Caedmon’s godcundre gife: Miracles and the Poet as Channel for the Divine

April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment



In his 1937 study, The Manuscripts of Caedmon’s Hymn and Bede’s Death Song, Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie claims, with respect to Caedmon’s Hymn, “the problem of textual reconstruction is not especially important” (2).  Aside from a couple of ambiguities, the short poem differs “in no significant respect” between its earliest Northumbrian versions and its later West Saxon version.  The significance of the text for him is more in the study of the textual variations of manuscripts and what they tell us about the surrounding culture and dissemination of works, despite however serendipitous it may be that this early foundation of Anglo-Saxon poetry should be in praise of the creator and an account of the beginning of the world.  Bede’s account of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the composing of the hymn, of course, adds significance to the hymn’s less material qualities.  And while scholars have certainly given attention to the miracle in Bede’s account, much of the most recent work on Caedmon has been from materialist-historical perspectives, as in the 2007 study: Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede, edited by Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines, (which will be the main focus of this paper).  These studies are useful for returning to the miraculous aspects of Bede’s account; moreover, when we turn from them toward the miraculous, we can reconcile argumentative tensions in the material studies.  Let me set up one such tension.

Bede included his account of Caedmon in his Ecclesiastical History, and he famously did not translate the hymn itself into Latin.  His justification was that transferring the poem into Latin would be impossible without detriment to the dignity and decorum of the original text.  Dobbie notes that Caedmon’s Hymn was at times included in Old English as an addendum to early versions of the Ecclesiastical History, and it was included in Old English in later editions of the text.   Scholars have explored to what extent Bede’s rationale for not translating the poem tells us something about his thoughts on poetic style and song and why it was important enough to include such an apophantic account of Caedmon’s hymn in the first place.  Certainly, The Ecclesiastical History is meant to be just that, a history; but there must have been something especially extraordinary about Caedmon.

One perspective is that Caedmon was exceptional in his own stylistic performance in Old English, and scholars have wondered whether Bede’s inclusion of Caedmon was due to his innovations as a poet, or whether Caedmon codified an existing tradition, implying that the recognition of Caedmon’s talent presupposes an existing poetic tradition from which we have no prior textual records.  This is essentially Daniel P. O’Donnell’s argument, which he makes by comparing Caedmon’s Hymn both to the Germanic conventions and to stories from various ancient cultures where divine inspiration produces a poetic eloquence with spiritual content useful for evangelism.  Bede’s account, for O’Donnell, “suggests that Caedmon was valued by his contemporaries for his skill as a versifier” (50).

In tension with O’Donnell’s account, Scott DeGregorio has analyzed the placement of Caedmon within the context of Bede’s entire works, leading him to claim, “what really interests [Bede] is not versification, vernacular literature, or any other literary issue, but monasticism in its ideal guise and how it can be used as a tool for reform” (79).  In this account, Bede is more of a Political-Theologian.  DeGregorio also claims,

By taking a peasant, giving him a name, and using him to attack the learned, the Bede who authored this well-known and cherished episode adopts a stance that is, in the end, quite recognizably the stance he takes so frequently elsewhere in his vast literary output – that of a reformer keen to expose contemporary abuses and advocate change.       

While O’Donnell and DeGregorio are in disagreement as to Bede’s intentions for including Caedmon, I want to argue that in both cases, their materialism prevents a fuller understanding of the matter at hand and that a view that takes the enchanted nature of Caedmon story seriously helps to resolve their differing opinions and points to a way of perceiving consciousness in the period.

Concerning DeGregorio in particular, it’s too easy to read an underlying modern account of secular authority in his separation between Bede’s literary interests and his monasticism that risks oversimplification.  The term “secular,” as Charles Taylor has discussed at length, is itself a religious term, especially for this period.  To claim Bede’s interest is mainly in monastic governance overly emphasizes a worldly and secular – in its sense as horizontally temporal – kind of governmental order that excludes an account of Bede’s including Caedmon for the enchanted qualities surrounding his transformation, which are both literary and religious.  Now, it may be that for DeGregorio the monastic life is by definition concerned with secular temporality in the old sense of the word, but even so the enchanted is de-emphasized in his work.  And even if he is correct about Bede’s agenda as a monastic reformer, we cannot forget that the motivations for that agenda would be due to his faith, and his faith is open to enchantment of the sort that informs his inclusion of Caedmon’s Hymn.

