw them as a way of explaining why things happen, whether or not their causes can be explained on non-supernatural grounds (Ward 1976, 71; McCready 1994, esp. 25-43). The Historia ecclesiastica is full of “miraculous” events that are open to rational explanation—from fires that burn down monasteries, to sudden changes in the wind that keep saints’ disciples on islands (examples are collected and discussed in McCready 1994, 25-43). Even phenomena that Bede in his scientific writing is able to attribute to natural rather than divine causes assume a divine tincture in the Historia ecclesiastica when their occurrence warrants the interpretation that they are part of God’s plan. For Bede, calling something a miracle is an act of interpretation, not an attempt at explanation.

§ 1.36    Moreover Bede does not always assume a miracle is at work, even when he describes phenomena for which no rational explanation appears to be possible. Although it is rare in the Historia ecclesiastica, Bede occasionally reports “facts” of natural history that, to our eyes at least, simply cannot be true. Bede’s depiction of the British Isles in I. 1, for example, contains the following famous description of Ireland:

Hibernia autem et latitudine sui status et salubritate ac serenitate aerum multum Brittaniae praestat, ita ut raro ibi nix plus quam triduana remaneat; nemo propter hiemem aut faena secet aestate aut stabula fabricet iumentis; nullum ibi reptile uideri soleat, nullus uiuere serpens ualeat. Nam saepe illo de Brittania adlati serpentes, mox ut proximante terris nauigio odore aeris illius adtacti fuerint, intereunt; quin potius omnia pene quae de eadem insula sunt contra uenenum ualent. Denique uidimus, quibusdam a serpente percussis, rasa folia codicum qui de Hibernia fuerant, et ipsam rasuram aquae inmissam ac potui datam talibus protinus totam uim ueneni grassantis, totum inflati corporis absumsisse ac sedasse tumorem.

Ireland is broader than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts there for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish. In fact almost everything that the island produces is efficacious against poison. For instance we have seen how, in the case of people suffering from snake-bite, the leaves of manuscripts from Ireland were scraped, and the scrapings put in water and given to the sufferer to drink. These scrapings at once absorbed the whole violence of the spreading poison and assuaged the swelling.

Here we have a claim that ought to offend our reason more strongly than anything in the Cædmon episode—despite the fact that Bede says he has seen this happen himself and doesn’t claim that it is a miracle. Bede seems to have thought that the ability to cure snake-bites was an inherent property of medieval Irish manuscripts rather than a demonstration of any particular saint’s sanctity or evidence of God’s direct intervention in the affairs of men.

§ 1.37    This is significant in the case of Cædmon because it suggests that the “fact” that the herdsman learned to sing overnight in a way that we on the whole consider to be impossible does not necessarily mean that Bede himself considered the poet’s inspiration to be a miracle or that Bede was consciously adapting Cædmon’s story to emphasise its wondrous aspects. Although his account leaves open the possibility that the Whitby herdsman’s career and death were the result of one or more miracles, Bede never argues that they actually were. His chapter’s opening lines indicate that he believed that Cædmon was taught to sing by the grace of God rather than through the agency of men. But Bede never claims in the course of his narrative that the visitor who told Cædmon to sing actually was an angel. In his description of the dream, Bede refers to the visitor, as we have seen, noncommittally using the indefinite Latin pronoun quidam. Unlike many other heavenly visitors in the Historia ecclesiastica, moreover, this quidam is not explicitly or even very strongly implicitly portrayed as being otherworldly.[21] He wears no special clothes (many visitors in the Historia ecclesiastica are brightly dressed or wear white), and he does nothing else particularly angelic, in contrast to, for example, the angel who visits Coldingham in the next chapter and who predicts the impending fire after walking around and investigating the resident nuns’ sinfulness. Indeed, there is nothing in Bede’s account to stop us, like Scrooge facing Marley’s ghost, from psychologising Cædmon’s visitor, deciding that he is “more of gravy than of the grave,” and attributing his appearance to “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato” (A Christmas Carol, Stave 1)—or perhaps a jug of beer too many at the conuiuium (see Osborn 1989, 14-15, for this possibility).

