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Cædmon's Hymn

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Folio 129r of the early eleventh-century Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 43, showing a page of Bede's Latin text, with Cædmon's Hymn added in the lower margin

Cædmon's Hymn is a short Old English poem attributed to Cædmon, a supposedly illiterate and unmusical cow-herder who was, according to the Northumbrian monk Bede (d. 735), miraculously empowered to sing in honour of God the Creator. The poem is Cædmon's only known composition.

The poem has a claim to being the oldest surviving English poem: if Bede's account is correct, the poem was composed between 658 and 680, in the early stages of the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England; even on the basis of the surviving manuscripts, the poem is the earliest securely dateable example of Old English verse.[1] Correspondingly, it is one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse, constituting a prominent landmark for the study of Old English literature and for the early use of traditional poetic form for Christian themes following the conversion of early medieval England to Christianity. Indeed, one scholar has argued that Bede perceived it as a continuation of Germanic praise poetry, which led him to include a Latin translation but not the original poem.[2]

The poem is also the Old English poem attested in the second largest number of manuscripts — twenty-one — after Bede's Death Song. These are all manuscripts of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. These manuscripts show significant variation in the form of the text, making it an important case-study for the scribal transmission of Old English verse.[3]

Text and translation[edit]

Cædmon's Hymn survives in Old English in twenty-one manuscripts, originally as marginal annotations to Bede's Latin account of the poem. Some of these manuscripts reflect the Northumbrian dialect of Bede and (putatively) of Cædmon, and some reflect the transfer of the poem into the West Saxon dialect. Whether due to change in oral tradition or scribal transmission, the text varies in different manuscripts. There is some debate as to the best translation of some of these variants.[4][5]

The following Old English text is a normalized reading of the oldest or second-oldest manuscript of the poem, the mid-eighth-century Northumbrian Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk. 5. 16). The translation notes key points of debate as to meaning, and variation in other manuscripts.

Although the different Old English versions do not diverge from one another enormously, they vary enough that researchers have been able to reconstruct five substantively different variants of the poem, witnessed by different groups of the twenty-one manuscripts.[7]: §5.1 The following list links to critical editions of each by Daniel O'Donnell:[7]

  • A Northumbrian recension characterised by the word aelda in line 5b.
  • A Northumbrian recension characterised by the word eordu in line 5b.
  • A West-Saxon recension characterised by the word ylda in line 5b (which accounts for all the texts of the Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica).
  • A West-Saxon recension characterised by the word eorðan in line 5b.
  • A late, West-Saxon recension characterised by the word eorðe in line 5b and extensive textual corruption.

One example of an attempted literary translation of Cædmon's Hymn (in this case of the eorðan recension) is Harvey Shapiro's 2011 rendering:[8]

Guardian of heaven     whom we come to praise
who mapped creation     in His thought's sinews
Glory-Father     who worked out each wonder
began with broad earth     a gift for His children
first roofed it with heaven     the Holy Shaper
established it forever     as in the beginning
called it middle kingdom     fenced it with angels
created a habitation     for man to praise His splendor


Bede's story[edit]

Cædmon's Hymn survives only in manuscripts of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which recounts the poem as part of an elaborate miracle-story. Bede's chronology suggests that these events took place under the abbacy of Hild of Whitby (658–80),[7]: §1 or in the decade after her death.[9] Whether Bede had this story directly from oral sources or whether he had access to a written account is a matter of debate,[10] but although world literature attests to many stories of poetic inspiration that recall Bede's, none is similar enough to be a likely source.[7]: §2[11][12]

According to Bede, Cædmon was an illiterate cow-herder employed at the monastery of Whitby who miraculously recited a Christian song of praise in Old English verse. In the story, Cædmon is attending a feast; when the revellers pass a harp around for all to sing a song, he leaves the hall, because he cannot contribute a song and feels ashamed. He falls asleep, and in a dream a man appears to him, and asks him to sing a song. Cædmon responds that he cannot sing, yet the man tells him to "Sing to me the beginning of all things". Cædmon is then able to sing verses and words that he had not heard of before. On waking, Cædmon reported his experience first to a steward then to Hild, the abbess of Whitby. She invites scholars to evaluate Cædmon's gift, and he is tasked with turning more divine doctrine into song. Hild is so impressed with Cædmon's poetic gift that she encourages him to become a monk. He learns the history of the Christian church and creates more poems, such as the story of Genesis and many other biblical stories. This impresses his teachers. Bede says that Cædmon, in composing verse, wanted to turn man from the love of sin to a love of good deeds. Cædmon is said to have died peacefully in his sleep after asking for the Eucharist and making sure he was at peace with his fellow men.[13][14]

The following Latin text is the prose paraphrase of Cædmon's poem which Bede presents in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Bede did not give the text in Old English:

"Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis, potentiam creatoris, et consilium illius facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille, cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit; qui primo filiis hominum caelum pro culmine tecti dehinc terram custos humani generis omnipotens creavit." Hic est sensus, non autem orde ipse uerborum, quae dormiens ille canebat; neque enim possunt carmina, quamuis optime conposita, ex alia in aliam linguam ad uerbum sine detrimento sui decoris ac dignitatis transferri.[15]

"Now we must praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how he, since he is the eternal God, was the Author of all marvels and first created the heavens as a roof for the children of men and then, the almightly Guardian of the human race, created the Earth." This is the sense but not the order of the words which he sang as he slept. For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity.[16]

Scholarly debate[edit]

Many scholars have more or less accepted Bede's story, supposing that Cædmon existed and did compose Cædmon's Hymn. They infer that Cædmon's poem then circulated in oral tradition, that Bede knew it as an oral poem, and that his Latin paraphrase of the poem was a close rendering of this text. They then infer that other members of Bede's community also knew this orally transmitted Old English poem by heart, and that the text added into the margins of manuscripts of his Historia ecclesiastica shortly after his death is essentially the same poem that Cædmon composed and Bede knew.[10][17]

However, it is also possible that although the Old English poem was indeed in oral tradition prior to Bede, the story of its composition is a fabrication.[10]

Meanwhile, the content of Bede's Latin paraphrase is somewhat different from all the surviving Old English texts. Scholars have debated why this might be. Most scholars think that Bede was translating from a (probably oral) version of the Old English poem like one of the surviving versions, but doing so loosely. The earliest Old English version of the Hymn might have been the one that is most similar to Bede's text, in which case other Old English versions diverged from it in oral or scribal transmission. On the other hand, the earliest version might have been the one that is least similar to Bede's text, and Old English versions that are more similar to Bede's text might have been adapted by scribes to make them more similar to Bede's Latin.[7]: §5

Some have even argued that the Old English text does not predate Bede's Latin at all, but originated as a (somewhat loose) verse translation of Bede's Latin text.[7]: §B


One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Cædmon's Hymn is found in the Moore Bede (Northumbria, ca. 737)

All copies of the Cædmon's Hymn are found in manuscripts of Bede's Latin Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or the Old English translation of that text; twenty-one manuscripts of the Old English poem, dating from the eighth century to the sixteenth, are known to have existed.[18][7]: §4

List of manuscripts[edit]

This list is based on the survey by Paul Cavill.[18] Hyperlinks to O'Donnell's descriptions of each manuscript are provided from the shelf-marks, and to his facsimiles and transcriptions from folio numbers.[7]

Siglum Shelf-mark Origin Version of Bede Dialect of Hymn Folio notes
M Kk. 5. 16, Cambridge, University Library (the Moore Bede) 734 x 737 Latin Northumbrian 128v
L lat. Q. v. I. 18, St. Petersburg, Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library (the Saint Petersburg Bede) first half of eighth century Latin Northumbrian 107r
Tr1 R. 5. 22, Cambridge, Trinity College Fourteenth-century Latin West Saxon 32v
Bd Bodley 163, Oxford, Bodleian Library Mid-eleventh-century Latin West Saxon 152v A corrector's attempt to remove the poem from the text has made it largely illegible.
H Hatton 43, Oxford, Bodleian Library Mid-eleventh-century Latin West Saxon 129r
Ln Lat. 31, Oxford, Lincoln College Mid-twelfth-century Latin West Saxon 83r
Mg Lat. 105, Oxford, Magdalen College Mid-twelfth-century Latin West Saxon 99r
W I, Winchester, Cathedral Mid-eleventh-century Latin West Saxon 81r
T1 Tanner 10, Oxford, Bodleian Library (the Tanner Bede) First half of tenth century Old English West Saxon 100r
C Cotton Otho B. xi, London, British Library Mid-tenth to early eleventh-century Old English West Saxon The section containing Cædmon's Hymn was destroyed in the 1731 Cottonian fire.
N Additional 43703, London, British Library Sixteenth-century Old English West Saxon pp. 25-25 Transcription of Otho B. xi by Laurence Nowell, predating the loss of Cædmon's Hymn.
O 279, Oxford, Corpus Christi College Early eleventh-century Old English West Saxon part ii, f. 112v
Ca Kk. 3. 18, Cambridge, University Library Second quarter of eleventh century Old English West Saxon 72v
B1 41, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College First quarter of eleventh century Old English West Saxon p. 322
Ld1 Laud Misc. 243, Oxford, Bodleian Library First quarter of twelfth century Old English West Saxon 82v
Hr P. 5.i, Hereford, Cathedral Library First quarter of twelfth century Old English West Saxon 116v
Di 547 [334], Dijon, Bibliothèque Publique Twelfth-century Latin Northumbrian 59v
P1 Lat 5237, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale c. 1430 Latin Northumbrian 72v
Br 8245-57, Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale 1489 Latin Northumbrian 62r-v
LCA M.6, London, College of Arms Twelfth-century Latin West Saxon 86v
SM HM. 35300, San Marino CA, Huntington Library Mid-fifteenth-century Latin West Saxon 82r
To 134, Tournai, Bibliothèque de la Ville Twelfth-century Latin West Saxon 78v Destroyed in 1940, but survives in facsimile

Scribal transmission[edit]

In the Latin copies, Cædmon's Hymn appears as a gloss to Bede's Latin translation of the Old English poem. Despite its close connection with Bede's work, the Old English Hymn does not appear to have been transmitted with the Latin Historia ecclesiastica regularly until relatively late in its textual history: where the Old English text appears in a Latin manuscript, it was often added by a scribe other than the one responsible for the main text. In three manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 243; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 43; and Winchester, Cathedral I) the poem was copied by scribes working a quarter-century or more after the main text was first set down.[19][20] Even when the poem is in the same hand as the manuscript's main text, there is little evidence to suggest that it was copied from the same exemplar as the Latin Historia: nearly identical versions of the Old English poem are found in manuscripts belonging to different recensions of the Latin text; closely related copies of the Latin Historia sometimes contain very different versions of the Old English poem.[7]: §7


Despite the name, it is not a hymn in the narrow sense of the formal and structural criteria of hymnody. It is, instead, a piece of traditional Old English alliterative poetry, which seems to have been composed as an oral piece to be sung aloud; it is characterised by formulaic diction shared by much other Old English poetry, and has been seen as a case-study for the application of oral-formulaic theory to Old English verse.[21][22][23]: 382–84 

Notwithstanding Bede's praise of Cædmon's Hymn in his Historia ecclesiastica, modern critics have not generally regarded the poem as a great aesthetic success.[7]: §3.1 The poem is, however, metrically regular; like other Old English verse, the nine lines of the Hymn are divided into half-lines by a caesura, with the first most heavily stressed syllable in the first half alliterating with the first most heavily stressed syllable in the second. Although Bede presents the poem as innovative in handling Christian subject matter, its language and style is consistent with traditional Old English poetic style. It is generally acknowledged that the text can be separated into two rhetorical sections (although some scholars believe it could be divided into three), based on theme, syntax and pacing, the first being lines one to four and the second being lines five to nine.[7]: §3 In the assessment of Daniel O'Donnell, 'stylistically, Cædmon's Hymn is probably most remarkable for its heavy use of ornamental poetic variation, particularly in the poem's last five lines'.[7]: §3.16

