The single source for the life of Cædmon, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was completed in 731. Written in Latin and later translated into Old English, Bede’s history describes the Abbey of Whitby in Northumbria, founded by Saint Hilda and ruled by her from 658 until 680. Twin communities, one for men and one for women, flourished under the direction of the abbess. To this abbey came the layman Cædmon, not to test a religious vocation but to seek employment in caring for the monastery animals. Cædmon was not young when he came to Whitby, Bede comments, but no mention is made of his earlier life. Humble and unassuming, Cædmon had his quarters with the farm animals and lived almost unnoticed by the other monastery residents.
Because of his extreme shyness, the story continues, Cædmon was never able to take his turn at the recitation and singing when, as was the custom, the harp was passed around after the communal evening meal. In order to avoid embarrassment, Cædmon would always find some excuse to leave the gathering and tend the animals, knowing that he would not be able to sing and entertain the others should the harp be passed to him. Bede’s account, it should be remarked, is an invaluable description of this culture; the secular (not religious) music, the gathering to drink beer together, the shared responsibility for entertainment—all these facets of early English life are clarified in the Ecclesiastical History of the English...
(The entire section is 610 words.)