Bede’s Caedmon, “The Man Who Had No Story”

Bede’s Caedmon, “The Man Who Had No Story”

John D. Niles


Although various analogues have been cited to Bede’s account of the poet Caedmon, none are very close. The plot of a tale well known in modern Irish and Scottish tradition, however, “The Man Who Had No Story” (Irish type 2412B), resembles the first part of Bede’s chapter so closely as to suggest that Bede shaped his account under the influence of this narrative pattern, which must, therefore, be assumed to be of some antiquity. Clinching this connection is the motif that Caedmon, a lowly cowherd, is called by name by his mysterious interlocutor. Naturally, Bede turned this tale-type to his own purposes by emphasising devotional features that are not a normal part of the tale. Moreover, he added the story of Caedmon’s later life and pious death. Bede’s monastic milieu was not impervious to oral culture, it seems. His account of Caedmon involves much mythmaking, and it is best read as an example of the storyteller’s art.


The story of Caedmon’s poetic inspiration, as told by the Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) in book 4, chapter 24 of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Colgrave and Mynors 1969, 414-21), is of exceptional interest for the light it has been thought to shed on Anglo-Saxon literary history, or on the early mythography of that topic. Whatever Bede’s motives were in telling the story of Caedmon and his Hymn, [1] his account can be read as an origin myth for two related activities: first, the use of native English verse to celebrate Christian themes; and second, the use of the technology of writing to record native poetry. In the current critical climate there is no need to belabour the point that Bede’s miracle tale is best read as an example of “legendary history”–that is, history as shaped into memorable forms. [2]

The Tale and its Analogues

Analogues to the story of Caedmon have been cited with such frequency in the scholarly literature as to confirm that, whatever else it may be, this tale is a natural magnet for specialists in comparative religion, folklore, and mythology. Precedents for Bede’s account of a lowly person’s divine inspiration have been cited going as far back as Hesiod’s account of his encounter with the Muses one day on the slopes of Mt Helicon, Aeschylus’s supposed inspiration to write tragedy as the result of a dream vision, and the prophet Mohammed’s life-transforming call to preach the Word of God. [3] Moreover, Bede’s narrative was influential in its own time, for (as has long been recognised) the preface to the Old Saxon poem the Heliand includes a story of similar inspiration that is based on this chapter of the Ecclesiastical History. [4] Even “dream vision” poems from North American Indian tradition that result from actual initiatory practices have been brought into relation to Caedmon’s Hymn and the life-altering experience from which it is said to have sprung. [5] Still, the author of the most recent systematic attempt to pinpoint useful analogies, Daniel Paul O’Donnell, has arrived at conclusions that are largely negative: “Despite a hunt spanning two centuries, no unambiguous source or close and detailed analogue to either Bede’s account of Caedmon’s inspiration or the Hymn itself has been found” (O’Donnell 2005, [section] 2.46).

Without discounting any other possible parallels, some of which may be found more relevant or persuasive than others, I wish to propose that the narrative core of Bede’s account of Caedmon is modelled on a type of tale much closer to hand, from a northern British perspective, than the stories just mentioned. [6] The tale-type to which I refer is commonly known as “The Man Who Had No Story.” In the Irish language, common names for it are An fear gan sceal (“The Man Without a Story”) and An fear nach rabh sceal ar bith aige (“The Man Who Had No Story at All”). This type of tale is both distinct and popular enough to have been assigned its own number, 2412B, in the standard index The Types of the Irish Folktale (O Suilleabhain and Christiansen 1963, 343-4). Since no tale of this type is identified in the Aarne and Thompson index The Types of the Folktale (1961), or in Uther’s recent The Types of International Folktales (2004), both of which cover the whole spectrum of folktale types from Ireland to India, “The Man Who Had No Story” seems to be specific to Ireland and Scotland, two contiguous regions where it has often been collected during the past two centuries. [7] It is discussed at some length, with sustained attention to six examples recorded in Irish or English during the period from the 1820s to the 1930s, in the concluding chapter of Georges D. Zimmerman’s magisterial study The Irish Storyteller (2001, 537-48). The tale is such a familiar one among the storytellers of Ireland that Bo Almqvist, for many years Head of the Department of Irish Folklore including the National Folklore Collection, reported that more than once, when he asked for stories in Ireland, he received the answer: “I don’t know any, unless it would be ‘The Man Who Had No Story'” (Almqvist 1969-70, 64).