There has been much scholarly debate and speculation as to whether or not there existed pre-Cædmonian Christian composers by whom Cædmon may have been influenced, but the mainstream opinion appears to be that it is "reasonably clear that Cædmon coined the Christian poetic formulas that we find in the Hymn". Cædmon’s work "had a newness that it lost in the course of time", but it has been asserted by many that his poetic innovations "entitle him to be reckoned a genius"; inasmuch as the content of the hymn might strike us as conventional or "banal", according to Malone (1961), "we are led astray by our knowledge of later poetry".[24]

Editions, translations, and recordings[edit]

  • Smith, A.H., ed. (1978). Three Northumbrian Poems: Cædmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song and the Leiden Riddle. With a bibliography compiled by M.J. Swanton (revised ed.). London: University of Exeter. ISBN 9780859890786. [first publ. as Three Northumbrian Poems: Cædmon’s Hymn, Bede’s Death Song and the Leiden Riddle, ed. by A. H. Smith (London, 1933)].
  • Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Edition and Archive. 1.1, ed. by Daniel Paul O'Donnell, SEENET Series A — Editions, 8 (Charlottesville, Virginia: SEENET, 2018) [first published as O'Donnell, Daniel P. (2005). Cædmon's Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Edition and Archive. Cambridge: Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-044-2.].
  • "Cædmon's Hymn": The Seven West Saxon Versions, ed. by Martin Foys (Wisconsin, Madison: The Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019) [repr. in the Old English Poetry in Facsimile project].



Appearances in popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ This is the traditional translation of these lines, in agreement with Bede's Latin version and with versions of the Old English which add ("we") into the first line. An alternative translation of the early texts, however, understands weorc as the subject: "Now the works of the father of glory must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the measurer, and his mind's plan".[4] Yet another proposes that hergan functions passively, with a series of subsequent subjects: 'now the guardian of heaven, the might of the measurer and his mind's plan, the work of the father of glory must be praised'.[5]
  2. ^ Anglo-Saxon poetic grammar is sometimes hard to follow. These last two lines might be more simply translated: "The work of the father of glory, as he (the eternal lord) established the origin of every wonder."
  3. ^ 'scop' implies poetic creation; God is the great song-writer and the great poet, and creation is His masterpiece.
  4. ^ This is the reading of the Northumbrian aelda and West-Saxon ylda recensions. The Northumbrian eordu, West-Saxon eorðan, and (with some corruption) the West-Saxon eorðe recensions would be translated "for the children of earth".
  5. ^ The Northumbrian eordu and West-Saxon ylda and eorðe recensions would be translated "for men among the lands" at this point.