Caedmon’s story is miraculous enchantment.  In Bede’s account, the shy, old peasant and animal caretaker removes himself nightly from a song circle because he doesn’t know how to sing.  He is visited in the night by a being who commands him to speak; he refuses at first, saying he doesn’t know how; he is prompted again; he then asks “What Shall I sing?” and is told to sing of creation.  This is a story of divine foundation, included in the Ecclesiastical History as a significant religious event.  Less overtly, it is also a linguistic political foundation in that it recognizes divine presence and visitation in Northumbria in the seventh century.  The visitation enchants the country through its continuous presence in Caedmon’s life, all the way until his happy death, of which Bede emphasizes he had a premonition.

Here is the tension.  If we believe with O’Donnell, that Bede included his account for the hymn’s exceptional literary qualities, we ought also include spiritual enchantment or inspiration as part of that technique; otherwise Bede is simply a vulgar literary critic disguised as a monk.  If, on the other hand, we think Bede as a purely rational and pragmatic monastic politician, as DeGregorio suggests, then without a religious sense of what the secular is, which would necessarily need to be informed by spirituality, Bede is also uncharacteristically vulgar.  If we combine the two, with an enchanted sense of the literary and a politically-theological view with interest in the vulgar Old-English language, the political significance of establishing a regard for poetic technique in Old English is itself spiritual or enchanted.

This enchanted view of what constitutes poetic eloquence is useful because, in attributing Bede’s interest in the apparently illiterate Caedmon to poetic technique, problems arise concerning how that technique is to be measured in terms of textual literacy and oral performance that would further complicate the arguments presented above.  As Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, among others, has argued, “those who insist that extant Old English poetry [especially pre-Alfred] is literate and monastic tend to overstate the case for Anglo-Saxon literacy” (554). My argument buffers the overstatement to which Olsen refers.  In a political-theological sense, what Caedmon tells us is that even uneducated English peasants are capable of receiving divine messages, and the divine is present and active in Northumbria.

Beyond literary style, the structure of the hymn is also telling, as it describes the creation.  Ute Schwab points out that by comparing Caedmon to his enthusiastic and evangelistic contemporary, Aldhelm, who does not receive the same treatment in Bede’s history, we can speculate that it was “because of [Caedmon’s] exclusively religious character, [that Bede] may have been more interested” (2).  Schwab’s close analysis of the poem also notes possible mystical significance in the rhythmic structure of the poem (11).  As Schwab suggests, it is not Caedmon’s mere enthusiasm that makes him special to Bede; rather, as Faith Wallis suggests, it has something to do with Bede’s recognition of something monastic both in the structure of the poem and its foundational content.  According to Wallis, Bede would have recognized and praised not so much Caedmon’s technique as his cosmology, which evidenced that Caedmon was himself a monk (82). This argument hinges on the roles of meditatio and oratorio as being becoming, or intention overcoming difference, which when we think of enchantment looks like mysticism.  The oration performs divination and overcoming of intention.

I want to take a turn here toward an enchanted account of Bede and Caedmon with regard to divination and contemplative prayer by relying on some more recent religious thinkers in order to qualify the ways we might take enchantment, mysticism and the miracle in Caedmon seriously today.  Consider the words of Thomas Merton in relation to Bede’s account:

Inner certainty depends on purification. The dark night rectifies our deepest intentions.  In the silence of this “night of faith” we return to simplicity and sincerity of heart.  We learn recollection which consists in listening for God’s will, in direct and simple attention to reality.  Recollection is awareness of the unconditional.  Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for the capacity to hear and obey him […] We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being.  We wish to know his merciful will and submit to it in its totality.  These are the aims and goals of medatatio and oratio.  This preparation for prayer can be prolonged by the slow, “sapiential” and loving recitation of a favorite psalm, dwelling on the deep sense of the words for us here and now.

This is what appears to happen with Caedmon: he is metaphorically prepared, not by his own recitation a sapiential psalm, but rather by the ritual group singing from which he inherits the Germanic and Old English traditions in existence, for his retreat into the “night” of meditation where a “recollection” attend’s to God’s will he receives his visitation in his simple piety. Or, more figuratively we might suggest that in turning away from the vulgar, harp-accompanied singing and old traditions, Caedmon makes way for his visitation.  Indeed, if we add C. L. Wrenn’s idea that “the miracle was not a gift of poetry, but a revolutionary transplantation of Germanic epic poetic practice into the soil of Christian subject matter” (in Wallis 83), we perhaps get a view of the literary as transcending material presence, even if this is still a rather worldly view of the miracle.

