On this day: St. CÊdmon

On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Cædmon, "the father of English Sacred Song. Fell asleep hard by, 680."

Cædmon was an old man who lived at St. Hilda's monastery at Whitby. When a beer party (gebeorscipe) was held, it was the Saxons' custom to pass a harp (hearpan) and take turns singing poems.

Click here to see what the Saxon harp looked and sounded like.

What we know of Cædmon comes from Bede's History of the English People. Click here to read his chapter on Cædmon in Old English with a modern English translation. (Notice the use of the word "housel" for Eucharist.) There is also Bede's Latin original, with a modern English translation.

(The links to audio recordings of Cædmon's Hymn do not work, but Professor Robert Fulk's beautiful rendition may be heard by clicking Note 26 at the bottom of the Wiki article on Cædmon. To follow Fulk's reading, see the Northumbrian dialect version of the poem just above the notes.)

Cædman had been "established in worldly life" before coming to the monastery, but he "had never learned any songs". When the harp was passed him, he "arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house".

On the night Bede describes, Cædman had been assigned to the stables to guard the horses. He fell asleep and dreamed that a man stood by him. The man said,

'Cædmon, sing me something.' Then he answered and said: 'I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.' Again he said, he who was speaking with him: 'Nevertheless, you must sing.' Then he said: 'What must I sing?' Said he: 'Sing to me of the first Creation.' When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:

Nu we sculon herigean heofonrices weard,

meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc,

weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,

ece drihten, or onstealde.

He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum

heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;

þa middangeard moncynnes weard,

ece drihten, æfter teode

firum foldan, frea ælmihtig."

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