- Cædmon's Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede
Co-editor John Hines writes, "The story of Cædmon is a rich example of the powerful connective and interactive valency between language, literature, society, and material life as elements of the cultural whole" and the [End Page 123] text is "a powerful demonstration of how philology, critical reading, the histories of literature and society, and the material history that is archaeology, can be combined to give us a deeper and richer understanding not only of Bede's objectives in telling this story, but of the context in which he is writing" (220). This tenth volume in West Virginia University Press's Medieval European Studies series comprises six essays (plus an extensive and valuable bibliography) that explore various ways in which the brief episode in Bede provides both the invitation and the material for a broader examination and understanding of the world in which the text was composed.
In a succinct preface, the editors provide an excellent summary of the Cædmon story and some traditional critical approaches to it and then move to a brief discussion of interdisciplinarity in medieval studies. They write, puzzlingly, that "this collection claims to break no theoretical ground concerning interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary work, although we believe that it does further this endeavor" (7). Furthermore, they write, "Rather than experiment with recent interdisciplinary theory, in its many varieties," the authors "seek to advance cross-disciplinary dialogue by using a single text as a focus on Bede's world and the operations of material culture within it" (9). The collection, they hope, will "help Anglo-Saxonists compare methods and claims made within the disciplines of archaeology, literary and textual criticism, medieval science, history, and theology" (9). Here we have both the collection's strength and its weakness: although the range of allied disciplines is broad, the discussions often require the reader to go very far afield of the primary text.
The first essay, "Material Differences: The Place of Cædmon's Hymn in the History of Anglo-Saxon Vernacular Poetry," by Daniel P. O'Donnell, examines the hymn alongside analogous creation poems before considering the degree to which Bede saw his subject as innovative and daring. O'Donnell rightly notes that the history of Bede's texts and analogue hunting have been marked by scholarship designed to question authenticity or originality; he offers a lengthy discussion of several analogous texts (among them Mohammed's Call, Aldhelm, and the anachronistic nineteenthcentury African Ntsikana) and related scholarship. What we learn is that the Cædmon story demonstrates more differences from than similarities to these analogues. While interesting as revisionist information that places our primary text in the company of others concerned with poetic inspiration, divine empowerment, and so forth, the approach is an uneasy one: we are, essentially, asked to understand a text by what it is not. For O'Donnell, since Bede shows no "essential connection between Cædmon and the traditional [End Page 124] Germanic verse that preceded him," his significance for Bede "appears to be far more revolutionary" (36). Cædmon is not just "a new model for poets trained in the old ways" but "somebody who does not so much appropriate as obliterate the old ways of doing things" (36). Yet, even if the analogues prompt such a conclusion, O'Donnell reminds us that the hymn is structurally "a very Germanic poem," and we move to a thoughtful—even if hardly original—discussion of the Germanic and Christian dimensions of the hymn's diction, in which O'Donnell examines Bede's rather conservative (or stereotypical) Latin translations for Cædmon's "supposedly most novel epithets" (47). In sum, O'Donnell argues that "despite Bede's emphasis on Cædmon's uniqueness," his poetry is not "particularly innovative from an aesthetic point of view" (49), and that Bede's description, paying little or no attention to formulas and diction, suggests...