Cædmon's Hymn

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Cædmon's Hymn is a short Old English poem originally composed by Cædmon, in honour of God the Creator. It survives in a Latin translation by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and in vernacular versions written down in several manuscripts of Bede's Historia.

Bede wrote about the poet and his work in the fourth book of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Bede told the story of Cædmon who was an illiterate cow-herder who miraculously was able to recite a Christian song of creation in Old English verse. This miracle happened after Cædmon left a feast when they were passing a harp around for all to sing a song. He left the hall after feeling ashamed that he could not contribute a song. Later in a dream he said a man appeared to him and asked him to sing a song. Cædmon responded that he could not sing, yet the man told him that he could and asked him to “Sing to me the beginning of all things.” Cædmon was then able to sing verses and words that he had not heard of before. Cædmon then reported his experience first to a steward then to Hild the abbess. She invited scholars to evaluate Cædmon’s gift, and he was sent home to turn more divine doctrine into song. The abbess was so impressed with the success of his gift that she encouraged him to become a monk. He learned the history of the Christian church and created more music like the story of Genesis and many biblical stories which impressed his teachers. Bede says that Cædmon in his creation of his songs wanted to turn man from love of sin to a love of good deeds. Cædmon is said to have died peacefully in his sleep after asking for the Eucharist and making sure he was at peace with his fellow men. [1]

Like many Old English and Anglo-Latin pieces, it was designed to be sung aloud and was never physically recorded by Cædmon himself, but was written and preserved by other literate individuals. The Hymn itself was composed between 658 and 680, recorded in the earlier part of the 8th century, and survives today in at least 14 verified manuscript copies.[citation needed] The Hymn is Cædmon's sole surviving composition.

The poem forms a prominent landmark and reference point for the study of Old English prosody, for the early influence which Christianity had on the poems and songs of the Anglo-Saxon people after their conversion.

Cædmon's Hymn is the oldest recorded Old English poem,[2] and also one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse.[citation needed] Within Old English, only the inscriptions upon the Ruthwell Cross (doubtful) or Franks Casket (7th or early 8th century) may be of comparable age. Outside of Old English, there are a few alliterative lines preserved in epigraphy (Horns of Gallehus, Pforzen buckle) which have a claim to greater age.

Manuscript evidence

One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Cædmon's Hymn is found in "The Moore Bede" (ca. 737) which is held by the Cambridge University Library (Kk. 5. 16, often referred to as M). The other candidate is St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (P)

All copies of the Hymn are found in manuscripts of the Historia ecclesiastica or its Old English translation, where they serve as either a gloss to Bede's Latin translation of the Old English poem, or, in the case of the Old English version, a replacement for Bede's translation in the main text of the Historia. Despite this close connection with Bede's work, the Hymn does not appear to have been transmitted with the Historia ecclesiastica regularly until relatively late in its textual history. Scribes other than those responsible for the main text often copy the vernacular text of the Hymn in manuscripts of the Latin Historia.

In three cases — Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 243; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 43; and Winchester, Cathedral I — the poem is copied by scribes working a quarter-century or more after the main text was first set down.[3][4] Even when the poem is in the same hand as the manuscript's main text, there is little evidence to suggest that it was copied from the same exemplar as the Latin Historia: nearly identical versions of the Old English poem are found in manuscripts belonging to different recensions of the Latin text; closely related copies of the Latin Historia sometimes contain very different versions of the Old English poem. With the exception of the Old English translation, no single recension of the Historia ecclesiastica is characterised by the presence of a particular recension of the vernacular poem.[lower-alpha 1]

Text and translation

The manuscripts containing Cædmon's Hymn began to emerge in the eighth century, continuing through the twelfth. They show two separate manuscript environments, and the transformation of the hymn as it goes from an oral tradition to a literate one. In the West Saxon translation of the Historia ecclesiastica, the Hymn is made a part of the main text. However, in the Latin translation, the hymn appears only as a gloss to the paraphrase of the song. Between the fourteen manuscripts, the hymn only appears in two dialects. The importance of the two translations is that it shows the formatting practices of Latin and Old English during those five centuries. The word division, capitalization, punctuation, as well as where the text is found on the page all help to give fuller understanding to the Old English language which at the time was new to writing, as well as to its Latin counterpart, considered a textual language.[5]

