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
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
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:
- 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
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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
BR746 .B4 1565. To see all available digital images of selected
pages from that copy, click
Good General Sources:
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)
Eleanor Shipley. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars. N.Y.:
Macmillan, 1948. 274.2 D83 (Goucher College Library collection)
Peter. Northumbria in the Days of Bede. N.Y.: St. Martin's
Press, 1976. 942.01 B63n (Goucher College Library collection)
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
"The Miracles of Caedmon," English Studies 64:1 (February 1983): 1-16.
Available online from EbscoHost.
Madaleva, "St. Hilda of Whitby," Saints for Now, ed. Clare Booth Luce
(London: Sheed & Ward, 1952), available online at Catholic Information
http://www.cin.org/saints/hilda.html Viewed 8/15/05.
J. "Rumination in Bede's Account of Caedmon," Monastic Studies 12
Back to English 211,
Back to English 330:
Chaucer Seminar, Syllabus View.