Irish tale-type 2412B is thus a popular tale, known in numerous variants, that pertains fairly specifically to what might be called Bede’s “cultural zone.” One scarcely needs to be reminded that although Bede himself was of English background, the Northumbria of his era had been profoundly affected by a missionary effort, emanating from Iona, that had brought many native speakers of Irish to northern Britain. This movement resulted in the establishment of Celtic-style monasteries at Lindisfarne, Melrose, and other suitable spots. The influence of Irish culture on this region, however, had many causes, went beyond those specific places, and was not restricted to the religious sphere. [8] Given what is known about the conservative nature of oral tradition and the potential durability of folktale types, it is not implausible that an abstract narrative type that, thanks to the efforts of modern collectors, is well attested in Ireland and Scotland during the past two centuries should also have been in existence, although in different forms, in that same region at a much earlier date. The structure of Bede’s tale so closely mirrors the structure of “The Man Who Had No Story” that a professional folklorist setting out to make a historical-geographical survey of that folktale type would naturally single out the first part of book 4, chapter 24 of Bede’s History as its earliest recorded instance.

Since these claims need specific justification, the parallel I propose should be examined more closely. The capsule summary of Irish tale-type 2412B that is provided in O Suilleabhain and Christiansen’s reference book is a suitable starting point:

A man gets lodgings at a house one night. After a meal, he is asked

to tell a story or to sing a song. When he replies that he can do

neither, he is asked to go outside on some errand, and for several

hours he has fantastic experiences. When he returns to the house,

exhausted, next morning and tells the people there about what he

has suffered, they tell him that he will always

have that, as a story, to tell in future.

That is the story in a nutshell. As with any tale-type, individual storytellers are free to flesh out its bare bones by adding ornamental and descriptive passages, by developing character through the use of dialogue, by alluding to features of the local landscape or culture, by doubling or trebling one or another type of incident, by adding sequel episodes or narrative complications, and so forth. To some extent, even details that may seem to pertain to the core elements of a tale-type are subject to the process of variation as well. A given variant may feature a female protagonist rather than a male one, for example; or it may be told in the first-person voice and recounted as if it had been a personal experience, and so forth. Variation of this kind is the soul of an oral tradition. The ability to individualise a tale so that it is felt to be “in the tradition” while also being admired as a brilliant individual creation is largely what distinguishes a masterful storyteller from a mediocre one.

When one examines Bede’s tale of Caedmon with Irish tale-type 2412B in mind, the resemblance of its plot to that structural pattern is quite evident. Equally obvious is that Bede’s tale departs from that type in regard to some important details. These points of divergence will be worth attention in due time, but first the tale as Bede tells it should be summarised. Since an exact and neutral precis of this account is required, rather than trying to provide one myself I will draw on Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s summary of Bede’s chapter. [9] His entire summary will be cited (with one incidental omission in paragraph 4) even though, as is important to keep in mind, the parallel I am adducing pertains only to the first two of his four paragraphs. Likewise, the text of Caedmon’s Hymn is included here, as in O’Donnell’s summary, even though it is only peripherally relevant to my claims:

1. According to Bede, Caedmon was an old lay herdsman in the religious community of Streanaeshalch (Whitby Abbey). Although the singing of vernacular songs was a customary entertainment at the abbey, Caedmon himself never learned to sing, and, as a result, used to leave feasts before he could be called upon to do so. Having left such a gathering one night and returned to his stables, Caedmon fell asleep, whereupon he was addressed in his dream by “someone” (Bede uses the Latin indefinite pronoun quidam), who asks him to sing for him. Explaining that he cannot, and, indeed, that he has just left the feast for that reason, Caedmon at first refuses. When the visitor insists, however, he gives in. Asking for a subject, he is told, Canta […] principium creaturarum, “Sing […] about the beginning of created things.” Almost immediately he begins his famous Hymn, which Bede paraphrases in Latin for the benefit of his readers:

Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis, potentiam Creatoris

et consilium illius, facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille, cum sit

aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor extitit, qui primo filiis

hominum caelum pro culmine tecti, dehinc terram Custos humani

generis omnipotens creauit.

