1902 Encyclopedia > Caedmon

Anglo-Saxon poet
(died c. 680)

CAEDMON, or CEDMON (the former way of spelling is that of Bede, the latter that of Florence of Worcester), is the name of the earliest Anglo-Saxon or Old English poet of whom we have any knowledge. The meaning of the name has been much disputed. Sir Francis Palgrave, despairing of finding a native derivation, suggested (Archaeologia, vol. xxiv.) that the poet might have been so called from the Chaldaic name for the book of Genesis, which is " b' Cadmin," in the beginning, or " Cadmon," beginning, from the opening words of the first chapter of Genesis. He thought that he might even have been an " Eastern visitor," who had arrived in Britain from the East, mastered the language, and come out as a vernacular poet. A hypo-thesis so fanciful as this last may be at once rejected. Another suggestion of the same lively writer connects the name with the Adam Cadmon (the primitive and ideal man) of the Cabalists. It is true that Cabalistic specula-tions cannot be traced back with certainty beyond the 9th century, but it is quite possible that the word may have been recognized as an important word in the East, and as bearing a distinct philosophic or theosophic meaning at a far earlier date. On the other hand, in favour of the view which gives to the name a native origin, it may be urged that Bede, though he only employs the word once, says in that passage that the poet's nocturnal visitant "called him by his name," and said, " Csedmon, &c." Does not this look as if the name had a homely and north-country sound in Bede's ears 1 If so, What did it mean 1 Sir Francis Palgrave maintains that no Anglo-Saxon derivation can be found for the first part of the name. Dr Bouterwek, how-ever (in a work on Csedmon, published at Elberfeld in 1845), together with Professor Sandras, explains ced as meaning a boat in Anglo-Saxon, whence the former trans-lates the name "pirate," the latter "boat-man." This would be satisfactory if it rested on any ground of fact; but unfortunately this word " ced " is a pure invention of Professor Bouterwek's; neither the Anglo-Saxon language, as known to us, nor the Old English of the first three centuries after the Conquest, nor any local dialect contains any such word. On the whole, Sir Francis Palgrave's first suggestion seems to involve the least difficulty. " Cadmon " means " beginning " in the Targum of Onkelos, the Chaldee version of the Scriptures, which was in popular use among the Jews from the 1st century B.C. downwards, and some learned ecclesiastic at Whitby who had visited the Holy Land may have given to the poet the name Cadmon (which in Anglo-Saxon mouths became Csedmon), because he was to sing of the " beginning " of things.

The few particulars that are known of the life of Caedmon are all to be found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, a book so well known that an abridgement of them is all that will be necessary here. Caedmon was probably a ceorl, employed under the " villicus " or bailiff of the lands belong-ing to the monastery of St Hilda at Whitby. He had arrived at mature age, and had embraced Christianity at the call of the devoted Irishmen who from Iona and from Lindisfarne, through two-thirds of the 7th century, spread the light of faith through the regions of northern England. He used to attend festive meetings; but when the song went round, and the harp was passed into his hands, Caedmon, ignorant of the rough old battle-songs of the heathen time, could sing nothing. On one such occasion he is said to have left the feast and gone to the stables, where it was his turn that night to attend to the horses and plough-oxen. He fell asleep, and dreamed that a person appeared to him, who, calling him by his name, said, " Caedmon, sing me something." On his replying that he could not sing, and that on this account he had left the revellers, the other replied, " Nevertheless thou shalt sing forme." " What," said Caedmon," must I sing?" "Sing," he answered, "of the beginning of created beings" (prin-cipium creaturarum). Thereupon Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard or learned, praising and magnifying the Creator who had made heaven and earth for the children of men. Awaking from his sleep he remembered the verses which had come to him in his dream, and added others to them.

In the morning he went to the bailiff who was over him and told him what had happened ; the bailiff took him to the abbess. St Hilda assembled a company of pious and learned persons, and before them trial was made of Caedmon's gift. He told his story, and repeated the erses, and they all judged that he had received an inspiration from above. They explained to him then and there a passage from holy writ, and desired him to versify it. He went away and returned the next morning with his task most excellently performed. The abbess then received him " cum omnibus suis" (it is not easy to determine whether this phrase applies to his kith and kin or merely to his worldly goods) into the monastery; and there he lived as a monk for the remainder of his life, employing diligently his leisure hours in the cultivation of the gift which he had received. The English poets who, up to the time when Bede wrote, had attempted to write religious poems in imitation of Caedmon, had, in the historian's opinion, fallen far short of him. How long he lived in the monastery we are not informed. The narrative of his death, beautiful in its piety and simplicity, relates how, after an illness of fourteen days, he desired to be removed to the infirmary, where, on the same night, after receiving the Eucharist by way of viaticum, and " signing himself with the sign of the holy cross," he sank into a peaceful slumber from which he never woke.

Florence of Worcester speaks of him, under the year 680, as that celebrated monk of St Hilda's Abbey who had received from heaven the free gift of poetic inspiration. William of Malmesbury, in the Gesta Pontificum (lib. iii. § 116), says that his relics had been discovered at Whitby shortly before he wrote (early in the 12th century), and had been, according to popular report, the occasion of miracles.

