Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 08.djvu/201

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.

that the name of Cædmon has no obvious English etymology, while, on the other hand, it bears a curious resemblance to certain Hebrew and Chaldee words. Kadmôn in Hebrew has the two meanings of ‘eastern’ and ‘ancient;’ Âdâm Kadmôn (the ancient or primeval Adam) is a prominent figure in the philosophic mythology of the Rabbins; and Be-Kadmîn (in the beginning) is the first word of the Chaldee Targum on Genesis. On these grounds Palgrave concluded that the real author of the body of sacred poetry spoken of by Bæda was a monk who had travelled in Palestine and was learned in Rabbinical literature, and that he assumed the Hebrew name of Cædmon, either in allusion to the subjects on which he wrote, or in order to describe himself as ‘a visitor from the East.’ He endeavours to show that there is no improbability in crediting an English monk of the seventh century with the possession of a considerable knowledge of Hebrew; but his arguments are not likely to be accepted by any one who is intimately acquainted with the state of scholarship in England at that period. It is surprising to find that Palgrave's etymological speculations are mentioned with approval by Mr. T. Arnold in the article ‘Cædmon’ in the ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ Mr. Arnold does not indeed deny the truth of Bæda's account of the monk of Streaneshalch, but he supposes that some learned pilgrim returned from the Holy Land had bestowed upon the Northumbrian poet a Hebrew nickname, in allusion to the themes of which he sang.

This fanciful hypothesis scarcely deserves serious refutation. Nevertheless, it is quite true that the name of Cædmon has no English etymology. Sandras and Bouterwek, indeed, have endeavoured to explain it as meaning ‘boatman’ or ‘pirate,’ from the word ced, a boat, which occurs in one of the Anglo-Saxon glossaries printed by Mone. Unfortunately this word is a mere error of transcription for the well-known ceol. The truth seems to be that Cædmon is an Anglicised form of the common British name Catumanus (in modern Welsh Cadfan). The first element of the compound (catu, battle) occurs in the name of a British king whom Bæda calls Cædwalla. If this view be correct, we may infer that the Northumbrian poet was probably of Celtic descent.

We have now to inquire what portion of the poetry which has been ascribed to Cædmon can claim to be regarded as his genuine work. It has been already stated that Bæda furnishes a Latin rendering of the verses which Cædmon composed in his dream, adding that he only gives the sense, and not the order of the words. Now in King Ælfred's translation of Bæda this poem is quoted in Anglo-Saxon metre, and the translator alters Bæda's language so as to make him say that he does give the order of the words. The natural assumption would be that Ælfred was acquainted with the original English form of the poem, and had introduced it into his translation. This conclusion, however, has been impugned by many writers, who contend that the English verses are a mere retranslation from Bæda's Latin. A fact which strongly tends to prove their genuineness is that they are found, in Northumbrian orthography, in a manuscript of Bæda's ‘History’ now at Cambridge, the handwriting of which refers it to the middle of the eighth century. It is true that the page containing these Northumbrian verses is in a different hand from the rest of the manuscript, and may possibly have been written at a considerably later date, though Professor Zupitza, who has carefully inspected the codex, offers some strong arguments to the contrary. Some scholars, moreover, have tried to prove that the dialect and versification are not precisely those of Cædmon's time. But our knowledge of early Northumbrian is so limited that it is impossible to attach much importance to these objections. We must either admit that the Cambridge manuscript gives the actual words which Bæda had before him, or we must suppose that some one took the trouble to render Ælfred's verses into Northumbrian spelling in order to insert them in the manuscript. The latter hypothesis is so beset with difficulties that we are fairly entitled to conclude that the lines are really the original of Bæda's quotation. The words are as follows:—

Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard,
metudæs mæcti end his modgidanc,
uerc uuldurfadur; sue he uundra gihuæs,
eci dryctin, or astelidæ.
He ærist scop ælda barnum
heben til hrofe, haleg scepen;
tha middungeard, moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin; æfter tiadæ
firum foldu, frea allmectig.

These verses have certainly no great poetic merit, and it has been made an argument against their genuineness that they possess no excellence sufficient to account for the high estimation in which Cædmon was held by Bæda. The objection does not appear formidable. We need not precisely assent to the whimsical remark of Ettmüller, that the ‘soporiferous’ character of the lines confirms the tradition that they were composed in a dream; but it should be remembered that, according to Bæda's testimony,