§ 1.38    It is, of course, highly unlikely that Bede would attempt to explain Cædmon’s experience in this fashion. Bede believed in supernatural events—even supernatural events he did not consider to be miraculous—in a way that most modern scholars do not. But this does not mean that he accepted everything he was told about Cædmon or shared none of our doubts about the poet’s life and death. That Bede was uncertain about the precise nature of Cædmon’s experience, indeed, is suggested by the reluctant way he treats Cædmon’s apparent foreknowledge of his impending death (see above, § 1.26). Just how surprising this reluctance is can be best seen by comparing Bede’s unemphatic conclusion to the Cædmon story to Cuthbert’s far more assertive claims about Bede’s own last hours. Bede, after recording that Cædmon asked to be removed to the hospice despite his apparent lack of serious illness and timed his departure so that it coincided with nocturn, concludes his account by noting that qui etiam praescius sui obitus extitisse ex his quae narrauimus uidetur, “and from what has been said, it would seem that he [i.e. Cædmon] had foreknowledge of his death.” In contrast, Cuthbert’s account of Bede’s demise asserts that Bede foresaw the time of his death despite an explicit statement to the contrary from Bede himself. When Bede, quoting Elihu (Job 32:22), tells his disciples to concentrate because he does not know how long he will be with them (nescio quamdiu subsistam, et si post modicum tollat me Factor meus, “I know not how long I may be with you, nor whether after a short time my Maker may not take me from you”),[22] Cuthbert interrupts the narrative to assert that Bede nevertheless really did seem to have foreknowledge of the hour at which he was to die: Nobis tamen uidebatur, ne forte exitum suum bene sciret, “[b]ut it seemed to us that he knew very well when his end should be.” Elsewhere in Bede’s Historia, the veracity of saints’ foreknowledge of death is also more vigorously asserted. Thus the death of Chad in IV. 3 is foretold first of all in elaborate detail by the saint himself, and then immediately endorsed by the narrator’s own conclusion that Quod quidem ita ut dictum ei erat opere completum est, “[t]his was fulfilled just as he had been told....” Likewise, the veracity of Wilfred’s warning that he should die four years after his vision of the archangel Michael at Meaux is accepted without comment in Bede’s account of the saint’s death in V. 19.

§ 1.39    It is this apparent hesitation at describing Cædmon’s inspiration and death as miracles that argues for Bede’s belief in the facts of Cædmon’s story—or at least the facts as he thought he knew them. Bede clearly believed that Cædmon had learned to sing overnight in a dream in response to the commands of an unknown interlocutor. He also seems to have thought that Cædmon composed great poetry and that he might have foreseen the hour of his own death. The trouble Bede appears to have had with the story lies not in its “facts” but in what these facts meant: that is, in deciding whether or not these to our minds unlikely incidents indicate that Cædmon was a saint or had been in direct contact with God or his angels. For us, the question is whether or not we accept the premises of the story as Bede appears to have learned and believed it. If we do, then the question of how this inspiration occurred is something we can only answer by seeking explanatory parallels or rationalisations: perhaps Cædmon really had learned more songs than Bede was aware of (Morland 1992); perhaps he had some blockage that prevented him from singing (Magoun 1955; Palgrave 1831); perhaps God interferes in literary history more often than modern scholars appreciate.[23] If, as seems more likely, however, we do not accept that Cædmon really learned to sing overnight, then there is nothing more to be learned about Cædmon’s oeuvre or methods of composition from Bede’s account. Bede provides us with no evidence to suggest that he knew a more “rational” explanation for Cædmon’s poetic ability, and, in as much as he does not claim to have been an eyewitness to Cædmon’s career or inspiration, there is no point attempting to sift his account for clues as to what “really” went on (cf. Palgrave 1831; Magoun 1955; Morland 1992). What we can say is that Bede was impressed by Cædmon and by the one piece of Cædmon’s poetry that we can be sure he knew. We can also say that all evidence suggests that Bede is reporting the story of Cædmon’s inspiration, career, and death as it had been told to him. If we believe the facts of the story must have been otherwise, our quarrel is not with Bede but with those who first embellished the tale he passes on. Unfortunately, we will never know what those people really knew of Cædmon or, if they changed his story, why they decided to do so. Regardless of the historical truth of Bede’s story, the account remains an important source of interpretative information about how Cædmon’s song was understood by the period’s most significant scholar.