  1. ^ O'Keeffe 1987, p. 222.
  2. ^ Biggs 1997, p. 304.
  3. ^ Daniel Paul O’Donnell, 'Different Strokes, Same Folk: Designing the Multi-Form Digital Edition', Literature Compass 7.2 (2010), 110–119 (p. 112), doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2009.00683.x.
  4. ^ a b Mitchell, Bruce (1985). "Cædmon's Hymn, Line 1: What Is the Subject of Scylun or Its Variants?". Studies in English. n.s. 1. University of Leeds: 190–197. Retrieved 2 September 2020. {{cite journal}}: |volume= has extra text (help).
  5. ^ a b Alfred Bammesberger, 'Discrepancies between Cædmon's Hymn and its Latin Rendering by Bede', in Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts, ed. by Ursula Lenker and Lucia Kornexl, Buchreihe der Anglia / Anglia Book Series, 67 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), pp. 329-46; doi:10.1515/9783110630961.
  6. ^ Marsden, Richard (April 2004). The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-521-45612-8.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Edition and Archive. 1.1, ed. by Daniel Paul O'Donnell, SEENET Series A — Editions, 8 (Charlottesville, Virginia: SEENET, 2018) [first published as O'Donnell, Daniel P. (2005). Cædmon's Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Edition and Archive. Woodbridge: Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-044-2.].
  8. ^ 'Cædmon's Hymn', trans. by Harvey Shapiro, in The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, ed. by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 421.
  9. ^ Dennis Cronan, 'Cædmon's Hymn: Context and Dating', English Studies, 91 (2010), 817-25; doi:10.1080/0013838X.2010.488846.
  10. ^ a b c Paul Cavill, 'Bede and Cædmon’s Hymn', in ‘Lastworda Betst’: Essays in Memory of Christine E. Fell with her Unpublished Writings, ed. by Carole Hough and Kathryn A. Lowe (Donington: Tyas, 2002), pp. 1–17.
  11. ^ John D. Niles, 'Bede’s Cædmon, "The Man Who Had No Story" (Irish Tale-Type 2412B)', Folklore, 117 (2006), 141–55 doi:10.1080/00155870600707821.
  12. ^ Dennis Cronan, 'Cædmon and Hesiod', English Studies, 87 (2006), 379-401, doi:10.1080/00138380600768106.
  13. ^ Colgrave & Mynors 1969, Book 4, ch. 22-24.
  14. ^ Abrams 1986, p. 29.
  15. ^ Baedae opera historica, ed. by C. Plummer (Oxford, 1896), II 259-60.
  16. ^ Colgrave, Bertram; Mynors, Roger Aubrey Baskerville, eds. (1969). Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 417. ISBN 978-0-19-822173-9.
  17. ^ Dennis Cronan, 'Cædmon's Audience', Studies in Philology, 109 (2012), 333-63. doi:10.1353/sip.2012.0028.
  18. ^ a b Paul Cavill, 'The Manuscripts of Cædmon's Hymn', Anglia: Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, 118 (2000), 499-530.
  19. ^ Ker 1957, pp. 341, 326, 396.
  20. ^ O'Keeffe 1987, p. 36.
  21. ^ Fry, Donald K. (1974). "Cædmon as a Formulaic Poet". Forum for Modern Language Studies. 10 (3): 227–47. doi:10.1093/fmls/X.3.227. [repr. as: Fry, D.K. (1975). "Cædmon as a Formulaic Poet". In Duggan, JJ (ed.). Oral Literature: Seven Essays. Edinburgh and New York. pp. 41–61.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)].
  22. ^ Peter Ramey, 'Variation and the Poetics of Oral Performance in Cædmon's Hymn’, Neophilologus, 96 (2012), 441–56.
  23. ^ Stevick, Robert D. (July 1962). "The Oral-Formulaic Analyses of Old English Verse". Speculum. 37 (3): 382–389. doi:10.2307/2852359. JSTOR 2852359. S2CID 162509556.
  24. ^ Malone 1961, p. 194.


Further reading[edit]

  • Altman, Rochelle (2008). "Hymnody, Graphotactics, and 'Cædmon's Hymn'". Philological Review. 34 (2): 1–27.
  • Bammesberger, Alfred (2008). "Nu Scylun Hergan (Caedmon's Hymn, 1a)". ANQ. 21 (4): 2–6. doi:10.3200/anqq.21.4.2-6. S2CID 161640238.
  • Blair, Peter Hunter (1994). "Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and its Importance Today". Bede and His World The Jarrow Lectures 1958–1978. Great Britain: Variorum. pp. 21–33.
  • DeGregorio, Scott (2007). "Literary Contexts: Cædmon's Hymn as a Center of Bedes World". In Frantzer, Allen J; Hines, John (eds.). Cædmon's Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede Six Essays. Morganstown: West Virginia University Press. pp. 51–79.
  • Frantzen, Allen J.; Hines, John, eds. (2007). Cædmon's Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede Six Essays. Morganstown: West Virginia University Press. ISBN 9781933202228.
  • Hoover, David (1985). "Evidence for Primacy of Alliteration in Old English Metre."Anglo-Saxon England 14: p. 75-96.
  • Kiernan, Kevin (2002). "Reading Cædmon's "Hymn" with Someone Else's Glosses." Old English Literature Critical Essays. Ed. Roy Liuzza. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 103-24.
  • O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien (1990). Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien (1999). "Cædmon". In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald (eds.). Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Molden, MA: Blackwell. p. 81.
  • Magennis, Hugh (2011). The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–35. ISBN 9780521734653.