Bede’s Life of Caedmon

Bede’s Life of Caedmon, Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum

Translated by Scholiast from Sources Chrétiennes 490 (2005), Book 4.22

All previous editions 4.24

            [1] In the monastery of this abbess [St. Hilda] there was a certain brother especially notable for divine grace since he used to compose songs that were suitable to religion and piety. So it happened that, whatever he learned from the divine writings through interpreters, a little afterwards he would put forth in his own tongue, that is, English, using poetic phrasings that were put together with the greatest pleasantness and emotion. By his songs the souls of many were often kindled up to scorn of this world and a desire for the heavenly life. Indeed, others amongst the English people also attempted to compose religious poems after him, but no one could equal him. For he himself learned the art of singing, instructed ‘not by men nor through man’ (Gal. 1:1), but he received the gift of singing freely from divine aid. Thus he could never put anything frivolous or needless in his poems, but only those things which pertained to religion were fitting for his religious tongue.

Indeed, he had remained in the secular way of life up to the time of a more advanced age, and at that time he had learned no songs. And so sometimes at banquets, because it was decreed for the sake of delight that everyone ought to sing in turn, when he saw the cithara [harp?] draw near, he rose up from the middle of dinner, left, and went home.

[2] A certain time when he had done this, leaving the house of the banquet he went out to the stable of the livestock, since the guardianship of them had been delegated to him that night, and there he gave his limbs to sleep at a suitable hour. Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’

But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’

The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’

‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’

And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’

When this answer was accepted, immediately he began to sing verses in praise of the creator God which he had never heard, whose sense was:

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom,
the power of the Creator and his intent,
the deeds of the Father of glory:
how he, since he is the eternal God,
has been the author of all miracles,
who in the first for the sons of men
created the sky like the top of a roof
and then the almighty preserver of
the human race created the earth.

This is the sense, but not the precise order of the words, which he sang whilst asleep; for songs, although composed extremely well, cannot be translated from one language into another word-for-word without damage to their beauty and worthiness. And then, rising from sleep, he remembered all the things which he had sung whilst asleep, and soon he joined many words of a song worthy of God into the same measure.

[3] Then in the morning, going to the steward who had charge over him, he showed what sort of gift he had received, and he was commanded to be taken to the abbess to make known the dream and sing the song with many learned men present, so that by the judgement of all it might be examined what and whence the thing he related was. And it was visible to all that a heavenly grace had been granted to him by the Lord, and they set forth a sermon of sacred history or doctrine, then instructed him, if he could, to translate this sermon into the measure of a song.

Yet he went away from the business undertaken, and when he came back in the morning, he returned with the most excellent song which had been ordered to be composed. Then, the abbess soon embraced the grace of God in the man, and instructed him to put aside the secular life and take up the proposed monastic one; she joined him, after he’d taken it up in the monastery, to a cohort of brothers with all his own people, and commanded him to be taught the sequence of sacred history.

[4] But he himself turned everything which he could learn from hearing into the sweetest songs, through reminding himself and by chewing it over like a clean animal, and by resounding sweetly he made his teachers in turn his listeners. Moreover he sang of the creation of the world and the origin of the human race and the whole story of Genesis, of the exodus of Israel from Egypt and the entrance into the Promised Land, of very many other stories from sacred Scripture, of the Lord’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the Apostles; in this way he made many songs of the dread of the judgement to come and horror of the punishment of Gehenna and of the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom. But he also made a great many others about the blessings and judgements of God, in all of which he took care to draw men away from the love of wicked deeds, and to stir them up instead to the esteem of the skill of good deeds. For he was a very religious man and humbly placed himself under the disciplines of the rule; indeed, he was stirred up with the zeal of a great passion against those who wished to act differently, whence he also concluded his life with a beautiful end.

[5] For when the hour of his departure was near, for 14 days he was weighed down by an overpowering bodily feebleness, yet moderately thus far, so that he could both speak the whole time and go in and out. However, there was a building next door which those who were weaker and who seemed about to die soon were usually led. Therefore, he asked his assistant when evening was coming down, on the night when he would leave the world, that he prepare a place of rest in that building for him; wondering why a man who seemed in no way to be close to death would ask this, he nevertheless did as he [Caedmon] said. And when they were placed in that place, in turn they would say some things and make jokes with a spirit rejoicing together with those who were in there beforehand. Then, in the middle of the night the time was passed, and he asked if they might have the Eucharist inside.

They answered, ‘What use is the Eucharist? For you cannot die yet, who so cheerfully spoke with us just like one unharmed.’

He returned, ‘Nevertheless, bring me the Eucharist.’

When it was received in his hand, he asked if they had a peaceful mind toward him without complaint of controversy or rancour. All of them answered that they had the most peaceful mind toward him, removed from all anger, and in turn they asked him to have a peaceful mind toward them. Immediately he responded, ‘I bear a peaceful mind, little children, toward all of God’s servants.’

[6] And thus, fortifying himself with the heavenly provisions, he prepared for the entrance of another life. And he asked if it was near the hour when the brothers had to be stirred for praying the night-time praises [laudes nocturnas] to the Lord. They answered, ‘It is not far.’

Then he said, ‘It is well; therefore, let us await that hour.’

And signing himself with the sign of the holy cross, he reclined his head on the pillow, and almost asleep he thus finished his life in silence. And so it happened that, with whatever simple and pure and calm devotion he served the Lord, so also leaving the world with a calm death, he came to his vision, and with that tongue which had composed such healthful words in praise of the creator, he concluded as well his last words in praise of the creator, by signing himself and commending his spirit into his hands; he also seems to have shown himself as foreknowing his death from those things which we have narrated.


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