CÆDMON (sometimes corruptly written Cedmon), Saint (fl. 670), the most celebrated of the vernacular poets of Northumbria, and the reputed author of the Anglo-Saxon metrical paraphrases of the Old Testament, certainly lived in the seventh century, but the exact dates of his birth and death are unknown. The only chronological data we possess are the facts that he entered the monastery of Streaneshalch (Whitby) during the rule of the Abbess Hild, i.e. between 658 and 680, and that he was already somewhat advanced in life when he became a monk. Pits assigns his death to the year 676, and other writers to 670, but these dates appear to be quite arbitrarily fixed. It has been frequently stated, on the supposed authority of Florence of Worcester, that Cædmon died in 680. Florence, however, merely says that Hild died in that year, and it is probable that if Cædmon's death had taken place in the same year as that of his patroness Bæda would not have failed to make some remark on the coincidence.
Respecting Cædmon's personal history we have no other authoritative information than what is contained in a single chapter of Bæda's ‘Ecclesiastical History’ (iv. 24). Bæda describes him as an unlearned man of great piety and humility, who had received by divine grace such a gift of sacred poetry that he was enabled, after short meditation, to render into English verse whatever passages were translated to him out of the holy scriptures. Until quite late in life he was engaged in secular occupations, and was so far from showing any sign of poetical genius that whenever he happened to be in company where he perceived that he was about to be called upon in his turn to sing a song to the harp, he was accustomed to leave the table and return home. On one of these occasions, having quitted a party of friends and occupied himself with the care of the cattle to which on that night it was his duty to attend, he fell asleep and dreamed that he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Cædmon, sing something to me.’ He answered that he did not know how to sing, and that it was for that reason that he had come away from the supper-table. The command, however, was repeated, and Cædmon asked, ‘What shall I sing?’ ‘Sing,’ answered the voice, ‘the beginning of created things.’ Then Cædmon began to sing the praise of the Creator in words which he had never heard, and which, Bæda says, were to the following effect: ‘Now ought we to praise the founder of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator, and His wise design, the deeds of the Father of glory; how He, eternal God, was the author of all things wonderful, who first created for the sons of men the heaven for a roof, and afterwards the earth—He, the almighty guardian of mankind.’ Bæda explains that his Latin rendering gives only the general sense, not the order of the words. On awaking Cædmon remembered the verses which he had sung, and added to them others of the same character. He related his dream to the steward (villicus) under whom he worked—probably the farm-bailiff of the abbey of Streaneshalch—who conducted him into the presence of the abbess, Hild, and her monks. When they had heard his story they at once perceived that the untaught herdsman had received a miraculous gift. In order to prove him further they translated to him some passage of Scripture, and requested him, if he were able, to turn it into verse. On the following day he returned, having accomplished his task, and was then received into the monastery, where he continued until his death. The abbess directed that he should be instructed in the history of the Old and New Testaments, and whatever he thus learned he reproduced from time to time in beautiful and touching verse, ‘so that his teachers were glad to become his hearers.’ We are told that ‘he sang of the creation of the world, the origin of mankind, and all the history of Genesis; of the departure of Israel from Egypt and their entrance into the land of promise, and of many other parts of Scripture history; of the Lord's incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension; of the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the teaching of the apostles. He also made many poems concerning the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom.’ Bæda says that many persons had attempted to imitate Cædmon's religious poetry, but none had succeeded in equalling him. On other than sacred themes he composed nothing. How long Cædmon lived after his entrance into the monastery we do not know. He died after an illness of fourteen days, which was apparently so slight that no one expected it to end fatally. On the night of his death he surprised his attendant by asking to be removed to the apartment reserved for those who were supposed to be near their end. His request was complied with, and he passed the night in pleasant and jesting conversation. After midnight he asked for the Eucharist. Those who were with him thought it strange that such a wish should be expressed by one who seemed so full of cheerfulness, and who showed no indication of the approach of death; but he insisted, and his desire was granted. He then inquired of those present whether they were in peace and charity towards him. They replied that they were so, and in answer to their inquiry he said, ‘My mind is in perfect peace towards all the servants of God.’ Having partaken of the Eucharist, he asked how long it was till the hour at which the brethren were called to their nocturnal psalms. He was informed that the time was near. ‘It is well,’ he said; ‘let us await that hour.’ He then made the sign of the cross, and, laying back his head on the pillow, shortly afterwards passed away in sleep.
