In chapter 24 (22) of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People Bede tells about England’s first known (as in named) poet – Caedmon.
Caedmon was ‘in the monastery of this Abbess’, i.e. Whitby where Hilde was the Abbess as mentioned in the previous chapter. He had lived in the ‘secular habit until he was well advance in years’ Bede tells us and had ‘never learned any songs’. This might in many ways be similar to being in a church today and not knowing any of the hymns. Rather than admit to his lack of knowledge or perhaps out of respect, when Caedmon saw the harp approaching him ‘he would rise up in the middle of the feasting, go out, and return home. So Bede is also informing us that they held feasts and that during that feast they used an early harp for participants to ‘sing in turn’ ‘for the sake of providing entertainment’.
Caedmon’s Hymn or Song
In Old and Middle English c.890–c.450, Elaine Treharne provides a translation of Cædmon’s Hymn (from the gloss found in a manuscript in St Petersburg) into today’s English:
Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,
The might of the Creator and his conception,
The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,
Eternal Lord, established the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,
The eternal Lord, afterwards made
The earth for men, the Lord almighty.
Another version giving a comparison of the original text and the modern English version is given here:
Nu sculon herigean / heofonrices Weard
(Now must we praise / heaven-kingdom's Guardian,)
Meotodes meahte / and his modgeþanc
(the Measurer's might / and his mind-plans,)
weorc Wuldor-Fæder / swa he wundra gehwæs
(the work of the Glory-Father, / when he of wonders of every one,)
ece Drihten / or onstealde
(eternal Lord, / the beginning established.)
He ærest sceop / ielda bearnum
(He first created / for men's sons)
heofon to hrofe / halig Scyppend
(heaven as a roof, / holy Creator;)
ða middangeard / moncynnes Weard
(then middle-earth / mankind's Guardian,)
ece Drihten / æfter teode
(eternal Lord / afterwards made --)
firum foldan / Frea ælmihtig.
(for men earth, / Master almighty.)
Eventually Caedmon was so admired for his ability to inspire others to ‘despise the world and to long for the heavenly life’ that he was admitted into the priesthood.
You can find out more about Caedmon’s Hymn at The British Library and Washington State University via the following links: