The First English Poet – Caedmon, died before 680 AD
The story of Caedmon recounted by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People [book iv, chapter 24] written about 50 years after his, Caedmon’s, death tells of a cowherd working on the lands of the monastery of Whitby then called Streanæshalch. Apparently, Caedmon was reluctant to take part in singing at feasts but one night, after he had left early so as to avoid having to perform, he had a dream. A man appeared to him, who asked him to sing, when Caedmon replied he could not sing the man responded that “you shall sing to me”. Caedmon asked about what should he sing. The reply came that he “should sing about the creation of all things”. This he did, singing verses in praise of God. When he awoke the next morning, he remembered his dream and told his master, the reeve, who took him to Hild, the abbess. She found him a place among the brothers and he was instructed in religious history and the scriptures to create songs and poetry from what he had learned.
The name Caedmon is of British origin and points to the survival of the British in North-East Yorkshire during and after the Anglo-Saxon migrations. He may have been a British Christian, a descendent of those people who were converted in the 4th century under Roman rule, or, he may be been converted when Hild established the monastery around 657 AD. He never acquired reading or writing skills but had an amazing memory to be able to create these songs. Hild recognised that Caedmon’s ability to compose songs in English was of the utmost importance to bring an understanding of Christianity to all people, not just to those who knew Latin. And therein lies Caedmon’s significance.
[Biographical details by courtesy of Christiane Kroebel,curator Whitby Abbey collection]