William of Malmesbury informs us in his ‘Gesta Pontificum,’ which was written about 1125, that the bones of Cædmon, together with those of other holy persons buried at Whitby, had recently been discovered, and had been removed to a place of honour, probably in the abbey church of Whitby. He adds that Cædmon's claims to be recognised as a saint had been attested by many miracles which had been wrought through his intercession. Like most of the other early English saints, Cædmon seems to have obtained his place in the calendar not by any formal act of canonisation, but by the general voice of his countrymen. The Bollandists place his festival on 11 Feb., on the authority of John Wilson's ‘Martyrology,’ and they remark that, owing to a misprint in the margin of Wilson's book, the date is frequently given as 10 Feb. Other writers have mentioned 12 Feb.
It is difficult to read the vivid and beautiful account given by Bæda without feeling that it bears in general the stamp of truth. The nearness of Bæda's place of residence to Streaneshalch would give him ample opportunities of obtaining information from persons to whom Cædmon had been intimately known, and the diligence which he bestowed on the collection of his materials must be evident to every student of his works. The story of the beginning of Cædmon's poetical career is no doubt more or less legendary, but the facts that he was an inmate of the abbey of Streaneshalch, and that he was of humble origin and unlearned, are too well attested to admit of any reasonable doubt. Sir Francis Palgrave, however (Archæologia, xxiv. 341), has attempted to show that the history of Cædmon is entirely fictitious. He refers to a Latin fragment entitled ‘Prefatio in Librum antiquum Saxonice conscriptum,’ which states (to quote Palgrave's account of its contents) that ‘Ludovicus Pius, being desirous to furnish his subjects with a version of the scriptures, applied to a Saxon bard of great talent and fame. The poet, peasant, or husbandman, when entirely ignorant of his art, had been instructed in a dream to render the precepts of the divine law into the verse and measure of his native language. His translation, now unfortunately lost, to which the fragment was prefixed, comprehended the whole of the Bible. The text of the original was interspersed with mystic allusions, and the beauty of the composition was so great, that in the opinion of the writer no reader perusing the verse could doubt the source of the poetic inspiration of the bard.’ It thus appears that the metrical paraphrases of Scripture current in Germany were, like those current in Northumbria, ascribed to the authorship of an unlettered peasant who had received his poetical vocation in a dream. From this fact Palgrave infers that the history of Cædmon is ‘one of those tales floating upon the breath of tradition, and localised from time to time in different countries and in different ages.’ This argument, however, is entirely without weight. The document quoted by Palgrave is well known to scholars. It was first printed in 1562 by Flacius Illyricus from an unknown source, and has been prefixed by modern editors to the Old-Saxon poem of the ‘Heliand,’ which is a paraphrase of the gospel history written in the ninth century. There is sufficient reason for believing that the ‘Heliand’ is really a part of that metrical version of the Bible with which the fragment originally stood in connection. Now when we examine the ‘Prefatio’ and the older ‘Versus de Poeta’ printed along with it, it is obvious that the story which they contain is simply an inaccurate version of Bæda's own account of Cædmon. The testimony of these documents, indeed, practically amounts to ascribing the authorship of the ‘Heliand’ to the Northumbrian poet. Whether this testimony is entitled to belief is a question which we shall afterwards have to consider.
