Cædmon's Hymn

Cædmon's "Hymn" is a short Old English poem originally composed by Cædmon, a supposedly illiterate cow-herder who was, according to Bede, able to sing in honour of God the Creator, using words that he had never heard before. It was composed between 658 and 680 and is the oldest recorded Old English poem, being composed within living memory of the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England. It is also one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse.

The "Hymn" is Cædmon's sole surviving composition. It was designed to be sung from memory and was later preserved in written form by others, surviving today in at least 19 verified manuscript copies. The poem has passed down from a Latin translation by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It 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.


Bede (Bædæ - as written on his tomb stone) wrote about the poet and his work in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, book 4, chapter 24. According to Bede, Cædmon was an illiterate cow-herder "who was actually employed by the monastery of Whitby" and 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 of Whitby. 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.

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 19 verified manuscript copies. 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, and also one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse. Within Old English, only the inscriptions upon the Ruthwell Cross (doubtful) or Franks Casket (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 witnesses

Cædmon's Hymn is known to have been copied in twenty one medieval manuscripts of Bede's Latin Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum or its Old English translation. Nineteen of these texts exist in their original state today. MS 134, Tournai, Bibliothèque de la Ville was destroyed during World War II. The section containing Cædmon's Hymn in MS Cotton Otho B. xi, London, British Museum was destroyed in the 1731 Cottonian fire. However, the bare text survives through transcription (MS Additional 43703, London, British Library) made by Laurence Nowell in the 16th century.

Even though MS Bodley 163, Oxford, Bodleian Library survives today, a corrector's attempt to remove the poem from the text has made it largely illegible.

  • MS 8245-57, Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale
  • MS 41, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College
  • MS R. 5. 22, Cambridge, Trinity College
  • MS Kk. 3. 18, Cambridge, University Library
  • MS Kk. 5. 16, Cambridge, University Library ("The Moore Bede")
  • MS 547 [334], Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale
  • MS P. 5.i, Hereford, Cathedral Library
  • MS Additional 43703, London, British Library
  • MS Cotton Otho B. xi, London, British Museum
  • MS s.n, London, College of Arms
  • MS Bodley 163, Oxford, Bodleian Library
  • MS Hatton 43, Oxford, Bodleian Library
  • MS Laud Misc. 243, Oxford, Bodleian Library
  • MS Tanner 10, Oxford, Bodleian Library ("The Tanner Bede")
  • MS 279, Oxford, Corpus Christi College
  • MS Lat. 31, Oxford, Lincoln College
  • MS Lat. 105, Oxford, Magdalen College
  • MS Lat 5237, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale
  • MS Q. v. I. 18, St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia ("The Leningrad Bede")
  • MS HM. 35300, San Marino CA, Huntington Library
  • MS 134, Tournai, Bibliothèque de la Ville
  • MS I, Winchester, Cathedral

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. 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.

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.

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 verse's 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.

The following Old English text is a normalized reading of manuscript M, the Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk. 5. 16). This mid-8th century Northumbrian text is one of the oldest extant copies of the text.

Form and role in Old English prosody

Cædmon's Hymn was 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 Christianisation 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. 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.

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" of the piece.

In seeking to understand the mechanics of the oral Old English verse, practitioners of oral-formulaic analysis have tried to duplicate the supposed creating process of Anglo-Saxon poets. They posit that Old English poetry does indeed have a traditional formulaic style, and that this explains phrasal resemblances between various Anglo-Saxon poems; especially the work of Francis Magoun was highly influential, though his conclusions were doubted within a decade after his seminal publications on the subject, ("The Oral- Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Poetry", 1953, and "Bede's Story of Caedmon: The Case History of an Anglo-Saxon Oral Singer", 1955) and "the presence of formulae in verse (a critical element in defining oral character) is ambiguous evidence at best".

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.

Originality and significance

Cædmon utilised 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"; inasmuch as the content of the hymn might strike us as conventional or "banal", according to Malone (1961), "we are led astray by our knowledge of later poetry".

Online Editions

Daniel O'Donnell's 2005 CD-ROM edition, Cædmon’s Hymn: A multimedia study, edition and archive (SEENET / Boydell & Brewer: 2005) is now available in an online archive as well: https://caedmon.seenet.org

In 2019, Martin Foys used the Digital Mappa 2.0 platform to produce an open access scholarly edition of seven manuscript witnesses for the West Saxon text of the poem: Cædmon's Hymn: the West Saxon Versions (The Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison: 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/12

Appearances in popular culture



Further reading

  • Altman, Rochelle (2008). "Hymnody, Graphotactics, and 'Cædmon's Hymn'". Philological Review. 34 (2): 1–27.
  • Bammesberger, Alfred (2008). "Nu Scylun Hergan (Caedmon's Hymn, 1a)". ANQ. 21 (4): 2–6. doi:10.3200/anqq.21.4.2-6. S2CID 161640238.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Frantzen, Allen J.; Hines, John, eds. (2007). Cædmon's Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede Six Essays. Morganstown: West Virginia University Press. ISBN 9781933202228.
  • Fry, Donald K. (1974). "Cædmon as a Formulaic Poet". Forum for Modern Language Studies. 10 (3): 227–47. doi:10.1093/fmls/X.3.227.
    • 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.
  • Hoover, David (1985). "Evidence for Primacy of Alliteration in Old English Metre."Anglo-Saxon England 14: p. 75-96.
  • Kiernan, Kevin (2002). "Reading Cædmon's "Hymn" with Someone Else's Glosses." Old English Literature Critical Essays. Ed. Roy Liuzza. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 103-24.
  • O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien (1990). Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.
  • Magennis, Hugh (2011). The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–35. ISBN 9780521734653.

External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Cædmon's Hymn, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.