Thursday, October 13, 2011

Insights from Cædmon

My Introduction to Old English Literature class has introduced me to Cædmon's Hymn; more importantly, it has given me insight into the Anglo-Saxon world that I never expected.

First, some history: Cædmon was an illiterate cowherd who one night learned to compose songs in the course of a dream. This tale was preserved by the 8th-century monk Bede and is told in Book Four, Chapter 25 of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It was translated into Old English, probably during the reign of King Alfred the Great, by an anonymous Mercian scholar. Cædmon composed what is believed to be one of the earliest forms of Old English poetry. All of this took place sometime between 657 and 684 AD.

And yet, this is not what fascinates me about details of Bede's account of Cædmon. Instead, it is line 6 from Bede's account that excites me. here it is in Old English:

"Ond hē for þon oft in ġebēorscipe, þonne þǣr wæs blisse intinga ġedēmed, þæt hēo ealle sceoldon þurh endebyrdnesse be hearpan singan, þonne hē ġeseah þā hearpan him nēalēċan, þonne ārās hē for forscome from þǣm symble ond hām ēode tō his hūse."

Translated by me as follows:

"And he therefore often in banquet, whenever there was judged to be cause for merriment, that they all had to sing to the harp in order, then he saw the harp approach him, then for humility he arose from the banquet and went home to his house."

A less cumbersome translation follows:

"...and for this reason sometimes at a banquet, when it was agreed to make merry by singing in turn, if he saw the harp come towards him, he would rise up from table (in humility) and go out and return home." *

Essentially, Cædmon could not sing any songs in front of the harp because he did not know any and, in his embarrassment, he left the banquet.

As I mentioned earlier, Cædmon was an illiterate lay brother of advanced years who was assigned to the monastery Streonæshalch. In short, he was not ordained as a monk; he was a worker who was occupied primarily with manual labour and with the secular affairs of the monastery. Yet, a close reading of line 6 tells us so much more about the life of Cædmon and the other brothers of the monastery.

The inhabitants of the monastery engaged in banquets. This means that it was possible for the monks to live well; if not all the time then once in a while, at least.

Members of the monastery attended the banquet. However, we do not know if both clergy and laymen attended together or not. I propose that both clergy and secular members were in attendance; if only because it is hard for me to believe that Cædmon was the only illiterate lay brother at the monastery. It stands to reason that the educated members of the order socialized with the laymen in fellowship.

The banquets often involved singing and a harp was used as an accompaniment. I do not know if the songs were sung while the harp was played along or if the harp was used as an introductory device only. Either way, there was music in the lives of those in the monastery.

When the monks did sing at banquets, a harpist made his way around the room for the monks to sing "in order". Whether this is by rank or simply by seat location is unknown. However, when the harpist stopped in front of you it was your turn to sing.

Singing was a form of recreation and used to "make merry". Clearly the oral tradition was both respected and enjoyed by the members of the clergy in the Anglo-Saxon world.

I may be over-romanticizing it a bit but I love the image of the monks sitting together after a hearty meal, reveling in their fellowship and choosing to make merry by lifting their voices together in song while a harp adds its voice to theirs. I can almost hear their voices echoing through the rafters as their melody moves outside the walls of the monastery and slowly drifts across the countryside and up into the night sky.