The incident of Cædmon's dream is on other grounds open to strong suspicion. The story is just such a legend as would be naturally suggested by the desire to account for the wonderful phenomenon of the display of great poetic genius on the part of an unlettered rustic, and closely similar traditions are found in the literature of many different nations and periods. Palgrave's argument against the authenticity of Cædmon's biography is supposed to derive support from another consideration. He points out that the name of Cædmon has no obvious English etymology, while, on the other hand, it bears a curious resemblance to certain Hebrew and Chaldee words. Kadmôn in Hebrew has the two meanings of ‘eastern’ and ‘ancient;’ Âdâm Kadmôn (the ancient or primeval Adam) is a prominent figure in the philosophic mythology of the Rabbins; and Be-Kadmîn (in the beginning) is the first word of the Chaldee Targum on Genesis. On these grounds Palgrave concluded that the real author of the body of sacred poetry spoken of by Bæda was a monk who had travelled in Palestine and was learned in Rabbinical literature, and that he assumed the Hebrew name of Cædmon, either in allusion to the subjects on which he wrote, or in order to describe himself as ‘a visitor from the East.’ He endeavours to show that there is no improbability in crediting an English monk of the seventh century with the possession of a considerable knowledge of Hebrew; but his arguments are not likely to be accepted by any one who is intimately acquainted with the state of scholarship in England at that period. It is surprising to find that Palgrave's etymological speculations are mentioned with approval by Mr. T. Arnold in the article ‘Cædmon’ in the ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ Mr. Arnold does not indeed deny the truth of Bæda's account of the monk of Streaneshalch, but he supposes that some learned pilgrim returned from the Holy Land had bestowed upon the Northumbrian poet a Hebrew nickname, in allusion to the themes of which he sang.
This fanciful hypothesis scarcely deserves serious refutation. Nevertheless, it is quite true that the name of Cædmon has no English etymology. Sandras and Bouterwek, indeed, have endeavoured to explain it as meaning ‘boatman’ or ‘pirate,’ from the word ced, a boat, which occurs in one of the Anglo-Saxon glossaries printed by Mone. Unfortunately this word is a mere error of transcription for the well-known ceol. The truth seems to be that Cædmon is an Anglicised form of the common British name Catumanus (in modern Welsh Cadfan). The first element of the compound (catu, battle) occurs in the name of a British king whom Bæda calls Cædwalla. If this view be correct, we may infer that the Northumbrian poet was probably of Celtic descent.
We have now to inquire what portion of the poetry which has been ascribed to Cædmon can claim to be regarded as his genuine work. It has been already stated that Bæda furnishes a Latin rendering of the verses which Cædmon composed in his dream, adding that he only gives the sense, and not the order of the words. Now in King Ælfred's translation of Bæda this poem is quoted in Anglo-Saxon metre, and the translator alters Bæda's language so as to make him say that he does give the order of the words. The natural assumption would be that Ælfred was acquainted with the original English form of the poem, and had introduced it into his translation. This conclusion, however, has been impugned by many writers, who contend that the English verses are a mere retranslation from Bæda's Latin. A fact which strongly tends to prove their genuineness is that they are found, in Northumbrian orthography, in a manuscript of Bæda's ‘History’ now at Cambridge, the handwriting of which refers it to the middle of the eighth century. It is true that the page containing these Northumbrian verses is in a different hand from the rest of the manuscript, and may possibly have been written at a considerably later date, though Professor Zupitza, who has carefully inspected the codex, offers some strong arguments to the contrary. Some scholars, moreover, have tried to prove that the dialect and versification are not precisely those of Cædmon's time. But our knowledge of early Northumbrian is so limited that it is impossible to attach much importance to these objections. We must either admit that the Cambridge manuscript gives the actual words which Bæda had before him, or we must suppose that some one took the trouble to render Ælfred's verses into Northumbrian spelling in order to insert them in the manuscript. The latter hypothesis is so beset with difficulties that we are fairly entitled to conclude that the lines are really the original of Bæda's quotation. The words are as follows:—
Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard,
metudæs mæcti end his modgidanc,
uerc uuldurfadur; sue he uundra gihuæs,
eci dryctin, or astelidæ.
He ærist scop ælda barnum
heben til hrofe, haleg scepen;
tha middungeard, moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin; æfter tiadæ
firum foldu, frea allmectig.
These verses have certainly no great poetic merit, and it has been made an argument against their genuineness that they possess no excellence sufficient to account for the high estimation in which Cædmon was held by Bæda. The objection does not appear formidable. We need not precisely assent to the whimsical remark of Ettmüller, that the ‘soporiferous’ character of the lines confirms the tradition that they were composed in a dream; but it should be remembered that, according to Bæda's testimony, they are the work of a beginner in the poetic art. On the other hand, the fact that Bæda believed the poem to be Cædmon's does not absolutely prove its genuineness, as the composition may be merely part of the legend relating to the poet's divine call.
