We only know about Cædmon and his Hymn from Bede's Historia ecclesiastica. Bede tells us that Cædmon, a cowherd working presumably on a Whitby monastic estate, found himself unable to recite poetry publicly and would always escape celebrations where he was afraid the harp might be handed to him. Upon doing so one evening, he exited to the cowshed where he was supposed to guard the stock, but meanwhile he was visited by an angel (or so the text is usually interpreted) who bade him sing. Cædmon's resulting nine-line song is generally known as Cædmon's Hymn, and it is traceable in twenty-two witnesses, twenty-one of which Daniel O'Donnell has edited separately in this remarkable book. The conflagration of the Cotton Library at Ashburnham House in 1731 deprived him of sufficient material on which to base a useable edition of the twenty-second witness.
The CD-ROM included with the book, and which represents less than 300 megabytes on my laptop, comprises all that is in the book and more. It links the footnotes and bibliography, and provides a very plain but intuitive interface for navigating through the book in whatever way satisfies one's needs. Every image is linked to its manuscript siglum which is given above the diplomatic version of the Hymn and can be clicked to obtain a higher degree of magnification. Clearly, as his title suggests, O'Donnell has given us a virtual archive of Cædmon's Hymn.
O'Donnell has also given us an edition, or many editions, and these are provided both in the book and on the CD-ROM. In the latter format, editions can be viewed at several levels of editorial intervention and abstraction. Here are included critical editions of every witness, as has been mentioned, and reconstructed critical editions of two Northumbrian recensions and three West Saxon recensions. Moreover, the editor attempts a reconstruction of the hypothetical, written ancestor of all surviving recensions of the poem. The oldest [End Page 139] recension appears to be what O'Donnell identifies as the Northumbrian aelda recension (from the phrase aelda barnum in line 5) derived from two eighth-century manuscripts (the so-called "Moore Bede", Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk. 5. 16; and St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18). The second Northumbrian recension is the eorðe recension (contra Dobbie, who reads eorðu in the same place in line 5), based on three manuscripts, all from the Continent. From these editions, he also derives a common Northumbrian edition of the poem. The West Saxon recensions include an eorðan recension, based on six manuscripts; an eorðe recension, based on three manuscripts; and an ylda recension, based on seven manuscripts. O'Donnell submits the last as his critical reconstruction of the idealized recension archetype, the only archetype he attempts to reconstruct among the West Saxon versions of the poem.
O'Donnell takes up the relationship between Bede and his subject, Cædmon, Bede's sources and analogues, and the Hymn and the matter of Germanic poetic convention in the first three chapters of his book, and he deals exhaustively with a description of the manuscripts, issues of filiation and transmission, language and dialect, and introductions to each of his editions in the second part of his book. Five notes are appended which deal with the dating of the two oldest manuscripts, the relationship between the Hymn and Bede's Latin paraphrase of it, numerical and geometric patterning in the Hymn, issues of memorial and transitionally literate transmission, and an index of proposed analogues to the whole Cædmon story.
Scholars of this poem, as well as scholars of Anglo-Saxon textual culture, are greatly in O'Donnell's debt for his observations on all of these matters and...