Note B
Cædmon’s Hymn and Bede’s paraphrase

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§ B.1    The account of the Hymn’s filiation in Chapter 5: Filiation and transmission above, assuming it is correct, provides important evidence against claims that the Old English text of the Hymn was translated from Bede’s Latin paraphrase. Passing references to the possibility that the Old English Hymn might be a back-translation from Bede appear in the work of several early and mid nineteenth-century scholars, beginning with Lingard in 1810 (see Lingard [1810] 1841, 316; also Schmid 1827, 336; Thorpe 1832, ix [recte xi]; Pauli 1851, 233). The question was explored in greater detail in an often-cited exchange among Wülker, Zupitza, and ten Brink, in which Wülker ultimately conceded Zupitza’s and Ten Brink’s argument (Wülker 1876; Zupitza 1878; Ten Brink 1883, 372-374; Wülker 1885, 119-120). After a century of consensus concerning the vernacular Hymn’s likely priority, the debate was revived again in the early 1980s and 1990s by Dumville, Kiernan, and Isaac (Dumville 1981, 148; Kiernan 1990a; Isaac 1997). Despite responses from Biggs and Fulk (Biggs 1997, 307, n. 46; Fulk 1992, 427-428), there currently appears to be no solid consensus about the relationship between the Old English Hymn and Latin paraphrase (see, for example, the carefully agnostic position taken in Orchard 1996, 412-413).

§ B.2    In its modern form,[1] the argument against the priority of the vernacular text rests on two main observations:

  1. The Old English poem tells us no more about Cædmon’s initial production than does Bede’s Latin paraphrase: although Bede makes it clear in his chapter that Cædmon composed additional verses for his Hymn the morning after his dream, this extra material is preserved in no vernacular text of the poem, all recensions of which stop, as does Bede’s paraphrase, at the last line of his dream-inspired first performance (Dumville 1981, 148; Kiernan 1990a, 162).
  2. Bede’s paraphrase is far closer to surviving versions of the vernacular poem than his disclaimers about its literal accuracy might otherwise suggest: for the equivalent to the first five lines of the Old English text, Bede’s translation reproduces its supposed vernacular source nearly word-for-word. In the final four lines, the principal difference involves the elimination of some more-or-less ornamental material from the Old English version (Kiernan 1990a, 162-163; Isaac 1997[2]).

§ B.3    Neither of these observations offers unambiguous support for the priority of Bede’s text. The fact that the Old English Hymn tells us no more than Bede’s paraphrase about the additional lines Cædmon is supposed to have added to his poem can be attributed as easily to the context in which the vernacular text is preserved as to the possibility that it is a back-translation from Bede’s Latin. In the case of the Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica, the rationale for leaving out the “rest” of Cædmon’s Hymn—assuming more actually still was known[3]—is obvious: Bede’s chapter cites the poem’s opening lines and explains how the poet later composed and appended additional verses to his initial, dream-inspired, text: had the translator decided to replace this partial Latin paraphrase with a text containing the lines Bede omits, he would be forced either to rewrite the narrative of Cædmon’s dream in order to account for the inclusion of the text Cædmon added after he awoke, or, by failing to distinguish between the original material and the subsequent additions, misrepresent the scope and nature of Cædmon’s initial, dream-inspired performance.[4]

§ B.4    In the case of copies found in the Latin Historia ecclesiastica, the rationale for matching the Old English text to the length of Bede’s paraphrase comes from the poem’s conceptual relationship to the Latin paraphrase. As Kiernan notes, “Anglo-Saxon scribes did not view [copies of the vernacular text of Cædmon’s Hymn in the Historia ecclesiastica],... as we do today, as central texts” (Kiernan 1990a, 162). Instead, they present the poem as a gloss, much like the translations of Latin words, retrospective dating, and similar apparatus found elsewhere in many Historia manuscripts. In such circumstances, the length of vernacular text being added to a Latin manuscript is dictated by the length of the Latin being glossed rather than the scribe’s knowledge of the vernacular text being added. Even if the scribes knew more of the text than Bede reproduces, they would be highly unlikely to demonstrate this knowledge by copying the “complete” poem in the margins of the Historia ecclesiastica.

§ B.5    That this is so is demonstrated by the metrical translation of the Psalms. Although it seems certain that a metrical translation of the entire Psalter was widely known in Anglo-Saxon England, no complete copy of this translation survives. As I argue elsewhere, this is because the translation is copied invariably in “functional” contexts—i.e. contexts in which the vernacular text serves as a gloss to or translation of the Latin text. In such circumstances, Anglo-Saxon scribes almost invariably match the length of their citations to that of the Latin being glossed or translated (see O’Donnell 1996a, chapter 2).

§ B.6    No stronger evidence for the priority of Bede’s paraphrase is provided by the closeness of the translation. Although it is true that the vernacular and Latin texts of the Hymn are relatively close, they are not consistently so. While the equivalent to the first five lines of the Old English poem are reproduced almost word-for-word in Bede’s Latin text, the relationship between the two versions is considerably more loose in the equivalent to the last four (see O’Donnell 2004; §§ 3.31-3.35, above). If we assume that Bede was working from an Old English text substantially similar to one of the surviving vernacular recensions, this apparent inconsistency can be explained as the result of a decision on Bede’s part to remove all traces of ornamental apposition from his source: the two versions diverge the most precisely in those lines in which the Old English poem shows the most ornamental variation; their differences, moreover, involve for the most part the collapsing or recasting in Bede’s text of syntactically apposite elements from the equivalent lines of the Old English poem: He and haleg sceppend (preserved as Qui) in 5a and 6b; uard, eci dryctin, and frea allmectig (preserved as Custos and omnipotens), in 7a through 9b (O’Donnell 2004; Cavill 2002, 11-13; § 3.35 above).

