There are many remarkable ancient hymns from around the world in the Catholic songbook, but England’s oldest hymn may be the most mysterious. Known as “Cædmon’s Hymn,” what little we know of this poem is thanks to the records of Venerable Bede, although the old English monk’s accounts may only give rise to more questions than answers.
The text and story of “Cædmon’s Hymn” were recorded in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, an early ecclesiastical history of the English people, completed around 731. It should be noted that the events Bede recounts are believed to have taken place between 658 and 680, while Bede was born in 673. This means the events would have occurred before Bede’s birth, or while he was just a young child. It is unknown if Bede recorded the story from oral tradition or from an unknown written source.
According to Bede, Cædmon was an illiterate cow-herder who could not carry a tune. While in the employ of the monastery of Whitby, Cædmon attended a feast where the revelers began passing around a harp so that each partygoer could have a chance to lead a song. When it came time for Cædmon to play, however, he could not contribute a song and so he left the party ashamed of his lack of musicality.
That night Cædmon dreamed that a man he’d never met called on him to sing a song. When Cædmon responded that he could not, the man asked again, directing him to “sing to me the beginning of all things.” In the dream, Cædmon suddenly began to sing verses and words he had never even heard before, but when he woke up the song was still with him. That the uneducated cowherd could suddenly sing was astounding, but that he could do so in alliterative verse, a rarity for Germanic speakers of the time, was miraculous:
“We now honor heaven’s king,
The mighty measurer and his wise plans,
The work of the glorious father,
Who established the origin of each wonder,
He first created heaven for us,
The holy shaper,
Then the middle earth,
For mankind, eternal lord,
The lands for men,
Bede’s chronicle goes on to note that Cædmon was brought to St. Hilda of Whitby, who had Cædmon evaluated by scholars in order to prove the authenticity of the sudden change. St. Hilda encouraged Cædmon to write more poetry and even become a monk, although it is worth noting that no other works of poetry credited to Cædmon have ever been discovered.
The poetry is remarkable for its story, but it is also as a historic work that stands as the earliest example of Old English verse. As well, it is one of the earliest pieces of English literature to present Christian values and terms in traditional poetic form.
The performance of “Cædmon’s Hymn” featured above was recorded in 2017 by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers. While the music is phenomenal, it is a very modern adaptation of the poem. Unfortunately, the original melody that Cædmon sang is likely lost to time.