Today is the commemoration of Cædmon (fl. c. AD 657–684) in the Anglican communion: the earliest English poet whose name is known. Cædmon was an Anglo-Saxon lay brother at the double monastery of Streonæshalch (Whitby Abbey) during the abbacy (657–680) of St. Hilda (614–680). He was reputedly unaware of the “the art of song” but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 8th-century historian Bede. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational Christian poet.
Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in medieval sources, and one of only three of these for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived. His story is related in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”) by Bede who wrote,
There was in the Monastery of this Abbess [St Hilda] a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.
Cædmon’s only known surviving work is Cædmon’s Hymn, the nine-line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honor of God which he supposedly learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry. It is also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. In 1898, Cædmon’s Cross was erected in his honor in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Whitby.
The sole source of original information about Cædmon’s life and work is Bede’s Historia. According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess, believed to be St Hilda of Whitby. The abbess and her counselors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, by way of a test. When Cædmon returned the next morning with the requested poem, he was invited to take monastic vows. The abbess ordered her scholars to teach Cædmon sacred history and doctrine, which after a night of thought, Bede records, Cædmon turned into the most beautiful verse. According to Bede, Cædmon was responsible for a large number of splendid vernacular poetic texts on a variety of Christian topics. Here is the spoken version of Cædmon’s hymn in Northumbrian dialect (plus Modern English translation).
After a long and zealously pious life, Cædmon died like a saint: receiving a premonition of death, he asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice for the terminally ill where, having gathered his friends around him, he died after receiving the Holy Eucharist, just before nocturns. Although he is often listed as a saint, this is not confirmed by Bede. The details of Bede’s story, and in particular of the miraculous nature of Cædmon’s poetic inspiration, are not generally accepted by scholars as being entirely accurate, but there seems no good reason to doubt the existence of a poet named Cædmon. Bede’s narrative has to be read in the context of Christian belief at the time, and it shows at the very least that Bede, an educated and thoughtful man, believed Cædmon to be an important figure in the history of English intellectual and religious life.
Bede gives no specific dates in his story. Cædmon is said to have taken holy orders at an advanced age and it is implied that he lived at Streonæshalch at least in part during Hilda’s abbacy (657–680). Book IV Chapter 25 of the Historia appears to suggest that Cædmon’s death occurred at about the same time as the fire at Coldingham Abbey, an event dated in the E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to 679, but after 681 by Bede. The reference to his temporibus “at this time” in the opening lines of Chapter 25 may refer more generally to Cædmon’s career as a poet. However, the next datable event in the Historia ecclesiastica is King Ecgfrith’s raid on Ireland in 684 (Book IV, Chapter 26). Taken together, this evidence suggests an active period beginning between 657 and 680 and ending between 679 and 684.
We have no record of the music associated with Cædmon’s hymn in his lifetime, but it is sometimes put to some version of plain chant.
Whitby is both a sea port and a fishing port on the Yorkshire coast in what would have been the kingdom of Northumbria in Cædmon’s day. The exact nature of a monk’s diet in the north of England in the 7th century is very difficult to specify accurately, but we can make some educated guesses. The fact that Cædmon looked after the abbey’s animals seems to point to meat being on the menu for some of the residents some of the time. Also, fish would have been readily available. We have a few recipes for fish and meat for the period, largely invented based on limited documents. We also know that they ate a lot of pottage and pease pudding in that part of the country. So here’s a recipe for pease pudding, which is still popular in the northeast of England. It is often touted as an acquired taste which I do not understand at all.
Yorkshire Pease Pudding
7 oz/500g yellow split peas, soaked overnight in cold water
1 onion, peeled and quartered,
1 carrot, peeled and quartered
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp. malt vinegar
salt and white pepper
1 ¼ tbsp/20g butter, cut into chunks
Drain the soaked yellow peas and put them into a saucepan. Add the onion, carrot, bay leaves, and cover with cold water. Bring the peas to the boil, once boiling, lower the heat and simmer gently for an hour or until the peas are tender. Occasionally skim off any scum that rises to the surface.
Remove the onion, carrot, and bay leaves from the pan and then tip the peas into a blender or food processor. Pulse to a thick puree but do not blend all the way until smooth. The peas should be a little chunky. Pour the peas into a clean pan. Add the malt vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Gradually beat in the butter a cube at a time.
Keep the pease pudding warm until ready to serve. The pudding will thicken as it cools and thins again when hot.
Serve with ham steaks or fish.