Another composition which has been ascribed to Cædmon is the really fine poem called ‘The Dream of the Holy Rood.’ A fragment of this poem, in the original Northumbrian dialect, is inscribed in runic letters on the sculptured stone cross set up at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. The ornamentation of the Ruthwell cross is so strikingly identical in character with that of the similar monument at Bewcastle as to suggest the conclusion that the two are not far apart in date, if indeed they were not wrought by the same artist, and the historical allusions contained in the Bewcastle inscription assign it to the end of the seventh century—that is to say, to a time at which Cædmon may have been still living. After the inscription on the Ruthwell cross had been deciphered by J. M. Kemble in 1840, it was discovered that a West-Saxon version of the entire poem existed in a manuscript preserved at Vercelli, which also contained four other poems in the West-Saxon dialect. The suggestion that ‘The Dream of the Holy Rood’ was composed by Cædmon is due in the first instance to the late Dr. Haigh, and it was adopted by Professor George Stephens, of Copenhagen, who believed that he had found decisive proof of its correctness in the words ‘Cadmon mæ fauœðo’ (Cadmon made me), which he read on the top-stone of the Ruthwell cross. The reading of the word ‘Cadmon’ on the stone is perfectly certain, though that of the other two words is open to some doubt. Professor Stephens's conclusion was for a time accepted by all English and some German scholars. But the words on the top of the cross are an example of a formula which is of constant occurrence in runic texts, and which in every known instance indicates the person who carved the monument. That in this particular case it can have been employed to denote the author of the verses which form a part of the inscription is in the highest degree unlikely. We must therefore conclude that the sculptor of the Ruthwell cross was a namesake of the Northumbrian poet. This conclusion leaves untouched the question of the authorship of the ‘Dream.’ At first sight, indeed, it seems almost incredible that the carver of the monument should have borne the same name as the poet whose verses he inscribed upon it. But the improbability of the coincidence is diminished by the consideration that the name is likely to have been a very common one in a district whose population must have been largely of Celtic descent; and it is worthy of note that the neighbourhood of Ruthwell is known to have been inhabited, till long after the seventh century, by a Welsh-speaking people. That the ‘Dream’ belongs to the age of Cædmon is certain; and when we consider that it is one of the noblest specimens of Old-English poetry we possess, there seems to be considerable plausibility in ascribing it to the man whom Bæda regarded as by far the greatest religious poet of his time. The strongest argument against this view is based upon the resemblance which the style of the poem, at least in its amplified West-Saxon form, bears to the undoubted work of Cynewulf; but it is by no means clear that the poetry of Cynewulf may not be largely an adaptation of older compositions. An engraving of the Ruthwell cross, with a transcript and a translation of the inscription, is given in Stephens's ‘Old Northern Runic Monuments,’ i. 405, iii. 189; and the West-Saxon version of the ‘Dream’ from the Vercelli manuscript will be found in Grein's ‘Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie,’ ii. 143.