More distinct than Merton, we might look at R. P. Poulan’s classic text on mysticism in the Catholic church, Graces of Interior Prayer, in which he distinguishes between mystical union, simple “Affective Prayer” and “Meditation”: he says, “Either we reason, and then it is meditation, or we do not reason, and then it is affective prayer” (11).  He also notes that before the 15th century, “usage of methodical mental prayer – prayer, that is to say, where the subject, method, and duration are determined – is not traceable in the Church” (37).  Concerning monastic rules “we find no definite hour assigned to mental prayer […] In a word, there was an atmosphere, a continuous life of prayer, which was less the result of one particular exercise than of everything taken as a whole” (39).  More recently, Faith Wallis has argued that it is the very subject-matter of Caedmon’s Hymn on the principles of creation that may have signified to Bede that Caedmon was more important than a competent and inspired singer: “Both the form and the content of this text illustrate the dynamic of meditation.  Meditatio begins with rumination, but its end is to make thoughts, and in monastic literature, this process was represented by images drawn from architecture” (91).

Wallis argues that the Anglo-Saxon world-hall structure informs Bede’s interest in Caedmon, due to his attention to architecture and what she calls the “monastic encyclopedia,” which would be a loose collection of material related to the natural world and synthesized through Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine”: “Bede uses the world-hall image, both in his commentaries and in his computes, to proclaim and embody stability” (107).  While Wallis’s argument is itself well-constructed, when we consider the mystical aspects of Caedmon’s experience and the nature of miracles, we can perhaps uncover something especially subtle about Bede’s decision.  In religious philosopher Anthony Flew’s work on “Miracles” he states,

Where there is as yet no strong conception of a natural order, there is little room for the idea of a genuinely miraculous event as distinct from the phenomenon of a prodigy, of a wonder, or of a divine sign.  But once such a conception of a natural order has taken really firm root, there is a great reluctance to allow that miracles have in fact occurred or even to admit as legitimate a concept of miracles. (347)

The fundamental distinction, Flew argues, is that miracles disrupt the natural order (346).  In existing as exception, they affirm that order.  Returning to Caedmon scholarship, Wallis notes Karen Jolly’s argument that “Caedmon’s hymn is about nature because it was the consequence of a mystical experience, and mystical and natural experience were synonymous in Germanic-Christian spirituality” (89).  This kind of immanent mysticism seems incongruent with Flew’s take that you need to have an established order in order for the miraculous to take place.  The implication is not merely that the story Christianizes Caedmon, but that in doing so, something especially transcendent is being recorded.  One could take two possible stances with regard to the Bede’s account of the miracle in Caedmon then: Either 1) for Bede, miracles are simply not miracles in the modern sense because in the of the immanence of the pre-Christian era, as Jolly suggests natural and mystical experience were synonymous; or 2) Bede’s account of Caedmon relies on the miraculous because the miracle, congruent with transcendent Christianity, disrupts the natural order and in doing so helps found the church geographically in the region of England and temporally with regard to meditatio and historiography.  This is congruent with an emerging secular (in the old sense of the term) monasticism beginning to distinguish between intentional contemplative prayer and affective prayer.  If the second answer is correct, then Bede’s account of Caedmon is especially important as an instance of an emerging consciousness more horizontally temporal and transcendent, founding the geographical importance of a distinct people capable of receiving communication from the divine.  It all depends on the importance one gives to miracles.

Works Cited

DeGregorio, Scott.  “Literary Contexts: Caedmon’s Hymn as a Center of Bede’s World.”  Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede.  Ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines.  Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk.  The Manuscripts of Caedmon’s Hymn and Bede’s Death Song.  New York: Columbia UP, 1937. Print.

Flew, Anthony. “Miracles.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. Prentice Hall, 1972. 346-353. Print.

Merton, Thomas. “Contemplative Prayer.” The Secular Fraciscan. Web. 9 April 2013.

