Sep 18, 2013

Starting in the margins

Monument to Cædmon, Whitby. Image (cc) Rick Harrison
This impressive modern stone cross in Whitby, England, commemorates the creation of the earliest recorded poem in English, now usually called ‘Cædmon’s Hymn’. I won’t go into the story in detail here (although it’s fascinating in itself), but I do want to emphasise that Cædmon was not, as is sometimes claimed, the first English poet, nor was his ‘Hymn’ the first English poem. The very story of Cædmon, as told by Bede in the 8th century (at least half a century after the event), indicates that poetic composition in English was well established, but also that it was wholly oral; and that Cædmon himself, a layman employed by the monastery at Whitby to take care of the cows, was illiterate and had to have Bible stories read or paraphrased to him before he could turn them into English poetry. Cædmon’s Hymn, a fragment of what was presumably a more extensive poetic corpus, was preserved not because it was the beginning of English poetry, but as a marginal note to the Latin text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum.

Bodleian Library MS Hatton 43, fol. 129r (detail)

Here it is, for example, in an 11th-century manuscript, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 43. The main text, in Latin, is Bede’s story of Cædmon, and includes the Latin version of Cædmon’s Hymn, starting ten lines from the bottom with the word Nunc ‘Now’. Just above the Nunc is a little symbol that looks like an ‘h’ with a curl through the ascender; this is a signe-de-renvoi that directs you to the bottom margin, where a matching signe-de-renvoi links you to a marginal note with a box drawn around it. This marginal note is the English text of Cædmon’s Hymn, added by a later scribe.

As Kevin Kiernan points out, the earliest manuscript witnesses of Cædmon’s Hymn do not present it as a primary text, but as a marginal note or gloss to a more important Latin text. English poetry may have had a rich oral heritage, but its first appearance in writing was to support or supplement Latin prose. To be sure, starting from the 10th century, Cædmon’s Hymn was presented as part of the main text in manuscripts containing the Old English translation of Bede. But even then, since it was customary to write Old English verse in continuous lines, it is indistinguishable on the manuscript page from the prose narrative around it.
"Margins were important places in medieval manuscripts"

Again, we are reminded of how much information is conveyed by the manuscript contexts of a medieval text. A medieval scribe encoded not only the linguistic information of the text, but also relationships between elements of texts, and perceptions of value and significance. Finally, though, we must be careful not to assume that putting something in the margins of a medieval page meant marginalising it, in a modern sense. Margins were important places in medieval manuscripts; a great deal of valuable intellectual (and, as we have seen, literary) work was done there; and to understand medieval textuality we must overcome our modern prejudices and be willing to look seriously at what happens in medieval margins.

Yin Liu


Kiernan, Kevin. 'Reading Cædmon's "Hymn" with Someone Else's Glosses.' Representations 32 (1990) 157-174.

O'Donnell, Daniel Paul, ed. Cædmon's Hymn: A Multi-Media Study, Edition and Archive. Cambridge: SEENET and D. S. Brewer, 2005.

See also the remarks on medieval margins by Alfred Hiatt, 'Maps and Margins: Other Lands, Other Peoples,' in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English, ed. Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010) 649-676, at 650.

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