Friday, February 19, 2010

Ealdhelm and Cædmon

When a change is good in itself, it usually bears fruit in unexpected ways. Theodore was a scholar as well as a bishop. Under his care a school grew up at Canterbury, full of all the learning of the Roman world. That which distinguished this school and others founded in imitation of it was that the scholars did not keep their learning to themselves, but strove to make it helpful to the ignorant and the poor. They learnt architecture on the Continent in order to raise churches of stone in the place of churches of wood. One of these churches is still standing at Bradford-on-Avon. Its builder was Ealdhelm, the abbot of Malmesbury, a teacher of all the knowledge of the time. Ealdhelm, learned as he was, let his heart go forth to the unlearned.

Finding that his neighbours would not listen to his sermons, he sang to them on a bridge to win them to higher things. Like all people who cannot read, the English of those days loved a song. In the north, Cædmon, a rude herdsman on the lands of the abbey which in later days was known as Whitby, was vexed with himself because he could not sing. When at ale-drinkings his comrades pressed him to sing a song, he would leave his supper unfinished and return home ashamed. One night in a dream he heard a voice bidding him sing of the Creation. In his sleep the words came to him, and they remained with him when he woke. He had become a poet—a rude poet, it is true, but still a poet. The gift which Cædmon had acquired never left him. He sang of the Creation and of the whole course of God's providence. To the end he was unable to compose any songs which were not religious.

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