O’Donnell, Daniel P. “Material Differences: The Place of Caedmon’s Hymn in the History of Anglo-Saxon Vernacular Poetry.” Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede.  Ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines.  Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. “Oral-Formulaic Research in Old-English Stuidies: I.” The Journal of Oral Tradition. 1:3 1986. web. 25 March 2013.

Schwab, Ute. “The Miracles Of Caedmon.” English Studies: A Journal Of English Language And Literature 64.1 (1983): 1-17. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 Apr. 2013.

Wallis, Faith. “Caedmon’s Created World and the Monastic Encyclopedia.”  Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede.  Ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines.  Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.


Psychedelic Citizenship and Emergent Religion

April 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here’s a recent paper I recently gave at the Telos Press conference in NYC.



The Czars live at the Gothic Theater, April 18 2002

April 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Czars perform early versions of songs from The Ugly People vs. The Beautiful People and reinvented material from Before…but Longer in Denver, CO. A bit messy at times, but it gives you a sense of the band’s energy at this time. The unknown song was called “Jeff’s Song” as far as I know.

The Czars Live in Muenster, September 18, 2002

April 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jeff Linsenmaier told a funny story about this at the Narrators series the other night…or so I’m told. This is really us trying to convince David Lynch we should do his next soundtrack.

Roger Green ambient music

April 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

I made this recording with keyboardist Eric Moon a while back. It’s part of a long improvisation. This is live with no overdubs.

O Max Weber, You Nut

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues in its final chapter that a Protestant, and particularly Puritan mode of being, “favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important part, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life.  It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man” (117).  From this he argues that one of the most fundamental  aspects of “ the spirit of modern capitalism” and modern culture is “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, [which] was born – that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate – from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (122-123).  He ends his book, not with a precise definition of “spirit,” but by lamenting “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” saying, “this order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born in this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (123).  The technical rationality, or to use the term of his critical theorist descendants, instrumental reason, out-reasons the modern rational subject.

Weber bases much of his method on his etymology of “calling” (see his notes in chapter 3).   This conceptual history still exists in current German thinkers (such as Reinhardt Koselleck).  If we apply Weber’s method to another important word for him, ascetic, we get the Greek word, ασκητης – a monk or hermit, from the verb ασκε-ειν – to exercise.  An ascetic exercises discipline.  This discipline is intentional action.  Weber’s lament is a loss of control for the liberal subject under capitalism. The ascetic can no longer be an ascetic.  Thus Weber comes to critique modernity’s destruction of the western human subject, prefiguring the theoretical moves later in the twentieth-century relating to the “death of humanism.” He opens a practical critique of modern rationality.

Weber’s methodology is indicative of the intellectual climate in-which he worked.  He is an heir to Wilhelm Dilthey and a German historical philosophy of “spirit” of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx.  He is also reacting to the climate of Auguste Comte’s positivism and Mill’s utilitarianism.  It’s important to consider his agenda in relationship to these influences.  Although Weber reacts heavily against positivism, his sociological tries to locate verifiable “ideal types.”  This is evident in his means-end sense of rationality, which he sees as troubled by the capitalistic erasure of subjectivity after WWI.  It is also evident in his concept of understanding (Verstehen). As James Bohman says, “for Weber, Verstehen is not intuition or empathy and does not exclude causal analysis; reasons can be causes. Thus, explanations in social science must have both causal and subjective adequacy” (969).  Weber’s analysis of the Protestant Ethic’s relationship to the spirit capitalism is meant as a theoretical method in reaction to an overly “objective” positivism.  It is therefore an oversimplification to read him only as Walter Mignolo does in his introduction to Local Histories / Global Designs as merely a thinker who performs blindness to colonialism (4).  Mignolo is not wrong, but Weber is not the colonial or modernist thinker par excellence.