The 8th-century Latin manuscripts of Historia ecclesiastica contain pronounced visual cues to help with the proper reading of the hymn. This is done by capitalization and by placing the text in two distinct columns. In later editions of Historia the hymn is laid out with each verses first capital written in red, and the end of each verse written in a lighter color. The lighter ink expresses a caesura in the text while the darker ink shows a terminal punctuation. Despite the differences in the Hymn found in the Old English manuscripts, each copy of the hymn is metrically, semantically, and syntactically correct. These manuscripts bear testament of a supposed transitional period where oral poems were being placed into written word with the specific purpose of giving a predetermined message to its reader.[6]

The following Old English text is a normalized reading of M (mid-8th century; Northumbria), arguably the oldest extant copy.

Form and role in Old English prosody

Cædmon's Hymn was, of course, intended as an oral piece to be sung aloud. It is still not a hymn in the narrow sense of the formal and structural criteria of hymnody. It is, instead, a piece of Germanic alliterative poetry composed within living memory of the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England. Although the suprasegmentals in the hymn's original form seem to show that when it was constructed it would have been regarded as a true hymn,[clarification needed] it has been primarily considered by scholars since the 16th century as a poem.

Nearly all Old English poetry (whether or not it was written or sung) follows the same general verse form, its chief characteristic being alliteration. As was common with poetry of the period, the nine lines of the Hymn are divided into eighteen half-lines by a medial caesura (pause or break in the middle of the line); the four principal stresses of each line are in turn divided evenly, allotting each half line with two stresses.[11] It is generally acknowledged that the text can be separated into two rhetorical sections (although some scholars believe it could be divided into three), based on theme, syntax and pacing; the first being lines one to four and the second being lines five to nine.[12]

Bede himself stated (in regards to his own Latin translation of Cædmon's Hymn) that "it is impossible to make a literal translation, no matter how well written, of poetry into another language without losing some of the beauty and dignity"[11] of the piece.

In seeking to understand the mechanics of the oral Old English verse, experts of oral-formulaic analysis have tried to duplicate the supposed creating process of Anglo-Saxon poets. By unmaking the old verses and trying to remake them using the formulas of the time period, it has been found that Old English poetry does have a traditional formulaic style.[clarification needed][by whom?]

The poetry of this period was the result of a transitional time in literature, where oral poems and songs were being translated and modified for the purpose of reading.[clarification needed] This process would have been more than likely done by English monks and clergymen, who not only were educated in Christian Latin literature but were familiar with oral traditions and translating them into written poetry.[13]

Originality and significance

Since Cædmon’s compositions had been produced in such a short time after Northumbria had been converted to Christianity, the diction and content of his Hymn would have hardly been considered conventional or banal.[14][page needed]

Cædmon utilized a form of Anglo-Saxon poetry traditionally used for the veneration of kings and princes, and altered the conventions in a way that would cause it to refer to God instead of a monarch. For instance, the phrase rices weard (keeper of the kingdom) was changed to heofonrices weard (keeper of the kingdom of heaven).

There has been much scholarly debate and speculation as to whether or not there existed pre-Cædmonian Christian composers by whom Cædmon may have been influenced, but the mainstream opinion appears to be that it is "reasonably clear that Cædmon coined the Christian poetic formulas that we find in the Hymn". Cædmon’s work "had a newness that it lost in the course of time", but it has been asserted by many that his poetic innovations "entitle him to be reckoned a genius".[15]

See also


  1. Compare the recensional identifications for witnesses to the Old English Hymn in Dobbie (1937), The Manuscripts of Cæadmon’s Hymn and Bede’s Death Song, New York<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> with those for manuscripts of the Latin Historia in Colgrave, B; Mynors, RAB, eds. (1969), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford, pp. xxxix–lxx<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  2. This is the traditional translation of these lines, in agreement with Bede's Latin version. An alternative translation of the eorðan and aelda texts, however, understands weorc as the subject: "Now the works of the father of glory must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his mind's purpose".[8][9][10]
  3. This is the reading of the West-Saxon ylda and Northumbrian aelda recensions. The West-Saxon eorðan, Northumbrian eordu, and with some corruption, the West-Saxon eorðe recensions would be translated "for the children of earth".
  4. The Northumbrian eordu and West-Saxon ylda and eorðe recensions would be translated "for men among the lands" at this point.