The works to which the celebrity of Cædmon's name in modern times is chiefly due are the so-called sacred epics, or metrical versions of Scripture history, which have been preserved in a manuscript of tenth-century date now in the Bodleian Library. The first part of this manuscript is all in one handwriting, and contains paraphrases of portions of the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. The second part seems to have been written by three different scribes, and consists of fragments of three poems, of which the first relates to the fall of the angels and the temptation of man; the second to the descent of Christ into hell, His resurrection and ascension, and the last judgment; and the third to the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. With the exception of a portion of the paraphrase of Daniel, of which a copy, materially differing from the Bodleian text, occurs in the Exeter book, none of these pieces has been found in any other manuscript. It will be at once perceived that the list of subjects just given corresponds precisely, so far as it goes, with Bæda's account of the poetry of Cædmon. No author's name appears in the manuscript, but Franciscus Junius (François Dujon), who edited the poems in 1655, conjectured that they were the work of Cædmon, by whose name they have subsequently been known. The fact that these compositions, as we now have them, are in WestSaxon orthography would not of itself constitute a reason for rejecting Junius's conclusion, as we know that in other instances Northumbrian poetry was transcribed into the southern dialect. Modern criticism, however, has shown that the various portions of the so-called Cædmon poetry exhibit diversities of style inconsistent with the supposition of common authorship, and many passages indicate on the part of their authors an amount of learning which the monk of Streaneshalch cannot have possessed. The most probable conclusion seems to be that the rude Northumbrian verses of Cædmon were regarded by the writers of the Ælfredian and later ages as raw material, which they elaborated with unequal degrees of poetic skill. On the assumption that the Anglo-Saxon ‘sacred epics’ are more or less based upon the songs of Cædmon, there is reason for believing that, with the marked exception of the ‘Exodus,’ they are in general greatly inferior to their originals. Their authors seem to have been men to whom religious edification was more important than poetry, and who often substituted a mere paraphrase of the scriptural text for the free and imaginative handling of the Northumbrian poet.
There is, however, among the poetry contained in the Bodleian manuscript one long passage which seems to be essentially the product of Cædmon's daring and original genius. This is the fragment describing the temptation and fall of man, which the scribe has abruptly interpolated in the middle of the dreary metrical prose of the ‘Genesis.’ This fragment, which includes the lines 235–370 and 421–851 of Grein's edition (the lines 371–420 are by another hand), bears a striking resemblance in style to the Old-Saxon poem of the ‘Heliand,’ previously referred to. This resemblance, indeed, is so close, extending to very minute points of diction, that the two works cannot possibly be regarded as unconnected. The only question is what is the precise nature of the relation between them. Professor Sievers, who was the first to call attention to the facts, has endeavoured to prove that this portion of the ‘Genesis’ is a translation of an Old-Saxon poem by the author of the ‘Heliand.’ His principal argument is that several words and idioms characteristic of this passage are good Old-Saxon, but are found nowhere else in Anglo-Saxon. It is needless to say that the judgment of this distinguished scholar is deserving of the highest respect; but his conclusion appears to be open to grave objection. We must remember that the continental Saxons were evangelised by English missionaries; and, as Professor Stephens has forcibly urged, it is highly improbable that an ancient and cultured church like that of England should have adopted into its literature a poem written by a barbarian convert of its own missions. Moreover, Professor Sievers's linguistic arguments are not of overwhelming force. The Old-Saxon dialect is known to us almost exclusively from the ‘Heliand’ itself; and the extant remains of early Northumbrian are confined to a few insignificant fragments. It is therefore quite possible that the expressions which are common to the ‘Heliand’ and to the fragment under discussion, and peculiar to them, may have been derived from the old poetic vocabulary of Northumbria. Some of the phrases which distinguish the ‘Story of the Fall’ from the rest of the ‘Genesis’ occur also in Cædmon's ‘Hymn to the Creator,’ and the fervid and impassioned style which the former composition shares with the ‘Heliand’ reminds us strongly of that of ‘The Dream of the Holy Rood.’ It seems, therefore, a reasonable conclusion that the ‘Heliand,’ and its sister poem in Anglo-Saxon, are both of them translations (largely amplified, possibly, but retaining much of the original diction and spirit) from the verses of the Northumbrian poet. This result is confirmed by the testimony of the Latin preface to the ‘Heliand,’ which, as has been previously stated in this article, virtually ascribes the authorship of the poem to Cædmon himself.
Notwithstanding the astonishing general resemblance between the ‘Heliand’ and the Anglo-Saxon poem, there is one point of difference between the two works which is worthy of careful note. The ‘Story of the Fall,’ while following in the main the biblical narrative and the Latin poem of Avitus ‘De Origine Mundi,’ exhibits such deviations from these original sources as might be expected from a poet who, like Cædmon, had obtained his knowledge of them by hearsay and not by reading. It is surely the peasant Cædmon, and not any poet of literary and theological culture, who represents the transgression of Adam and Eve as an almost unavoidable error, deserving rather pity than blame, and who expresses his simple-hearted wonder that God should have permitted his children to be so terribly deceived. In the ‘Heliand’ touches of this kind are scarcely to be found. It would seem that the missionaries who adapted the work of Cædmon to the needs of their German converts were, as might naturally be expected, careful to bring its teaching into accord with the received standard of theological orthodoxy.
