Wild night, eighth-century-style: a cowherd goes to a wedding, drinks mead, hits the hay, dreams about an angel, and wakes up on fire with religious poetry. And that, folks, is the backstory to the first non-fragment poem in English. Pretty good for a night out on the medieval town, right? Unfortunately, as far as surviving works go, this was kind of a one-night stand for Caedmon. The monastery that owned his cows invited him to become a monk as soon as they heard about the miracle.
But even though he spouted poetry pretty regularly after that, this Hymn is the only one that still exists. For the most part, Anglo-Saxon poetry (written in England between 500 and 1066 C.E.) was oral, meaning that poets sang or recited it (harps optional) instead of writing it down or "publishing" it. Only in special cases were these poems actually recorded. Drop a tear, sweet readers, for the poetic bulk lost to the ages: for Caedmon's Song and Caedmon's Sonnet and Caedmon's Anglo-Saxon Gangsta Rap (j/k, the Anglo-Saxons didn't do rap).
We owe Caedmon's Hymn to one man: the Venerable Bede, an awesome dude with an even awesomer name, who wrote it downaround 731. Bede didn't get around much—in fact he spent his whole life in the combined monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow in northeastern England—but from these walls he churned out early medieval bestsellers in Latin like The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. When word got out about a local peasant turned poet turned monk, Bede was on it. He recorded Caedmon's Hymn in a line-by-line Latin translation and wrote up the miracle behind it in one of the only poet biographies in medieval literature.
That's how we know just how miraculous Caedmon was: Bede gives the deets. According to him, Caedmon was not only a mead-drinking cowherd; he was also illiterate, tone-deaf, and so shy that at feasts, when guests took turns singing, "when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house." What's more, even after the angel made him poetic, Caedmon remained illiterate. The monks told him stories from the Bible and he remembered everything he heard and, as Bede notes, "by keeping it all in mind, just as a clean animal chewing cud, turned it into the sweetest song"—just like the cows he used to herd.
Why Should I Care?
We all dream about waking up and suddenly possessing some skill, like playing the cello or doing theoretical physics or speaking Italian. If only we could just click "download" and let the information slowly transfer to our sleeping brains! In a way, the story of Caedmon and his Hymn does just that: it fulfills every fantastic dream we've ever had of going from a nothing to a something, from an illiterate cowherd to first known English poet—without any effort at all—no studying, no rough drafts (at least according to the legend). By talking to an angel, he downloaded poetry.
But put another way, Caedmon's story is not as fantastically absurd as it first seems. Caedmon fits into a long tradition of uncommonly talented animal tenders. In classical literature (the texts produced in ancient Greece and Rome), a shepherd's life was idealized. Lying under olive trees while fluffy lambs bleat and poop joyfully in the grass—what could be better, right?
Most people imagined that shepherds led lives of peace and contentment and, with all that tending time on their hands, were free to contemplate philosophy, morals, and what makes a Good Life. Shepherds were portrayed as poets and philosophers, reinforcing the idea that in the simplest jobs resides the most wisdom. This literary tradition is known as the pastoral ("pastor" meaning shepherd).
In the Middle Ages, which got going after the fall of the Roman Empire, around 650-700 C.E., there was a shift from shepherds to monks, holy men (women were called nuns) who shut out the rest of the world and devoted themselves to God by praying, reading, and studying behind the walls of their monastery (hello Bede!). For medieval Christians, the monk took the place of the shepherd: a person cut off from normal stressful busy life, with time to meditate on "higher" things. The only difference is that for monks the good life was necessarily a religious, Christian one.
Caedmon's story takes a little from both worlds. He's a cowherd but he doesn't start his meditating while his cows are mooing. Instead, it takes the divine intervention of an angel to get him started on the poetic life. Thus his story becomes a miracle, a fully Christian miracle, while still borrowing some themes from the classical past.
Not only is Caedmon a "first" in his own right: the first English poet who wrote the first English poem, using new forms and new imagery, the product of a Christian miracle; he is also part of an older history, one of the many artistic shep/cowherds tending animals and writing poems. This is an exciting, strange, and fascinating poem because it's sitting at an intersection of old and new.
Going one way is the long classical tradition of Greece and Rome, a tradition that gave us some of the Western canon's earliest and most powerful poetry. But going the other way is everything that came afterwards—the literature of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern world.
So Caedmon and his hymn were paving the way for a bold, new future of poetry. He was remix-ing the forms of the past and putting his own DJ jazzy-jam on it. And he did it all in his sleep. If only it were that easy. Sigh.