CAEDMON, herder of cows and stirrer of souls

Icon of Caedmon as used by Juan Alejandro Forrest de Sloper on his Book of Days site

CAEDMON, herder of cows and stirrer of souls

I cannot speak, unless You loose my tongue;
I only stammer, and I speak uncertainly;
but if You touch my mouth, my Lord,
then I will sing the story of Your wonders!

(Words from the Northumbrian Community)

Today (February 11th) we remember Caedmon of Whitby.

He was encouraged in faith by St. Hilda (Hild) who,whilst she was a player on the big stage of England of its time, was also a discerner of almost unknown individuals. She was to them an encourager and one who awakened and nourished the gifts of God in others. This was especially true of Caedmon.

We owe the story to the Venerable Bede, the monk of Jarrow .

Caedmon, according to Bede, was an illiterate cowherd at Hild’s Abbey in Whitby. Beyond tending the cows he  thought that he had little to offer and when those who farmed beside him would gather for an early form of Karaoke, taking turns to perform songs and poetry, Caedmon would often find an excuse to absent himself. One night, as he slipped away to be with his cows instead, he fell asleep in the cowshed. During his sleep he dreamt of a mysterious stranger who urged him to sing a song about the Creation of the world.

At first Caedmon resisted but the man in the vision persuaded him and Caedmon sang praise to God.

When he awoke  he remembered his dream and told the steward. Immediately he was taken to the Abbey and Hild. She recognized that God had worked a special miracle in Caedmon. She was entranced by his singing not least because he had, hitherto, led a life in which no poetry had a part.

Hild knew that she must encourage the gift shown to him.

She called scholars and learned men to meet with him and to them he explained his dream. They then opened to him a piece of Scripture and invited him to turn it into a poem. Next morning he returned and sang a poem which captured the bible passage in verse.

Hild was thrilled and persuaded him to become a monk at the Abbey where he soon became a companion of the others. He was instructed in the bible, sacred history and tales. Like a cow chewing its cud, Caedmon ruminated and turned what he learned into beautiful music and song. The book of Genesis and the flight of God’s people from Egypt to the promised land were followed by other Old Testament tales leading to songs of Christ’s Incarnation, His Passion and Ascension.

So, Caedmon enlightened people with the Holy Word of God and enriched others not only by his compositions but also by the beauty with which he sang.

He became the first English Poet and his extraordinary story became a reminder that God often takes what seems ordinary and makes it extraordinary – or rather takes ordinary people and reveals in them (in us) extraordinary gifts. All it took was a visitation from God and a Holy woman who knew that God was up to something and encouraged the development of a vocation and of a soul who enriched the church.

Though little remains of Caedmon’s poetry, most of it being oral, we have a few lines, thanks to Bede but also he began a poetic tradition which others took on board and developed. His poetry and singing was destined to lead to  the growth of a deep and lasting Anglo-Saxon / Old English poetic tradition.

Caedmon’s poem

Now we must honour the guardian of heaven
the might of the architect and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory as he, the eternal Lord,
established the beginning of wonders.
He first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator.
Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal Lord,
afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands of men, the Lord Almighty

Caedmon’s memorial in Westminster Abbey

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