[1]Whitby is of Scandinavian origin and is first recorded as a place name in the Domesday Book (Smith 1928, 126). The Anglo-Saxon place name seems to have been Streanæshalch, a term Bede uses five times in the Historia ecclesiastica (Hunter Blair 1985, 9; for a more cautious view, Fell 1981, 82-85). The archaeology of the Saxon monastery is discussed in Peers and Radford 1943, Cramp 1976, and Rahtz 1976. Platt 1995 contains a recent popular discussion.

[2]The only biographical fact modern scholarship has been able to add to Bede’s account of Cædmon’s life and career concerns the probably Brittonic origins of the poet’s name (Holthausen 1934, “Cædmon”; Jackson 1953, 554). As a second school of critics have pointed out, Cædmon’s name also may be related to that of Adam in exegetical tradition (e.g. O’Hare 1992; Golden 1969; Ström 1939; Sarrazin 1913; the connection appears first to have been made in Palgrave 1832).

[3]Disbelief in specific details of Cædmon’s “miracle” as recounted in Bede is very common in modern discussions (opinions about the poet’s existence are more evenly divided, see Cavill 2002, pp. 3-5, and § 2.3, below). The earliest expression of this disbelief seems to be Palgrave 1832. Representative recent examples (using a variety of different approaches and expressing varying amounts of disbelief) include Isaac 1997, 226-227; Biddick 1994, 31-32; O’Hare 1992; Irvine 1994, 431-435; Kleiner 1988; Dumville 1981, 148. See also Magoun 1955 for an influential attempt at explaining Cædmon’s initial reluctance to sing in very rational terms; the suggestion that Cædmon may have been suffering some kind of performance block appears to have been suggested first by Palgrave (see Palgrave 1831). Palgrave later came to doubt the historicity of Cædmon and his Hymn entirely (see Palgrave 1832).

[4]Word counts are based on the text of Colgrave and Mynors 1969. Not all versions of the chapter have exactly 899 words, though Colgrave and Mynors record very few significant recensional differences in their limited apparatus.

Specific word counts and percentages cited in this chapter are not assumed to have any recoverable intrinsic numerological significance; their citation is intended instead simply to show relative importance: sections involving more words or found in rhetorically prominent locations (such as the beginning, middle, or end of the passage) are assumed to have been more interesting or significant to the author or translator of the passage than those told in fewer words or found in less prominent places. A discussion of more formal numerological approaches to the Hymn can be found below, Note C: Numerical and geometric patterning in Cædmon’s Hymn.

[5]Compare the summaries in Kiernan 1990a, 157-158; Magoun 1955, 49-50; and at the beginning of this chapter. The 509 word summary in §§ 1.2-1.5 above was written long before the rest of the argument, although it was subsequently revised. It devotes approximately 35% (205 words) of its length to Cædmon’s dream, 33% (194 words) to the poet’s interview, training, and career, and 18% (132 words) to the discussion of the poet’s life and death in the monastery. In this summary, Cædmon’s admission to the religious community comes approximately 56% of the way through the narrative (he is ordered to “join” at the 328th word). Kiernan devotes 136 words or 41% of his 334 word summary to Cædmon’s dream, 59 words or 18% to the poet’s training and subsequent career, and 84 words or 24% to his subsequent life in the monastery and death. Magoun’s version ignores everything after Bede’s summary of Cædmon’s training and oeuvre, although he otherwise follows the proportions of the Latin text it translates relatively closely.

