Bede tells the story of Cædmon in his Ecclesiastical History (in Latin, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum), Book 4, Chapter 24, written in 731. According to Bede, Cædmon lived on the monastic estate of Whitby during the time of Abbess Hild (d. 680). Bede gives no account of Cædmon's early life, and the only clues to his class and race are his name, which is British rather than Anglo-Saxon, and his work as a herdsman: both of these indicate that he was low-born. The story tells us that though Cædmon was of mature years, he had never learned the art of singing songs; so when there was a party, he left before he was asked to take his turn at singing. On one occasion when he did this, he went to sleep in the cattle-shed and was visited in a dream by someone who greeted him and asked him to sing. Cædmon refused, saying that he could not, and that he had left the party for that reason. The person insisted, and asked him to sing about the creation. Cædmon then sang in English what has become known as Cædmon's “Hymn”:
Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven,
the might of the Creator and his understanding,
the work of the Father of glory; how he, of each wonder,
eternal Lord, created the beginning.
He first created for the sons of earth
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator;
then the world, the Guardian of humankind,
eternal Lord, afterwards created
the land for people, almighty Lord.
This is a literal translation of a West Saxon form of the “Hymn”.
Waking up in the morning, Cædmon found he could not only remember the verse, but could make up more of the same kind. So he told his master about his dream; this man took Cædmon to the Abbess, who assembled the most learned scholars to assess the song; and they all agreed that Cædmon had been given a divine gift. Cædmon was urged to become a monk, was taught the Scriptures and made many edifying songs, covering the whole range of Christian teaching. None of these survive, so far as is known. Ultimately Cædmon died a saintly death.
Bede sees Cædmon's gift as miraculous, and emphasises that aspect: Cædmon was old when he received his gift from God (Bede quotes Galatians 1:1), his verse was uniquely good, he could not use his gift for trivial purposes. There are many analogues for the transformation of a life by means of a dream in both Christian and other traditions. Transformation is perhaps what the story is about: Cædmon the herdsman became an evangelist; his poem of creation led to his recreation as a monk and poet; trivial songs were turned into poems of devotion; people were turned from lives of dissipation to true religion.
Bede is the earliest extant source for the story of Cædmon, and all later accounts depend on Bede. The idea that Cædmon was “the first English Christian poet” derives from a misunderstanding of Bede's statement that later poets of religious verse could not compare with Cædmon. Bede's History was massively popular in the Middle Ages, and thus the story of Cædmon spread. The History circulated in England and on the continent in manuscript; it was also translated into Old English at the time of King Alfred, at the end of the ninth century.
Bede did not give an Old English version of Cædmon's “Hymn”, only an abbreviated Latin paraphrase of it, with a note about the untranslatability of verse. But vernacular versions of Cædmon's “Hymn” in alliterative verse appear in several of the Latin and all of the complete Old English texts of Bede's History; in all, there are 21 known vernacular texts. The two earliest texts of the “Hymn” (8th-century) are added to the Latin manuscripts as footnotes or additions, and are in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English. Later texts in the Alfredian translation of Bede and in some Latin manuscripts are in the West Saxon dialect.
There are minor, if significant, differences between the versions, but all are independent of Bede's Latin, which abbreviates the text. There is evidence for the influence of the Bible and the liturgy in the composition of the “Hymn”. Some scholars suggest the vernacular tradition derives from scribes 'translating' Bede's Latin in Old English. An alternative explanation for the transmission of these texts is that oral versions of Cædmon's “Hymn” circulated with the story, and were added to the manuscripts from memory by the scribes; then the texts were multiplied and varied by copying. Whatever may be the case here, Cædmon's story has given rise to a complex literary tradition, which still intrigues scholars today.
Bibliographical notes. A text of the “Hymn”, with the Old English version of the story in Bede can be found in B. Mitchell and F. C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English (Oxford, many editions). The best edition of Bede's history is B. Colgrave and R. A .B. Mynors, eds, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1969). E. V. K. Dobbie's study, The Manuscripts of Cædmon's Hymn and Bede's Death Song [...] (New York, 1937) was supplemented by K. W. Humphreys and A. S. C. Ross in “Further manuscripts of Bede's “Historia Ecclesiastica” [...] and further Anglo-Saxon texts of “Cædmon's Hymn” [...]”, Notes and Queries 220 (1975), 50-55. Two further studies of the texts are of interest: K. O'Brien O'Keeffe, “Orality and the developing text of Cædmon's Hymn”, Speculum 62 (1987), 1-20, and P. Cavill, “The manuscripts of Cædmon's Hymn”, Anglia 118 (2000), 499-530. D. R. Howlett, “The Theology of Cædmon's Hymn”, Leeds Studies in English, New Series 7 (1974), 1-12, and U. Schwab, “The Miracles of Caedmon – Revisited”, Atti dell' Accademia Peloritana, Classe di lettere, filosofia e belle arti, 59 (1985), 5-36 are thoughtful studies of the Hymn as literature.
Cavill, Paul. "Caedmon". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 September 2002
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=688, accessed 23 April 2018.]