It is indeed tempting to read Weber as a stock example of European colonial ethnocentricism.  But to do so would be to ignore the fact the post-colonial theory participates in the narrative Weber sets up in interesting ways.  Weber is undoubtedly a grand narrator who participates in a general nineteenth-century European impulse to provide an historical narrative for “man.”  But the impulse to narrate, to colonize, to “other” cultures in order to study them, betrays a longing for a self already lost.  One should also read the nostalgic sincerity with which the rational subject seeks meaning in what it calls other and abuses in its own domestic violence.  Just as a violent man acts violently often as a display for a power he does not have, we should see the poverty of meaning in the European rational subject.  One need only read Flaubert or Kafka or consider Art pour l’Art to see that bourgeois culture consumes itself, that the hero is a failure.  The Reformation, the birth of capitalism, the rise of institutions, the rise of liberalism – these narratives work in varying degrees as the story of an individual who either disappears or becomes an object.  But they ignore the exposure of being and they forget spirit (not in the Hegelian sense), just as modern science favors the verifiable.  This has become the western conception through its own hubris.  The authentic gesture of the rational subject demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself.  As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces God as time.  Modernity claims the “death of god,” but closely following is the “death of humanism.”  These phrases, grandiose as Weber’s, show action annihilating the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors.  In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the western human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament.  Post-colonial studies is itself a furthering of this sense of depravity, and as such has held a position in western universities.  Western academic theory remains an heir to Weber (and others).  Even if we consider Derrida’s treatment of Rousseau’s rational writing in Of Grammatology or Foucault’s discussion Madness and Civilization of madness replacing Death in the Renaissance, we can still see ripples of Weber’s methods.  For that reason alone, he remains important.  That is not to say he avoids criticism.

It is interesting that Weber writes little about the Greek notion of rationality as it relates to the human or to Homo sapiens.  To me, Greek thought had every bit as much influence on Benjamin Franklin as the Christian Bible.  He could have gone back to Nietzsche’s critique of modern rationality (and Christianity), but he doesn’t.  He does set the stage for a critique of subjectivity important for the history of Religious Studies though.

Shortly after Weber’s book appeared in book form, Martin Heidegger gave his lectures on Aristotelian philosophy.  In his lectures on Aristotle, Heidegger moves away from modern notions of subject-object distinction, something he continued to do throughout his career.  Weber had already pointed to the disappearing subject; Heidegger came along and blurred the distinction more.  Colonialism relied on a subject-object split, and Weber’s claim that the rational subject is no longer an efficacious entity opens up a “legitimate” intellectual space to challenge modernist colonial tendencies, even if his analysis itself performs the very binaries it challenges.

However, in relying on his narrative of Calvinist work ethic, Weber emphasizes the visible social (economic) aspects of social critique at the expense of the invisible.  I think that Weber is onto this, but he stops short.  His critique of Protestantism and Capitalism reinforces what it critiques.  One need only look to transcendentalism in the American nineteenth-century or to Thomas Jefferson cutting out the “unreasonable” parts of his Bible to see that American exceptionalism – and its relationship to American capitalism – owes as much to a kind of secular yet ecumenical mysticism as it does to Calvinism.  Weber does not take his treatment of Pietism and Quakerism far enough, especially in relation to the United States.  If we take New England for “America,” the narrative does more to marginalize and exclude others from a participation of history than the economic or social forces at work.  Must history be the history of power?  If so, it can only make martyrs of us all as we each become types of Christs.

What Weber misses in his discussion of Benjamin Franklin and lack of discussion of American Romantics like Thoreau and Emerson is a kind of Yankee irony that is aware of its own performance.  We must ask ourselves to what extent Weber is aware of his performance.  I have suggested that we must read Weber not merely as a stock example of unexamined European ethnocentricism, but as a reaction to other trends within that community.  In order to do this, we must acknowledge a kind of sincerity in his purpose which is to be lauded.  It is possible to read Weber similar to how Michael Taussig reads Weber’s anthropologist contemporary, Bronislaw Malinowski, in What Color is the Sacred.  Taussig examines the posturing of Malinowski and his “subject” – a man in a wig, as posing for a colonial audience, a sincere form of play.  When we consider Weber’s Protestant Ethic as its own performance, just as this paper is its own performance ritual, we must have sympathy for the inability to escape social narratives because we continue to participate in them willy-nilly.  This is not to say that we should not be critical of grand narratives.  We should merely read Weber as we might read James Cameron’s grand narrative in Avatar, as a narrative which makes those blind to colonialism feel good about themselves while simultaneously being perhaps the most expensive recruitment video ever made for terrorists.  Weber teaches us the seductive power of narratives.

Works Cited

Bohman, James. “Max Weber.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Audi et al. Cambridge, Cambridge UP 1999.

Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories / Global Designs. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2000.

Taussig, Michael. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992.

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