In the Old English translation of Bede, the dream is even less prominent than in Bede’s original Latin. At 216 words in Miller 1890-1898, it is only 17% of the chapter, 57% as long as the 377 word description of Cædmon’s training and oeuvre, and much less than half the length of the account of Cædmon’s life as a monk and saintly death (474 words or 37% of the 1286 word chapter). It also allows Cædmon to take his monastic vows slightly early: in the Old English version, Cædmon agrees to become a monk by the 593rd word (46% of the way through).

It is possible to debate these figures: Cædmon’s interview with the abbess and her counsellors, for example, is at least in part concerned with the dream vision in that they ask him indicare somnium et dicere carmen, ut uniuersorum iudicio quid uel unde esset quod referebat probaretur, “to describe his dream... 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” before setting him his new commission. Even if one considers the initial interview with the abbess and subsequent tests to be part of Bede’s account of the dream-vision, the story of the actual wonder ends up occupying no more space than the account of his life in the monastery and saintly death (i.e. 288 words or approximately 1/3 of the chapter’s total length). For the purposes of this discussion, the sections involved are defined as follows (all page and line references to the text in Colgrave and Mynors 1969): (i) Introduction (162 words), from In huius monasterio (p. 414, line [24]) to egressus ad suam domum repedabat (p. 416, line [2]); (ii) Vision (196 words), from Quod dum tempore (p. 416, line [3]) to Deo digni carminis adiunxit (p. 416, line [24]); (iii) Interview with Abbess, Training, and Description of Oeuvre (222 words), from Veniensque mane ad uilicum (p. 416, line [25]) to actionis excitare curabat (p. 418, line [22]); and (iv) Life in Monastery and Death Scene (318 words), from Erat enim uir (p. 418, line [22]) to the end of the chapter.

[6]As Dumville has pointed out, Bede supplies no specific dates for Cædmon’s career in the chapter and mentions by name neither the monastery in which he lived nor the abbess under which he served (Dumville 1981, 148). Nevertheless, it seems relatively certain that the poet, assuming he existed, began his career in Whitby during Hild’s abbacy (i.e. sometime between 657 and 680) and died sometime between 679 and 684 (for modern discussion of arguments against Cædmon’s existence, see Cavill 2002, 3-5; Isaac 1997; and von See 1983. The implications of this question for our knowledge of the Hymn are discussed briefly below, § 2.10 and Note B: Cædmon’s Hymn and Bede’s paraphrase). Bede’s chapter begins by placing Cædmon In huius monasterio abbatissae, “In the monastery of this abbess,” a clear reference to Hild, the ascension of whose soul is described in the last paragraph of the preceding chapter, and Streanæshalch, the abbey in which Hild is said to have died. That his inspiration occurred during Hild’s administration, moreover, is suggested by Bede’s description of the morning after Cædmon’s vision, in which Cædmon is taken by his reeve ad abbatissam, “to the abbess,” a reference almost certainly to Hild in as much as no indication of a change in abbess has been suggested since the chapter’s opening lines.

The date of Cædmon’s death is slightly more uncertain. The first line of the chapter following Bede’s description of Cædmon’s death (IV. 25) suggests that the fire at Coldingham Abbey happened his temporibus, “about this time.” While the E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates this fire to 679, Bede appears to have thought it happened sometime after the death of the Abbess Æbba, who was still alive in 681 (Plummer [1896] 1969 2: 258). The next specific date given in the Historia ecclesiastica comes at the beginning of IV. 26, where Bede dates Ecgfrith’s raid on Ireland Anno dominicae incarnationis DCLXXXIIII, “In the year of our Lord 684”. Taken together, these suggest an early obit of 679 (the E Chronicle dating of the Coldingham fire), and a late date of 684 (the next certainly datable event in Bede’s history).

