The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (autograph manuscript completed 731, ed. prin. 1643, ed. prin. in English translation, 1723).

Genre:   prose history, with a quoted Anglo-Saxon poem in some manuscripts.

Form:  Latin prose (Bede's narrative); Anglo-Saxon oral-formulaic verse (Caedmon's poem, which Bede translates into Latin, the Norton editors translate into English, and two different readers of two early manuscripts reproduced in the margins in the original Anglo-Saxon, differing in spelling because it was spelled as it sounded to two different dialect speakers).    Though the grammar of Modern English is the same as that of Old English, Old English had not yet lost its inflected endings for nouns etc., like those preserved that tell us when a verb is present or past tense.  Germanic vocabulary had not yet come into collision with Norman French alternatives some sixty or seventy years later (1066), and that leaves some words in common use that we no longer know as "English."  But this is our tongue's ancestor, embedded in a Latin prose narrative, as an example of what Bede took to be God's extraordinary mercy to make a poet of an illiterate, monoglot Anglo-Saxon-speaking cow-herd.  Note that Bede's understanding of what happened to Caedmon was necessarily conditioned by the monk's scholastic training, like one of us trying to understand the oral traditions of a C19 illiterate cowboy singer. To hear Caedmon's hymn read aloud, click here.

Characters: Bede, a monk residing at the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul at Jarrow, and his implied audience of Latin-literate scholars and churchmen; Caedmon, the illiterate, monoglot Anglo-Saxon speaking cowherd who served in the monastery's fields; Caedmon's reeve or farm foreman; Hilda, abbess of Whitby and grandniece of King Edwin, first Christian king of Northumbria.  Click here for a map of the Anglo-Saxon language regions and the kingdoms which ruled them, and find Whitby on the north-west coast of Northumbria.

Summary:  Bede's big project was to tell the story of how Christianity conquered pagan religions in England, what modern historians would call a "triumphalist" history whose prejudged conclusion was that this victory was inevitable, supremely good, and of divine origin.  He was not investigating the past to discover the truth, but rather using the past to argue for a truth.  Nevertheless, as usual when any gifted writer constructs a detailed record of past events, Bede's text reveals many things of value even to those who might dispute his theses.  The story of Caedmon's discovery of how to use Anglo-Saxon oral-formulaic poetic composition to sing of sacred Christian subjects is one of those.  Usually, medieval Latin histories tell us only of the deeds of aristocrats and clergy, many of whom were sons or daughters of aristocratic families.  In this short anecdote, however, we learn details of life among the Anglo-Saxon-speaking peasants who live outside the monastery's walls, how they feasted and sang, how they defended (or not!) their farms from Danish Vikings and thieves, and how their society's ruling officers handled unusual events.  We also get the only surviving description of an oral-formulaic poet's composing practices, combined with an attested original poem by that author.  In a very few words, this passage overtly and by implication gives us a priceless window into the nearly lost world of Eighth-Century Old English literature.

Issues for Discussion or Papers:

  1. Analyze this passage rhetorically, noting how Bede characterizes his own activities as an author and translator (his "ethical persona"), the Christian monks who were his Latin-literate implied audience, and his subject, the illiterate Anglo-Saxon monastery servants and the Christian poet who suddenly arises from among them.  What does that tell you about the social tension and/or distance between the clergy and the peasant laity?  What does Bede believe he knows about the world and time that he probably thinks Caedmon does not know?  What does he think he knows about Caedmon and his world?  How does he react to the composition of a Christian hymn in English, a language he characterizes as "his [Caedmon's] own," not "our own"?  Especially given the fact that manuscripts in any language had to be copied by the clergy in this era, because they were almost the only literate people in England at the time, what does that suggest about the likely survival of the rest of the earliest Anglo-Saxon literature?
  2. The island Bede inhabited was divided into warring kingdoms ruled by rival monarchs who arose from the tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who had invaded and occupied the land in the centuries since the Romans withdrew the legions which protected its colonists and the Celts who previously were "native" to the island.  The constant dynastic struggles within kingdoms, and the warfare between them, left them deeply divided and unprepared when teams of Danish "Vikings" raided the shoreline and plundered coastal towns.  Bede's history, however, reflects to the English a vision of Englishness that is far more unified culturally, within Christianity, than its political disorders suggested.  Christianity at this time was a religion which took on Rome's mantle of imperial unification of all the old pagan Empire's peoples.  How might Latin, the language of a unified Church, and the power of the Christian network centered on Rome, combine in this document to offer the English an idea of their "Englishness" as a uniting force?
  3. The song-feast Bede describes appears to be a typical event in the lives of Caedmon's people.  What appear to be the rules of a song-feast, and how might that pattern of "literary performance" work to preserve works that had never been written down by someone like Bede?  Can you guess where some other fragments of this oral/oral literary tradition might have survived in manuscripts from this era?  Can you compare this tradition to any others which preserve knowledge orally/aurally, without writing?  What do those comparisons suggest about how we should treat such a poem when analyzing it and interpreting its meaning?
  4. Based on research by Milman Parry and Albert Lord among living Balkan oral-formulaic poets, and that of F. P. Magoun, Jr., R. P. Creed, Rick Russom, and others in comparative textual analysis of surviving Anglo-Saxon poems, scholars have developed a fairly good picture of how complex poems could be written by illiterate poets.  The keys are 1) an inherited system of rules for combining phrases based on their rhythmic patterns (like a drummer's vocabulary); 2) a vast set of tale types, episode types, thematic descriptive patterns, and character types that can be recombined to make a recognizable types of poems,; and 3) a system of poetic apprenticeship which requires the novice to observe for years the performances of a master-singer until he perfects his craft.  For this reason, unless we credit Bede's supernatural explanation, Caedmon must have lied to his literate interrogators when he told them he never had learned any songs from the secular tradition.  If nothing else, he told them he was at many feasts where such songs were sung and listened to them until the harp was passed close to him.  He knew the songs.  Why else might a man seated at a table where pagan songs were being sung feel uncomfortable and leave the room when it was his turn to sing?  Remember, that, at this time, the English still were fighting each other over whether they would worship in the Christian or pagan faith.  Kings died in battle and were assassinated because of this social upheaval.  Note, too, that Bede specifies of Caedmon's first song of God that it was a song "which he had never heard before," implying that, normally, such songs were songs one learned by "hearing them before."  Considering the three cultural requirements for creating oral-formulaic poets and poems above, which one really is "new"?  How might this compare with "translation," a common way new poetic traditions are brought from one culture to another, intact, by mentally transporting the form and content of a poem in one language to similar or identical forms and contents in another language?  (E.g., Sir Thomas Wyatt's translation of Petrarch's "Amor, che nel penser mio vive e regna" into the English sonnet, "The long love that in my thought doth harbor."
  5. Consider carefully Bede's report of Caedmon's composition practices on 25--he is not a "spontaneous" artist.  What must he do in order to compose the poem from the prose translation of the Latin he was told, and why might that be?  Think about the way the mind changes as sleep approaches, and what happens to it during sleep.  How might this assist a complex writing task, and how might you take advantage of it when writing for this and other courses?  Especially, what commonplace undergraduate writing practice would be impossible if one were to borrow this composing process trick?  What about the famous simile for Caedmon's mental practices as he approached the point at which he could compose, "turning it over in his mind like a clean beast that chews the cud" (25, also called "rumination," West).  Experienced writers do both of these things all the time--it's no gimmick.
