The story of Caedmon (7th – 8th centuries AD) and his hymn are related in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

In this abbess’s monastery was a certain brother particularly glorified and honoured with a divine gift, in that he fittingly was accustomed to make songs, which pertained to religion and virtue, so that whatever thus he he learned of divine letters from scholars, those things he after a moderate space of time he brought forth, in poetic language adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration and well-made in the English language. And by his poem-songs the spirits of many men were kindled to distain of the world and to service of a heavenly life. And likewise, many others after him among the English people endeavoured to compose pious songs, but none however in like manner to him could do so because he had learned not at all from men nor through man that he songcraft learned, but he was divinely aided and through God’s gift received the art of poetry. And he therefore he never could make any sort of lying or idle songs, but just those alone which pertained to piety, and those which were fitting for his pious tongue to sing. The man was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house. Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ Again he said, he who was speaking with him: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ Then he said: ‘What must I sing?’ Said he: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’ When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:

Nu we sculon herigean     heofonrices weard,  
Now we must praise     the Protector of the heavenly kingdom,
meotodes meahte     ond his modgeþanc,   the might of the Measurer     and His mind’s purpose,
weorc wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra gehwæs,   the work of the Father of Glory,     as He for each of the wonders,
ece drihten,     or onstealde.   the eternal Lord,      established a beginning.
He ærest sceop      eorðan bearnum   He shaped first    for the sons of the Earth
heofon to hrofe,     halig scyppend;   heaven as a roof,     the Holy Maker;
þa middangeard     moncynnes weard,   then the Middle-World,     mankind’s Guardian,
ece drihten,     æfter teode   the eternal Lord,      made afterwards,
firum foldan,     frea ælmihtig.   solid ground for men,     the almighty Lord.

 

(from:  http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html#bede-oe)

Clink on the link below to hear Caedmon’s hymn (the version in the West Saxon dialect) read aloud.  (It’s fun to listen to it being read while looking at the West Saxon transcription!)  It is beautiful (and you can hear where Tolkien, a scholar of Old and Middle English, got his ideas for the languages and names in his books)!

http://ia361301.us.archive.org/10/items/caedmon_librivox/caedmon_ks_64kb.mp3

You can see from this that English as we know it today would not exist, had not Latin and then French invaded.

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