All that we know about this ancient English saint comes from the great English scholar of the eighth century, St. Bede the Venerable. Bede, who lived in a neighboring monastery, testified to St. Caedmon’s skill at religious verse, and the good influence his songs had on others.
Caedmon was a layman, a native of northern England. His employment was the care of horses — probably for the monastery of Whitby. Well on in years, he had not received much education, and had no talent whatever for poetry or music. As a matter of fact, he was embarrassed whenever asked to sing. (Oftentimes his lay friends, feasting together, would pass the harp around for each to take his turn at composing a song. When it came Caedmon’s turn, he would invariably get up, and leave the party.)
One night, however, after he had run out on the feast, he had a dream. He dreamt that a man stood by him and said, “Caedmon, sing me a song!”
“I don’t know how to sing!” the stableman replied. “That is why I left the feast and came here.”
“But you shall sing to me!”
“What should I sing about?”
“Sing about the creation of all things.”
So Caedmon started to sing. The song ran like this:
“Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven’s fabric,
The majesty of His might and His mind’s wisdom,
Work of the world-warden, worker of all wonders,
How He the Lord of glory everlasting,
Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a rooftree,
Then made He Middle-Earth to be their mansion.”
When Caedmon awoke, he remembered not only the dream, but words and melody of the song. He added some more lines to finish the theme. Then he went to tell his foreman about the gift he had suddenly received. The foreman took him to St. Hilda, abbess of the monastery of Whitby. The abbess and her learned consultants, having heard of the dream and listened to the song, decided that it was definitely a divine gift — a genuine grace.
Hilda, therefore, urged Caedmon to forsake the secular life and join the monastery as a lay monk. After he had been received into the community, she saw to it that he was given full instruction on the whole story of man’s creation and redemption. He would meditate all this and then pour out one beautiful song after another: on the story of Israel, on the Incarnation and Redemption, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the Apostles, on the last judgement and eternal life. The value of his songs was that they could communicate the story of salvation more understandably to simple countrymen who had difficulty in comprehending sermons. Unfortunately, only the poem quoted above has come down to us. It was Caedmon, therefore, who established the great tradition of vernacular Anglo-Saxon. And since Anglo-Saxon became English, he can be called the pioneer of English religious poetry and hymnody.
Caedmon meanwhile became a model monk. He fulfilled to the letter the monastic rule, and expected all of his brother monks to do the same. When death drew near, he had a premonition of its arrival. Though he appeared well, he asked to receive Holy Communion as Viaticum. Having then assured his brethren that he was at peace with them, and having asked and received their assurance that they were at peace with him, the old monk blessed himself and fell asleep in the Lord.
Thus, as Bede says, St. Caedmon “ended his life in quietness.” But in his living days few men since King David had so captivated hearts with melodious praise of God.
God is somebody to sing about!
–Father Robert F. McNamara