Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University
Background Information on the Old English Period
Read carefully the general background information NA 3-10, paying particular attention to the discussion of oral poetry, literacy, and the connection between Christianity and writing; note also the comments on heroic values (NA 8). Also read information on the Old English language (NA 19, 1st paragraph only); the presentation of Old and Middle English prosody and first page of the Texts/Contexts timeline (NA 24-26); the information on the Saxons and Danish rulers of England (NA Appendix A41); and the headnote on Bede and Caedmon's Hymn (NA 29-30). Make sure you understand what is meant by alliterative verse and can identify parts of the Old English alliterative lines in Caedmon's hymn (NA 30-31). What is meant by the Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) period? Know dates (or approximations given by editor) for: the Anglo-Saxon conquest; Augustine's arrival in Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity; Bede's lifespan; Bede's Ecclesiastical History; Caedmon's Hymn (NOTE: the date of composition of these two DIFFERENT works is NOT the same!!); and the Norman Conquest.
Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Caedmon's Hymn
Note that Bede, who wrote in Latin, is NOT the "author" of Caedmon's poem, which he translated into Latin and incorporated into the Ecclesiastical History. Caedmon's Hymn was composed orally in Old English alliterative verse by an illiterate cowherd named Caedmon sometime between 658 and 680 -- possibly before Bede's birth (ca. 673), and long before Bede wrote (in Latin) the Ecclesiastical History (completed 731). Note that Old English was NOT a written language: poetry was composed in an oral-formulaic style and recited aloud, from memory, to an illiterate public (see NA 29, as well as relevant comments NA 7-10).
Consider the subject matter of both Bede's text and Caedmon's poem. Are the subjects those that we associate with most literature today? What would you say this literature was FOR? (Why was it composed or written down?) What connection might be drawn between the subject matter and the idea of a written literature? What models would a medieval audience have for written "literature," and how might those models affect their perception of the purpose and significance of a written text?
How does the story of Caedmon fit in with Bede's overall "agenda" in writing his History? (What made Caedmon significant enough to be included?) What is the significance of Caedmon's dream? What is the "gift" referred to NA 31? How is this "gift" explained by Bede? Note Bede's claim that Caedmon knew nothing about the art of composing oral-formulaic poetry in alliterative verse (what Bede calls "vain and idle songs") prior to his dream. Is this contention plausible? Why might Bede (or the person from whom he had heard the story of Caedmon) choose to depict the poet Caedmon in this way?
Think about the fact that the English language was NOT at this time considered suitable for written literature -- Latin was considered the ONLY language of learning and culture until late in the medieval period. Yet Bede clearly knew Caedmon's poem, years after Caedmon's death, since he was able to translate it into Latin. How did he know the poem, since it was not written down? The anecdote about Caedmon is evidence of the oral transmission of vernacular texts. Note however that Bede tells this anecdote about Caedmon not to preserve the poem -- which he translates rather than transcribes -- but as a curiosity illustrating the power of God: through heavenly Grace, even an illiterate cowherd can compose poetry in God's glory.
Bede clearly admired Caedmon's poetry: he refers to it as "finest verse" and "sweetest song," commenting that his Latin translation is unable to do justice to its "beauty and dignity" (NA 31). It is therefore striking that he doesn't bother to write down the poem itself! In Bede's mind (and in the perception of his contemporaries), orally composed poetry in the vernacular English language was simply not "literature" and was therefore not something upon which one would waste parchment and ink. The Old English text printed in the Norton Anthology was preserved by accident; it has come down to us only because several scribes copying Bede's Latin work at some later date still knew the hymn, which they recognized from Bede's translation and wrote down in the margins of the manuscript! (see NA 30). Here is further evidence of the oral transmission of vernacular works, and a striking illustration of the marginality of English as a poetic or literary language at the time of Caedmon and Bede.
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