  1. Bede, "22", Historia ecclesiastica, Book IV, Colgrave<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  2. O'Keeffe 1987, p. 222.
  3. Ker, NR (1957), Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo‐Saxon, Oxford, arts. 341, 326, 396<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  4. O’Keeffe 1990, p. 36.
  5. O'Keeffe 1987, p. 226.
  6. O'Keeffe 1987, p. 244.
  7. Marsden, Richard (2004), Old English Reader, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 80<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>, collated with manuscript facsimile.
  8. Mitchell 1985.
  9. Ball 1985, pp. 39–41.
  10. Howlett 1974, p. 6.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Caedmon's Hymn", The Norton Anthology of English Literature (8th ed.), 2006, pp. 19–20<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  12. O’Donnell, Daniel P (October 2004), "Bede's Strategy in Paraphrasing Caedmon's Hymn", Journal of English and Germanic Philogoy, 103 (4) |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  13. Stevick, Robert D (3 March 2010), "The Oral-Formulaic Analyses of Old English Verse", Speculum, 37 (3): 3823, doi:10.2307/2852359<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  14. Malone 1961: “we are led astray by our knowledge of later poetry”.
  15. Malone 1961, p. 194.


  • Altman, Rochelle (2008). "Hymnody, Graphotactics, and 'Cædmon's Hymn'". Philological Review. EBSCO. 34 (2): 1–27. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bammesberger, Alfred (2008). "Nu Scylun Hergan (Caedmon's Hymn, 1a)". ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews. EBSCO. 21 (4): 2–6. doi:10.3200/anqq.21.4.2-6. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, ed. and tr. Colgrave, Bertram; Mynors, Roger AB (1969). Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-822202-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Caedmon's Hymn". The Norton Anthology of English Literature (8th ed.). 2006. pp. 18–26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dobbie, EvK (1937). The manuscripts of Cædmon's Hymn and Bede's Death Song with a critical text of the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae. Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature. New York: Columbia.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Frantzer, Allen J.; Hines, John, eds. (2007). Cædmon's Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede Six Essays. Morganstown: West Virginia University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Malone, Kemp (1961). Modern Language Notes. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 76 (3): 193–95. Missing or empty |title= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Magennis, Hugh (2011). The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–35.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Marsden, Richard (2004). The Cambridge Old English Reader. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 69–85.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • O'Donnell, Daniel P. (October 2004). "Bede's Strategy in Paraphrasing Caedmon's Hymn". Journal of English and Germanic Philology. JSTOR. 103 (4). |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien (January 1987). "Orality and the Developing Text of Caedmon's Hymn". Speculum. Medieval Academy of America. 62 (1). doi:10.2307/2852564. Retrieved 24 February 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Richards, Mary P., ed. (1994). Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: Basic Readings. New York: Google Books. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Smith, A.H., ed. (1978). Three Northumbrian Poems: Cædmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song and the Leiden Riddle. With a bibliography compiled by M.J. Swanton (revised ed.). London: University of Exeter.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stevick, Robert D. (July 1962). "The Oral-Formulaic Analyses of Old English Verse". Speculum. JSTOR. 37 (3): 382–389. doi:10.2307/2852359. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Blair, Peter Hunter (1994). "Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and its Importance Today". Bede and His World The Jarrow Lectures 1958–1978. Great Britain: Variorum. pp. 21–33.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • DeGregorio, Scott (2007). "Literary Contexts: Cædmon's Hymn as a Center of Bedes World". In Frantzer, Allen J; Hines, John (eds.). Cædmon's Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede Six Essays. Morganstown: West Virginia University Press. pp. 51–79.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fry, D.K. (1974). "Cædmon as a Formulaic Poet – Forum for Modern Language Studies". 10 (3): 227–47. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Also published as: Fry, D.K. (1975). "Cædmon as a Formulaic Poet". In Duggan, JJ (ed.). Oral Literature: Seven Essays. Edinburgh and New York. pp. 41–61.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien (1999). "Cædmon". In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald (eds.). Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Molden, MA: Blackwell. p. 81.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) CS1 maint: display-editors (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links