[7]Lerer argues that the Cædmon and Imma episodes show an essential similarity in their portrayal of the appropriation of a Germanic pagan (and oral) past by a Christian (and largely literary) present (Lerer 1991, chapter 1). The two stories differ, however, in that Bede appears to see Cædmon as being far more revolutionary. As Lerer demonstrates, Imma’s story is largely about the replacement of pagan magic with a functional Christian equivalent: the story shows that the sacrifice of the mass can release temporal and spiritual bonds at least as effectively as pagan charms. In Cædmon’s story, on the other hand, Bede depicts the creation of an entirely new type of poetry by an entirely new type of poet. As discussed below (§ 1.33), Bede contrasts Cædmon’s oeuvre, methods of composition, performance, and training with that of the secular poets of the conuiuium at every possible juncture. Unlike Aldhelm, moreover, who is said by William of Malmesbury to have disguised himself as a (secular) minstrel in order to lure his parishioners back to church (see below, §§ 2.17-2.19), Cædmon does not attempt to replace his colleagues’ music with a Christian equivalent: Cædmon’s Hymn is not a text for performance in a Christian gebeorscipe. Lerer’s argument does work well if we consider the poem apart from Bede’s account: as argued below, Chapter 3: Cædmon’s Hymn and Germanic convention, Cædmon’s Hymn appears, in practice, to be a very traditional Germanic poem.

[8]Several scholars have argued that Cædmon’s story, in as much as it can be understood as recounting the establishment of a school of religious vernacular verse, does in fact involve an essential episode of the establishment of the church, since such verse would presumably serve as an important tool in the instruction and conversion of illiterate Anglo-Saxons (see in particular Hunter Blair 1985, 24-25; Fell 1981, 98-99). While this may or may not be true in fact (there are simply too few authentic accounts of the reception of vernacular verse for us to know much about how it was used), Bede makes no such claim for Cædmon in the Historia ecclesiastica. As Dumville and Kane have pointed out, Bede does not claim that Cædmon was the first to compose religious verse in English (Dumville 1981, 148; Kane 1948, 251-252), and he gives no indication that he passed on his skills with any success to subsequent generations of poets, none of whom, we are told, eum aequiperare potuit, “could compare with him.” Furthermore, while Bede does show how Cædmon’s verse helped turn the minds of his audiences to divine concerns, he never suggests the poet had any more than a local effect: he makes no claim that men’s hearts still are turned to God through the performance of Cædmon’s songs, and he does not suggest that Cædmon’s fame or work spread far beyond Hild’s abbey. This failure to stress Cædmon’s popularity with future generations or outside Streanæshalch contrasts with the perhaps spurious claims made about the broad dissemination of (lost) poetry by Aldhelm and Alfred in accounts by William of Malmesbury; it also sets Bede’s account apart from other commonly cited “analogues” (Chapter 2: Sources and analogues).

[9]No specific study of named poets in Anglo-Saxon England seems to exist. This list has been compiled from material in Frank 1993, esp. 29-31, and nn. 100 and 101; Opland 1980; Robinson 1990, 61; and Sisam 1953, 225-231.

[10]Although references to Dunstan’s musical ability appear much earlier, Eadmer’s Life appears to contain the first reference specifically to vernacular song (see Opland 1980, 179; Frank 1993, 31, n. 100). Dunstan was accused of singing heathen songs, charms, and “histories” by his enemies in King Athelstan’s courts according to the eleventh-century “Auctor B” (§ 6 [ed. Stubbs 1874]), however; these were presumably also in the vernacular (see Opland 1980, 178-179).

[11]See Robinson 1990, 61, for a hesitant suggestion that Æduwen may have composed the poem. Stanley 1987a, 404-408, discusses the inscription’s odd formulation, which, he suggests, makes it unlikely to be a presentation poem. The brooch is described in Okasha 1971, art. 114.