The ‘Exodus,’ though disfigured by a tasteless interpolation about the history of the patriarch, is the work of a true poet; but there is nothing to show how far the writer may have been indebted to his Northumbrian predecessor. Nor can any clear traces of Cædmon's original authorship be discerned in the ‘Daniel,’ which is a pleasing and graceful rendering of the Bible narrative. The wide divergence between the two texts of the ‘Azarias’ portion of this poem is a significant illustration of the freedom with which the Anglo-Saxon poets permitted themselves to rewrite the compositions of earlier authors.
The three fragments at the end of the Bodleian manuscript, which form what is called ‘The Second Book of Cædmon,’ or ‘Christ and Satan,’ appear to be the work of a single author, but it is not likely that they originally formed part of a continuous poem. They have considerable poetic merit, and so far as their substance is concerned have a certain affinity with the ‘Story of the Fall.’ But their smooth and monotonous rhythm is very unlike the rugged and expressive versification of that poem; and their vocabulary and phraseology are in general those of later Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is probable that these fragments should be regarded as a free rendering of portions of Cædmon's poems in the manner of a later period.
It is right to state that the views here put forward are in conflict with those which are maintained by many scholars of high authority. Professor ten Brink, for example, considers that the less poetical portion of the ‘Genesis’ is substantially Cædmon's, and that no other specimen of his work has come down to us except the ‘Hymn.’ But, in the first place, the assumption that a tame and prosaic style is characteristic of the infancy of Old-English sacred poetry is refuted by the evidence of the Ruthwell cross. And, in the second place, a servile paraphrase of the biblical text can only have proceeded from a writer who was able to read his Latin bible; to a poet who, like Cædmon, had to depend on his recollection of extemporised oral translations, such a performance would have been absolutely impossible.
No discussion of the ‘Cædmon’ of the Bodleian manuscript would be complete without some reference to the interesting question of the influence which it is supposed to have exercised upon Milton in the composition of ‘Paradise Lost.’ The resemblances in matter and expression between some passages of Milton's poems and the Anglo-Saxon ‘Genesis’ are so remarkable that it is difficult to regard them as fortuitous. On the other hand, Milton became blind three years before the publication of Junius's edition of ‘Cædmon’ in 1655, so that he can have had no opportunity of studying the book in its printed form. The manuscript, however, was given by Archbishop Ussher to Junius in 1651, and had been for some time previous in the archbishop's library. It seems possible, although no evidence of the fact has been produced, that Milton may have been personally acquainted with Junius, or that he may have numbered among his friends some student of Anglo-Saxon who may have given him an account of the contents of the precious manuscript.
Junius's edition of ‘Cædmon’ was published at Amsterdam in 1655, and some copies of it were issued by James Fletcher at Oxford in 1752, with some notes from Junius's manuscripts added at the end. Fletcher also published in 1754 copies of the fifty pictures with which the Bodleian manuscript is adorned. In 1832 the Society of Antiquaries of London published Thorpe's edition of ‘Cædmon,’ based upon the original manuscript, with an English translation and notes; and in the following year the society issued a magnificent volume containing facsimiles of the illustrations, accompanied by an essay by Sir Henry Ellis. In 1849–54 K. W. Bouterwek published at Gutersloh an edition of ‘Cædmon,’ in two volumes, with introduction, notes, a prose translation, and glossary. Copious extracts from the poems were given in Ettmüller's ‘Engla and Seaxna Scôpas and Bôceras,’ Quedlinburg, 1850, the text being substantially that of the previous editors. The latest complete edition is that of C. W. Grein, in his ‘Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie,’ Göttingen, 1857. Grein also published a German translation, in alliterative metre, in his ‘Dichtungen der Angelsachsen, stabreimend übersetzt,’ Göttingen, 1863. A careful revision of the text may be expected in the new edition of Grein's ‘Bibliothek,’ by Professor Wülcker, which is now in course of publication.