Caedmon’s Hymn

Disk Fibula, 7th century. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Caedmon’s Hymn is the name given to a short poem in Old English, described by Bede in his Latin Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English people). Bede completed his history around 731 (he died in 735). As Bede tells the story in the fourth book of his history, Caedmon (c. 657 – 684) was a brother at the double monastery at Whitby in the time of the abbess Hilda, responsible for caring for the animals. Bede writes that Caedmon left an entertainment one night because he did not know how to sing (how to compose, that is) songs, and fell asleep with the animals. In a dream, he saw a figure who told him to sing, and when Caedmon said he could not, the figure persisted, and instructed him to sing about creation. Caedmon produced the short poem in his dream, and Bede goes on to say that the next morning, Caedmon remembered the poem and also added to it, and that over his years at Whitby, he composed many poems on sacred themes.

The only poetry we have by Caedmon, however, is the short poem transmitted by Bede, and its history is complicated. Bede wrote in Latin, and he makes it clear that his Latin version is just an approximation of the Old English original:

Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus: We are now to praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory. How He, being the eternal God, became the author of all miracles, who first, as almighty preserver of the human race, created heaven for the sons of men as the roof of the house, and next the earth. This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness. (Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, chapter 24; from the Medieval Sourcebook at Fordham University)

The Story of Caedmon’s Hymn is a brief page about the poem’s creation, with manuscript images, at the British Library.

The Old English version of the poem reaches us in two ways. First, some Latin manuscripts of the Historia include an Old English version of the poem as a marginal gloss: the example on the right is from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 43, fol. 129r (photo © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; click the image to go to the original). You can see the Old English poem in red, below the Latin text block.

Second, the Historia ecclesiastica was translated into Old English, and of course those translations included Old English versions of Caedmon’s poem. There are variations across the different manuscripts: you can read more about these variations at Caedmon’s Hymn: The West Saxon Version, by Martin Foys, and at Caedmon’s Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Edition, and Archive, by Daniel Paul O’Donnell.

The example of the Old English version of the Historia, to the left, is from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41, p. 322 (reproduced from the Parker Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License). Click the image to go to a full digitization of the manuscript.

The text starts with the large N in the first line. I transcribe and translate it below. There are a few characters you might not recognize: ƿ (wynn) is w; þ (thorn) is th; ð (eth) is also th. My translation is simply intended to help you follow along with the words. For a translation from a different version, by an expert in Old English, see The Story of Caedmon’s Hymn.

Nu ƿe herıgan sculon

heofonrıces ƿeard metodes mıhte

7 hıs mod geþanc ƿeorc ƿuldor gode

sƿa he ƿundra fela ece drıhten ord

astealde he ærest sceop eorðan bear-

num heofon to hrofe halıg scyp

pend þe mıddan geard mann cynnes

ƿeard ece drıhten æfter teode

fyrum foldan frea ælmıhtıg

Now we should praise

The keeper of the heavenly kingdom, the maker’s might,

And his mind’s thought, the work of the Father of glory –

How he each of the wonders, eternal Lord, from the beginning

Established. He first shaped the earth for men (lit. children, sons)

Heaven as a roof, holy Shaper,

Then the middle-earth; Guardian of mankind,

Eternal lord, afterwards made

The earth for men, Almighty lord.

The example above is from one of the “eorðan” (earth) variations of the poem; in other versions, the phrase is not “eorðan bearnum” but “aelda b(e)arnum,” usually translated as sons or children of men.