[12]If, as Sisam suggests, Wulfstan is written over Wulfsige, then we may have a fourth attribution tying a known Anglo-Saxon to a surviving poem (the other three are discussed below, § 1.24). Wulfsige, bishop of Sherborne, was Alfred’s contemporary and a recipient of his translation of the Cura pastoralis (see Sisam 1953, 145, 226). Although historical evidence seems to favour Sisam’s conclusion (Sisam reports that Wulfsige and Wulfstan are the only two names beginning with Wulfs- in Anglo-Saxon bishop lists), the palaeographic evidence is inconclusive: as Sisam notes, the erasure has removed all trace of the original letters (Sisam 1953, 225-226; see also Ker 1990, art. 182, who nevertheless considers Sisam’s inference to be “no doubt” correct; Dobbie 1942 is slightly more sceptical: see cxvi).

[13]Alfred discusses his translation policy in his Preface to Gregory (most recently ed. Mitchell and Robinson 2001, 204-207); Bede discusses his literary output in the Historia ecclesiastica’s concluding chapter (V. 24). Neither claims to be a vernacular poet.

[14]As Frank notes, the tradition of Alfred as the “Minstrel King” has its origins in William of Malmesbury. Asser’s contemporary biography of Alfred portrays the king as having a “fondness for vernacular poetry, but only as a reader and memorizer; never as an oral singer or frequenter of bards” (Frank 1993, 20). The attribution of the verse paraphrase of the Metres to Alfred rests primarily on internal evidence from prefaces found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 180 (prose) and London, British Library, Cotton Otho A. vi (prose and verse). A detailed discussion of the prefaces as evidence of Alfred’s authorship can be found in Sisam 1953, 293-297.

[15]The following translation has been modified slightly to reflect more closely the syntax of the underlying Latin.

[16]Some later manuscripts add more explicitly that Bede composed the song: e.g. carminibus nonnulla dixit nam et tunc hoc anglico carmine componens multum compunctus aiebat “he said some things in song and then composing this song in English told the many gathered...” (see the apparatus in Dobbie 1937, 121). Many variant forms exist.

[17]The only possibly pre-twelfth-century allusion to Cædmon known outside of Bede is found in the prose and verse prefaces associated with the Old Saxon Heliand poem (see Note E: Index of proposed analogues to the Cædmon story). These texts, which are known only from a sixteenth-century source and do not mention the Heliand itself directly, do not mention Cædmon by name. The connection lies in the similarities between the life of the poet of the Saxon poem to which they refer and the Whitby herdsman.

[18]Wieland sees the “gift of poetry”—by which he seems to mean Cædmon’s continuing ability to compose—as a third miracle, distinct from his initial vision (Wieland 1984, 198). Bede is far more hesitant than Wieland implies about asserting the hagiographic implications of his story, however. See below, § 1.38.

[19]See Morland 1992, 347, n. 18, for a discussion of modern opinion of the Hymn’s aesthetic qualities; Morland reports that she “cannot find any printed praise of Cædmon’s Hymn before that of... [Wrenn 1947], who may have shocked the audience of his Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture when he declared that ‘the more one reads it and allows it to become assimilated in one’s mind, the more one feels it has qualities of balanced and rhythmic grandeur which still have some poetic appeal’.”

[20]As noted below, §§ 2.4-2.10, the analogue evidence collected by Palgrave and others is far less compelling than is usually claimed. See also Lester 1974.

[21]Examples of more explicitly otherworldly visitors in the Historia ecclesiastica (drawn from Colgrave 1966, 211-212) include the heavenly choir seen by Chad and Owini (IV. 3); the men in white seen by Earcongota (III. 8); the men in bright garments who visit Sebbi (IV. 11); Wilfrid’s vision of the archangel Michael (V. 19); and various deceased acquaintances and saints who return to earth to advise the living (see for example, the visions of the nuns of Barking in IV. 8-9).

[22]As Colgrave and Mynors note, this is the Vulgate text. Modern English translations of the passage have a different sense.

[23]See also Cavill 2002, who reaches a similar conclusion about the significance of the “miracle” from a very different perspective. Cavill’s work in this article came to my attention after this chapter was drafted.