An unusual topic for a children’s book, but the result is delightful! Caedmon’s Song by Ruth Ashby tells the story of a 7th century cowherd who became a songwriter. We have only one hymn that he wrote (Caedmon’s Hymn), but it is the earliest known writing in Old English, or Anglo-Saxon. The story of Caedmon is told in Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731 AD.
With a simple, straightforward text, the book tells the story of Caedmon, who works for the abbey taking care of the cows. “He slept with the cows, and he ate with the cows. Cows were his life.” And he hated poetry.
He hated poetry, because he had none. The custom among the villagers on a feast day, was to sit around the hearth at night, “telling stories of heroes and monsters, great battles fought and fortunes made and lost.” They passed the harp around the tables and each took his turn singing a song and telling a story. Caedmon could never think of anything to tell or of any song to sing. No wonder he hated poetry.
When once again on St. Stephen’s feast one year, Caedmon cannot think of a thing to say or sing, he storms out of the hall, furious and embarrassed.
As he slept later that night in the cowshed, a young man came to him in a dream and commanded him to sing him a song. Caedmon opens his mouth and sings a song celebrating God’s creation of the world. That nine-line song is the only one of his writings to survive.
When he sang his song to the others in the village the next day, they were astounded. Here was Caedmon, who hated poetry, singing a new song, which he had composed himself! How was this possible?!
Then it was seen by all even as it was, that to him from God himself a heavenly gift had been given. Then they spoke to him and told some holy story and divine words of knowledge; they bade him then, if he could, that he turn it into poetical rhythm. Then, when he had undertaken it in this manner, then he went home to his house, and came again in the morning, and with the best adorned song he sang and rendered what he was bid (to recite.
Bede‘s biography of Caedmon tells us that he wrote many hymns:
. . . he wrought many songs. And so also many others he made about divine mercy and judgment. In all of them he eagerly sought to pull men away from love of sin and criminal deeds, and to love and to zealously awake to (the doing) of good deeds. For he was a very devout man . . .
The abbess persuaded him to become a monk and she saw to it that he was taught all of the stories from the Bible. And Caedmon spent the rest of his days writing songs to the glory of God.
This is a wonderful story to share with children. It celebrates the gift of creativity that God gives to some of us – and highlights the important role that music and hymns have always played in the worship of the church. It is also a warm and affectionate picture of what life was like in the early centuries of the middle ages – after Rome fell, after the conquest of the Angles and the Saxons, and before the rise of the kingdom of England.
Caedmon’s Song is a $16.00 hardback, 32 pages oversize, color illustrations – available from Greenleaf Press. The publisher’s write-up designates the reading audience as ages 5 and up.