Or Wundra Gewhaes: Caedmon’s Hymn and Creativity

I’m about to join two other medievalists at my current insitution, Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a presentation to our colleagues concerning what the study of the Middle Ages has to offer students and scholars in the present–especially students and scholars at a protestant Christian institution who can tend to treat history as something that began when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. As an exercise toward that end, I’ve decided to start a series reflecting on some of what some works in my own area–the literature and culture of the British Isles in the Middle Ages–might add to that conversation. To begin, I’m going to parse along with some of the very-canonical (and some not-so-canonical) works I’m addressing in my British Literature survey course this fall. One of those colleagues, Chris Armstrong–a church historian at Bethel Seminary–is also offering his own wonderful reflections from a more theological standpoint over at his blog, Grateful to the Dead.

It’s a pretty common technique to start out British Literature survey courses with the poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn. Common because, for one thing, it’s generally regarded as the earliest surviving English poem–although the poem’s structure indicates a very well-developed poetic tradition. In some cases the poem gets used as a bludgeon to students, read in the original Anglo-Saxon, without preamble, as the first thing out of the professor’s mouth. I have to admit I used to do this, but have begun, more recently, to warn students of what I’m about to do, having heard from so many that they nearly left the room, having felt assaulted with an arcane language.

The poem survives because it was recorded by the English historian Bede in his 7th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The story with which Bede surrounds the poem is impossible to verify, but nevertheless a great story indeed. It begins with the image of a poor monk, Caedmon, who finds himself embarrassed and alienated at a gebeorscipe (a “beer-ship”–a drinking party), when the others are taking turns singing songs with a harp. Feeling humiliated that he doesn’t know any, he leaves the party before the harp is passed to him, and heads to the stables to tend the animals. He falls asleep in the stable, and, in a dream, someone (possibly an angel?) stands by him and says, “Cademon, sing me something.” Caedmon answers, sheepishly, that he doesn’t know how to sing, and that that was the very reason he’d left the party earlier. The visitor says “Regardless, you must sing.” Caedmon asks him what he should sing, and the visitor replies, translating from Bede’s Latin, “Sing to me of the beginning of creatures” (Canta principium creaturarum.) The Old English translation of Bede’s line is even more interesting, and possibly more indicative of an Anglo-Saxon creative sensibility: Sing me frumsceaft–“Sing me first creation.” Not of creation, not about it, just “sing the creation.”

In the most often-repeated West Saxon text, the poem looks like this:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,

meotodes meahte and 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.

It’s significant that an Old English version of the poem doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts of Bede’s history. Bede included a Latin version, which he tells the reader is essentially the “gist” of what Caedmon sang in his sleep. It appears that later scribes began adding early Old English versions (which have a whole manuscript tradition unto themselves) to Bede’s text fairly soon after Bede’s death. (You can get the whole story of the manuscript tradition in this wonderful article by Kevin Keirnan, one of the great scholars of Old English language and literature.) Thus what we think is probably the earliest extant English poem comes to us not as part of Bede’s text, but as someone else’s marginal note. Not a “text” but a “gloss.” A footnote.

But this is a blog about the importance of margins, after all, and what a marginal note this is.

A fairly literal translation of the poem as it appears in the text above (which it’s important to remember is the result of a tradition that probably beings with an oral poetic tradition, and then stretches from medieval scribes through a succession of modern editors), might run something like this:

Now we ought to praise the Guardian of heavenrealm

Great words here: “weard” is the ancestor of the English word “ward,” as in a sort of official guardian or protector. “Heofonrices” compounds the word for heaven (recognizable enough) and that for a kindom, rice, like reich in German. The connotations enter the realm of political theology: this is about a king in his role as protector and “ward” of a people.

The Measurer’s might, and his spirit-thought

More fascinating words: Meotod: measurer, the Creator in the sense of one who “has the measure” of everything. The word in earlier times may have had meanings closer to words like “fate,” or “destiny.” This is the God who “has the whole world in his hands.” Modgethanc is pretty amazing, too: mod is the ancestor of the modern English word “mood,” but means differently, and the connotations are all over the place: it can mean “spirit” (in the sense of what you mean when you say someone is “spirited” or has a “great spirit”), or possibly something more like “mind.” Of course, this is a great word for God, as mind and spirit in those senses are one in that case. Gethanc is the past participle of thincan–to think. So it’s the “spirit-thought” and the “mind-plans” of the creator. The being whose calculations are inseparable from his spirit.

Work of the gloryfather.

Wuldor, glory–but also many other potential meanings. Splendor-father. Honor-father. Praise-father. Thanks-father. Heaven-father.

So, eternal lord, he established the beginning of each of wonders.

Not just the beginning of “stuff,” here, but of wonders. What the world is made of. Here God is the ece Drighten, Ece, eternal, everlasting, enduring. Drihten: a lord, a leader of people. It’s not by mistake, here, that in the middle of a sentence about the Being who created the beginning of every wonder, that same being is also identified as a direct leader of persons. The one who made the best of it is also the one that leads his people through it.

He first shaped, for the children of earth

heaven as a roof, holy Creator

Two words in this sentence are based on the verb that means “to shape,” in the sense of what a craftsman or artist does with his or her materials. This is God as the Holy Sculptor, and the children of earth live in an environment that is not simply a surface, but a work of art, with heaven as its roof.

Then, the guardian of man-kin, the Eternal Lord

afterward adorned the earth for the people, Almighty Master.

The word for “ground” here is foldan–earth, not as in the planet but as in the stuff. Ground. Soil. The stuff you walk on, till to grow a crop, in which your body is laid to rest in death. Of course, we still call a place where sheep dwell a “fold,” too–so it’s also the place where the sheep of the Almighty Master, the Shepherd, the Guardian, looks after those sheep. And he didn’t simply populate that earth, he adorned it. Teode is a word that elsewhere might be used to describe a woman adorning herself with jewels. There’s also a sense of nurturing in the word. The verb teon can mean to furnish forth, to prepare, to arrange, even to play in the sense of playing a musical instrument. The Eternal Lord is the one nurturing and adorning the “fold” for the people. The one who sings the people and their world into existence–and also the one who gives Caedmon, the rotten singer, the best of songs.

And notice the structure of the song. How it starts as a concept in the mind of the measurer, his modgethanc. How it moves then, to the beginning of each wonder. Then to the Shaper, sculpting heaven as a roof and adorning the earth for his people. The guy who left the party, too humiliated to even try to sing, is given a song that is a direct mirror of the process of creation itself, carried from concept, to execution, to appreciation. From the mind of God, to heaven, to the grains of dirt that form the earth. It is no mistake that, in the Anglo-Saxon language, another word that derives from the same root as the words sceop and Scyppend in the poem is scop, the word for a poet.

Sing me frumsceaft, indeed.

Written with StackEdit.

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