The story of Cædmon's Hymn

Description

The earliest named English poet was a cowherd named Cædmon who lived at the Abbey of Whitby. We know about this man because the story of his life is described in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by the 8th-century monk, Bede.

Unfortunately, all of Cædmon's poems are lost, but Bede does describe one of them, which is known as Cædmon's Hymn. At the end of his version of the text, Bede cautions that, 'this is the sense but not the order of the words which he sang as he slept. For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity'.

The story of Cædmon’s life

According to Bede, Cædmon was one of the greatest poets of his age, but you wouldn’t have guessed this from his early life. He was so shy about singing or speaking in public that, according to Bede, when people began singing at parties he would leave ‘as soon as he saw the harp approaching him’. It was only later in life that he began to write verse and compose song. Bede describes how one night, when he was sleeping in the cowshed, Cædmon had a vision. When he woke, he remembered the song he had sung in his dream, and later performed it, astounding everyone at the Abbey with his beautiful poetry. Later on, he would impress the monastery’s leaders, including the abbess St Hilda, with his capacity to compose poetry about difficult theological topics.

Cædmon’s Hymn

Bede’s text was written in Latin, but in several other manuscripts someone has added a translation into Old English. This is known as a ‘gloss’. Perhaps these glossators (people who wrote the glosses) were attempting to recover some of the 'beauty and dignity' of the original. It’s appropriate that the vernacular version of the Hymn should be recorded in this way – unobtrusively tucked in between lines of Latin text, a bit like the shy Cædmon who hid from the harp.

In Old and Middle English c.890–c.450, Elaine Treharne translates Cædmon's Hymn (from the gloss found in a manuscript in St Petersburg) into modern English as:

Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,
The might of the Creator and his conception,
The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,
Eternal Lord, established the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men 
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,
The eternal Lord, afterwards made
The earth for men, the Lord almighty.

The hymn is a work in praise of God. It grabs the reader from its opening word ‘Nu’, meaning ‘Now’, making the poem feel immediate. From there it proceeds to celebrate all of creation in a mere nine lines. Like all Old English verse, it uses musical alliteration. It closes, powerfully, with the word ‘allmectig’, ‘Almighty’, in praise of God.

Bede’s point, in his story about Cædmon, is that poetry is transformational, mystical and God-given. For, according to Bede, ‘no other English poets could compare’ with Cædmon, the humble late-comer not trained by human teachers, whose poetry in turn transformed and inspired those who read it in the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.

The manuscript

This manuscript was made in the mid 8th to early 9th century, in Bede’s own monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Tragically, the manuscript was damaged in a terrible fire in 1731. You can see how the edges of the pages are ragged and there is dark staining from water.

Luckily for us, before the fire someone made a copy of it (now in the British Library, Add MS 43703). 


View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.

Full title:
Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (imperfect)
Created:
775–825
Format:
Manuscript
Creator:
Bede
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Old English

Article by:
David Crystal

David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.

Old English

Article by:
David Crystal
Theme:
Language and voice

David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.

Music in Anglo-Saxon England

Article by:
Alison Hudson

Learn how music permeated everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England, from the church, to the workplace, to celebrations.

Related collection items

Related people