§ B.7    The inconsistency between the Latin and vernacular versions of the poem is more difficult to explain, however, if we assume that Bede’s paraphrase was the original text. There is no obvious reason why a forger, working from Bede’s paraphrase, should be prompted to start introducing significant amounts of ornamental variation half-way through his translation. Although Bede’s version of the poem’s closing lines does show a slight difference in tone from his treatment of the equivalent to 1 through 4 (he introduces three hexameter cadences: caelum pro culmine tecti, Custos humani generis, and omnipotens), the change is neither as marked as the increase in variation in the equivalent section of the Old English, nor as closely correlated with the onset of the poetic variation in the Old English text: the first hexameter cadence in Bede’s paraphrase comes at the equivalent to 6a (caelum pro culmine tecti : heben til hrofe), while the first example of appositive variation in the closing five lines of the Old English text begins with He in 5a. The discrepancy becomes even more significant, moreover, if we consider the first example of apposition in the poem as a whole, he and eci dryctin in 3b and 4a: while it is easy to understand, if the Old English was prior, why Bede might decide to recast this passage in order to eliminate one of the two nominative singular references to God, there is no obvious reason why an Anglo-Saxon forger, faced with an original reading cum sit aeternus Deus, would decide to recast Bede’s clause in a section in which he is otherwise following his “original” quite closely (O’Donnell 2004).

§ B.8    The most important evidence that Bede’s paraphrase was based on the existing Old English text of the Hymn, however, comes from his adoption of facilior variants for two of the three readings used to distinguish among Old English recensions of the poem: debemus (i.e. ƿue/ƿe scylun) in the equivalent to 1a, and filiis hominum (i.e. aelda barnum) in the equivalent to 5b (see above, §§ 5.31-5.37). If we assume that Bede’s text was prior to surviving recensions of the Old English Hymn, we are faced with the difficulty of explaining how the difficilior readings Nu scylun and eordu barnum managed to arise. The most obvious translation from debemus is ƿue/ƿe scylun; only the most perverse of forgers, faced with unambiguous first person plural morphology in a Latin “original” would decide to substitute the rare but apparently sensible pronoun-less form found in the Northumbrian aelda and West-Saxon eorðan Recensions for a verb showing an explicit first person inflection.

§ B.9    The evidence of 5b is even more significant, however, since it is difficult to see why an Old English forger would chose either aelda or eordu to translate Bede’s “original” filiis hominum. As mentioned above (§§ 5.10-5.14), the most common translation for this biblical tag in the Old English corpus involves some combination of a genitive plural monna and barn- (100 out of 102 occurrences); the collocation monna barn-, similarly, is, with over eighty occurrences (thirty-two in verse), the most common single member of the formulaic system [ noun referring to people] + barn- (Healey et al. 1994). If we assume that our hypothetical forger was free to set his own alliteration for the translation of 5 (he was, after all, presumably beginning with a blank slate), then it is difficult to see why he should prefer either the less common formula aelda bearnum (eleven occurrences in Old English) or the unique collocation eordu bearnum as his preferred translation over the stereotypical monna barnum (see also Cavill 2000, 518).

§ B.10    Once again, these difficulties vanish if we assume the Old English text was prior. In the equivalent to 1a, Bede’s use of debemus for Nu scylun hergan represents an unavoidable disambiguation: while the difficilior Old English reading can be interpreted, arguably at least, as first or third person plural, Latin requires an explicit indication of person and number, forcing Bede to choose among what may have been two, equally plausible, interpretations. The use of filiis hominum for 5b, on the other hand, is probably best understood as a learned “improvement” on the text introduced by Bede or a redactor of the Old English text from which he was working in order to give the Old English poem a more “liturgical” tone.


[1]Although it is often cited, nineteenth-century discussion about the priority of the Old English Hymn is not, strictly speaking, relevant to contemporary debate. While there is some agreement in the issues involved, scholars working before Wuest’s discovery of the Northumbrian eordu recension in 1906 had a very different (and incomplete) understanding of the Hymn’s textual evidence. See, for example, Wülker 1885, 117-120.

[2]Isaac 1997 proposes what he sees as a third piece of evidence against the Hymn’s priority: the unlikelihood of Bede’s account of the poet’s inspiration (esp. 226). Although he presents this as evidence that “the Northumbrian version of Cædmon’s Hymn is, after all, a translation from Bede’s Latin” (219), the argument is actually more concerned with Cædmon’s authorship than the relationship between vernacular and Latin versions of the poem. Even if we assume that somebody other than Cædmon composed the Hymn, we are still left with the question: did Bede translate his Latin paraphrase from a text of the surviving Old English Hymn or is the Old English a back translation from Bede? See also Cavill 2002, 65-6, for a discussion of Isaac’s claims.

[3]The fact that Bede quotes from Cædmon’s initial performance indicates that an early distinction existed between the poet’s initial, dream-inspired, text and the self-composed lines he added the following morning. Since the inspired lines are obviously the most relevant to the story of the Inspiration, these presumably would have the greatest chance of being preserved in traditional retellings. A generation or two after Cædmon’s death one might expect them to be the only lines known with certainty to be Cædmon’s own composition.

[4]That the translator would be reluctant to misrepresent Cædmon’s initial performance is suggested by his careful exclusion of Bede’s disclaimers about the quality of the Latin paraphrase from his Old English translation. He removed these presumably because he believed he was presenting the actual text of the poem rather than a rendering of its sensus. See Whitelock 1962 for a discussion of the Old English translator’s care in adapting Bede’s Latin.