An important question remains—whether Caedmon was really the author of the metrical paraphrase of Genesis, Exodus, part of the book of Daniel, &c, which usually goes by his name. The unique MS. containing this paraphrase came into the hands of Archbishop Usher in the 17th century, and was by him given to the French scholar, Francis Dujon, better known as "Junius," who bequeathed it to the Bodleian Library It is in a hand of the latter part of the 10th century, and contains no indication of authorship. The poem opens as follows:—

Us is riht mice! tliaet we rodera weard, Wereda wuldor-cining, wordum herigen,—

(For us it is very right that we should praise with our words the Guardian of the heavens, the glorious King of hosts.)

A number of very curious illustrations, etchings heightened with green and red colour, are in the earlier portion of the MS.; engravings of them may be seen in the 24th volume of the Archceologia. Obviously the only means of identifying this anonymous poem as the work of Caedmon is to compare it, as to its opening and contents, with the poem described by Bede. The substance of Caedmon's opening, according to Bede, was this : " Now we ought to praise the author of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and His counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory. How He, since He is eternal God, is the author of all wonders, who, the Almighty Guardian of the human race, first created for the sons of men the heaven, to be the roof of their abode, and afterwards the earth." The opening of the paraphrase, though more diffuse, agrees with that here described pretty well as to its general meaning, except that the heavens are represented in it as created for the angels rather than for the children of men, who do not come upon the scene till later. Were there no other evidence, it might seem not unreasonable to identify the paraphase with the poem of Caedmon. But here a new difficulty meets us. King Alfred translated Bede's Eccle-siastical History, and when he comes to this passage he gives us a metrical version of Bede's Latin description of the opening, which he seems to intend his hearers to take for the ipsissima verba of Caedmon. Of this there are two indications :—first, he renders Bede's words, " quorum [sc. versuum] iste est sensus," into "thara endebyrdnes this is," "their order is this;'' secondly, he omits a long sentence immediately following the description of the opening, in which Bede explains that from the difficulty of translating verses literally from one language into another he has merely given the sense and not the " ordo ipse verborum." Now Alfred tells us that he does give the order (endebyrdnes) of the words, and he leaves untranslated the passage which affirms that only the general sense is given The verses
which he inserts begin thus :—

Nu we sceolon herian heofon-rices weard, Mctodes mihte and his mod-gethone,—

(Now must we praise the Warder of the heavenly kingdom, the might of the Creator, and the thought of His mind.)

In short, Bede's description is turned with great literalness into Anglo-Saxon verses. But are these Caedmon's ? If they are, then the paraphrase is not the work of Caedmon; for not one line in the opening as given by Alfred agrees with the paraphrast's opening However, in spite of the circumstances mentioned above, the judgment of criticism will not identify Alfred's verses with the true work of Caedmon They are so bald, so literal, that the conviction 201 ces itself upon us that Alfred is here merely translating from Bede's Latin, and amusing himself with making his version metrical On the other hand the paraphrast is a genuine poet; variety, force, and colour are the ever-present attributes of his poetic diction; his imagination is bold and fertile ; his moral purpose clear and pervading—in fact he is just such a man as we should conceive the real Caedmon to have been.

The other point of comparison between the paraphrase and Bede's description relates to the contents of Caedmon's poem. " He sang," says the historian, " the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis; and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and His ascension into heaven ; the coming of the. Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles ; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven." With this account the contents of the paraphrase which we have agree, up tc a certain point, remarkably well. It may be said, generally, to embrace the whole history of Genesis, except that portion which relates to events posterior to the time of Isaac. It then passes to the history of Moses and his statutes, " Mo"ses domas," briefly giving the thread of events till it arrives at the passage through the Bed Sea, on which the writer enlarges with evident enjoyment. An abrupt transition is then made to the book of Daniel; the story of the three children saved out of the fiery furnace is told ; Daniel's dream-wisdom is set forth, and the doom denounced against Belshazzar. Then what is called the second book of the paraphrase, the beginning of which coincides with a change of handwriting in the MS., commences, and now the resemblance to Bede's description ceases. This book opens with the complaints of the fallen angels in hell and the lamentations of the souls detained in the Limbus Patrum ; the descent of Christ after his passion to liberate these souls is described; the resurrection is barely mentioned, but the intercourse of Christ with his apostles previous to his ascension, and the ascension itself, are told at some length. The book concludes with a description of the terrors of the Day of Judgment. Such a poem cannot be said to corres-pond with Bede's description; but then it must be remembered that, partly on account of the change of hand and of subject, partly on account of the presence in it of later linguistic forms, the ascription of this second book of the paraphrase to the author of the first has always been held problematical On the whole, although the grounds of a confident judgment do not exist, the analysis of the evidence here attempted points to the conclusion that the first book of the paraphrase, though not the second, may with considerable probability be assigned to Caedmon.

Some writers have assigned other extant poems to Caedmon, e.g., the Halga Rod (Holy Rood) of the Vercelli codex, a passage in which has been found to tally with the
Runic inscription on the Ruthwell Cross, and also the frag-ment called Judith, in the MS. volume containing Beowulf. But the evidence in favour of either supposition may be set down as nil ; nor does the style in Judith, still less in the Halga Rod, agree with that of the Paraphrast. (T. A.)

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