Notes on the Song of Caedmon by Dr. Charlie Rozier

The song of Caedmon, or Caedmon’s Hymn, represents one of the earliest known translations of biblical text into English verse. Caedmon’s Song, consists of nine lines of praise for God the Creator, and is likely the result of Caedmon’s first poetic epiphany, as described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History (see below). Although Bede’s account included only a Latin paraphrasing of the English original, two of the earliest copies of Bede’s History preserve early written versions of the English text (these are: St Petersberg, Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library Manuscript O.v.I. 18, and Cambridge, University Library Manuscript Kk.5.16). However, as noted by Marsden, certain West Saxon features of the English original suggest that these earliest transcriptions may have altered slightly from Caedmon’s Northumbrian original.

Bede’s Latin paraphrased version reads:

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.)

Old English version, according to Marsden, pp. 80-1.

Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte   on his modgeðanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,   swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten,       or onstealde.
He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend;
þa middangeard  moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten,       æfter teode
firum foldan,     Frea ælmihtig

Most of what we know about Caedmon derives from the fourth book of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede portrays Caedmon as an illiterate farm hand who worked on lands owned by the monastery at Whitby. During the tenure of Abbess Hild (657-680 AD) Caedmon was visited at night by an unknown figure who asked him to sing. Despite Caedmon’s complete lack of experience and professed inability to sing, he was able to compose several lines of verse in praise of God the Creator. The next morning, he added more, and was taken by his reeve to Abbess Hild, and performed his song before an audience of learned monks. Caedmon was read passages of Scripture, and was able to translate these into several more verses on the spot. Following this examination, Caedmon was ordered to join the monastic community at Whitby, where, according to Bede, he went on to compose many songs based on biblical narrative and theological doctrine.

Bede’s short account of Caedmon’s life probably reflects a mingling of contemporary legend and basic truth. It is almost certain that Caedmon composed the verses ascribed to him by Bede. Oxford, Bodleian Library Manuscript Junius 11 (produced c.1050) collects a large number of Old English poems on biblical narrative and theology, and as such may represent echoes of Ceadmon’s compositions. However, close analysis of style within the featured poems does not allow the conclusion that they were all loyal to the work of a single poet, and as such probably do not represent the work of Caedmon.

The miracle of Caedmon’s first song and consequent discovery of his gift is more difficult to elucidate. Although Bede claimed that Caedmon was frightened of singing (and would even leave fests if he were asked to sing) it is also entirely plausible that he did indeed have such a talent, but was simply frightened of showing it until the supposed day.

Further Reading:
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969), pp. 414-21.
Richard Marsden, The Cambridge Old English Reader (Cambridge 2004), pp. 76-85.
P. G. Remley, Old English Biblical Verse (Cambridge, 1996).
A. H. Smith (ed.) Three Northumbrian Poems: Caedmon’s Hymn, Bede’s Death Song and the Leiden Riddle (Exeter, 1978).