  6. While we're thinking about translation, consider carefully Bede's comment on the problem of translating poetry (25).  What makes poetry harder to translate than prose?  What is lost when translating poetry which costs the translation some of the original's "beauty and dignity" (25).  Can prose, itself, really be translated without loss, and if not, what is lost when prose is translated?  Now consider the fact that Bede was writing in Latin, which someone (Norton section editor Alfred David?) has translated into Modern English, as he has Caedmon's hymn.  How do readers' experiences differ if they encounter the Anglo-Saxon, untranslated, in Bede's text, followed by Bede's Latin translation, especially if those readers are literate only in Latin and know no Anglo-Saxon?  That is the reverse of the situation Caedmon faces when he sings before the abbess and the other clergy.  As you read the Norton Anthology, be especially alert to works which have been translated into Modern English.  They present you with an interesting problem, how to imagine what the poem sounded like, what it's "beauty and dignity" were, in the original Old or Middle English.  (See especially, "Maldon," "Wanderer," "Wife's Lament," "Beowulf," and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.")  To really know those works of English literature as works of power and loveliness, you will have to work a little harder and learn their language in English 240 or English 330.  For now, we must know them as well as we can through the filter of translation.
  7. Caedmon's confrontation with the reeve and Abbess Hilda tells us what the "chain of command" was in the community at Whitby.  Caedmon's social status was just about the lowest--he slept with the cows he guarded and dined communally with the other farm workers.  Despite his advanced age (he died soon after the discovery of his poetic talents), he had accumulated no wealth or property, and he was a dependent of the farm on which he worked.  His reeve was his immediate superior, and the reeve reported directly to the abbess, whose abbey held the farm either as a fee-simple property (modern "property rights") or as a fief from a higher cleric or aristocrat to whom the abbess would do homage or fealty in return for being "seised" with the land.  Note the questions they ask about Caedmon's vision--what are they worried about?  Finally, note what Hilda tells Caedmon he must do as a result, and how Caedmon's powers of song affected his social relationship with his "teachers."  Finally, consider the "repertoire" of Caedmon's song topics as Bede lists them.  Is there a pre-existing pattern for this whole sequence of topics which might have been available to inspire even an illiterate monoglot Anglo-Saxon singer?
  8. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England was far more influential in its own right than the Norton excerpt suggests.  The anthology filters this text through the lens of modern scholars' interest in the Anglo-Saxon poem Bede records in passing as evidence of the Abbess Hilda's wisdom.  For English readers as late as the Elizabethan era, Bede's history offered a religiously colored view of the English past which helped them understand how their ancestors were transformed from unbelieving pagans to fine fine, upstanding Christians, headed for salvation, like themselves.  For Thomas Stapleton, a bold English Catholic exiled to Antwerp, a 1565 translation of Bede into Early Modern English seemed to offer an opportunity to persuade Elizabeth I that there was still a chance to reconcile the Roman Church and the Church of England, founded by her father (Henry VIII) in 1531-39.  This work of learned Catholic propaganda obviously did not succeed in achieving its author's full intentions, but spreading Bede's words, his view of the English past, to the vernacular reading public may have had profound long-term consequences.  (The printer, John Laet, uses the device of the sower sowing seed and the motto "Spes alit agricola" [sic], "Hope sustains the farmer," alluding to the "words-as-seeds" allegory found in the parable of the sower [Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:4-8] and Psalm 126 ["They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. "].)  To see the library's copy, visit Special Collections and ask for BR746 .B4 1565.  To see all available digital images of selected pages from that copy, click here

Good General Sources:

Bede, His Life, Times and Writings: Essays in Commemoration of the Twelfth Centenary of His Death.  Ed. A. Hamilton Thompson.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1935.  826.1 B39st  (Goucher College Library collection)

Duckett, Eleanor Shipley.  Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars.  N.Y.: Macmillan, 1948.  274.2 D83 (Goucher College Library collection)

Hunter Blair, Peter.  Northumbria in the Days of Bede.  N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1976.  942.01 B63n  (Goucher College Library collection)

Magoun, Francis P., Jr.  "Bede's Story of Caedmon: The Case History of an Anglo-Saxon Oral Singer," Speculum 30:1 (January 1955): 49-63.  Available online from EbscoHost.

Schwab, Ute.  "The Miracles of Caedmon," English Studies 64:1 (February 1983): 1-16.  Available online from EbscoHost.

Sister Mary Madaleva, "St. Hilda of Whitby," Saints for Now, ed. Clare Booth Luce (London: Sheed & Ward, 1952), available online at Catholic Information Network  Viewed 8/15/05.

West, Philip J.  "Rumination in Bede's Account of Caedmon," Monastic Studies 12 (1976): 217=26.


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