[Now we must praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power

of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory

and how He, since he is the eternal God, was the Author of all

marvels and first created the heavens as a roof for the children

of men and then, the almighty Guardian of the human race, created

the earth.]

2. When Caedmon awakes, he remembers everything that happened to him. He adds additional verses to his song and reports his vision and his new skill to his steward. Brought to the abbess, Caedmon describes his dream and sings his Hymn. He is then assigned a sacred text to translate into verse overnight by way of a test. When he proves himself able to do so, he is ordered to join the religious community.

3. In the course of his training, it is discovered that Caedmon’s gift extends to all holy subjects: upon hearing a passage of church history or doctrine, Bede tells us, Caedmon is able after a brief period to turn his lessons into carmen dulcissinium, “most melodious verse.” In addition to the Hymn, his works are said to include poems on a wide range of subjects: the creation of the world, the beginnings of mankind, the biblical Genesis, the flight from Egypt and entry into the promised land, the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the teachings of the apostles, the terrors of hell, joys of heaven, and an account of God’s gifts to mankind.

4. The last part of Bede’s account concerns Caedmon’s exemplary life in the abbey. […] Bede reports that Caedmon was humble and obedient to the monastic rule and extremely zealous in his work against those who were not. After an illness of fourteen days, he is said to die like a saint: able to predict the hour of his own death, Caedmon asks to be moved to the hospice in which the terminally ill are lodged even though his own condition seems anything but serious. He gathers his friends and servants around him and asks if they have any outstanding quarrels with him. Told that they do not, he prays briefly, asks for the Blessed Sacrament, and finally expires just before nocturn.

Readers following my present argument may disregard paragraphs 3 and 4 of the preceding summary, which tell of Caedmon’s later career and death. This part of Bede’s history is steeped in the topoi of hagiography, as others have pointed out (Shepherd 1954; Wieland 1984; Stanley 1998). Paragraphs 1 and 2, however, mirror the structure of Irish tale-type 2412B. In the Irish tale, a man withdraws from company because he cannot sing or tell a tale; he has a remarkable experience of some kind; he returns to that same company to perform a song or story based on his strange experience; and he is recognised as a person who will always be known by that song or story (my italics). In Bede’s account, Caedmon withdraws from company because of embarrassment about his lack of poetic talent; that night he has a remarkable dream-vision and spontaneously produces a fully formed song; the next day he performs his song before the company of monks, to their amazement and delight; and thereafter he is recognised as the author of his Hymn, a work that preserves his fame even today.

A Numinous Figure Calls a Lowly Person by Name

The parallels between Bede’s account of Caedmon and “The Man Who Had No Story” concern more than the basic elements of the plot, however. There is another feature of Bede’s account that clinches its affinities with tale-type 2412B. I am not referring to the cowherd’s name, although the fact that “Caedmon” is a British rather than Anglo-Saxon name is of interest as it points to Celtic influence. [10] Rather, what is significant is the manner in which Bede weaves the personal name of a very ordinary person into his story. The mysterious person who appears to Caedmon in a dream addresses him specifically by name: “Caedmon,” inquit, “canta mihi aliquid” (“Caedmon,” he said, “sing me something”). Since the cowherd has never encountered this person before, a sense of the stranger’s numinous character is thereby conveyed. His commands therefore take on greater authority than they might otherwise have. Similarly, in modern variants of tale-type 2412B the protagonist is invariably an ordinary person, often (like Caedmon) a servant or farm-labourer and sometimes even specifically a cattleman; [11] and very often he is called by name by one or another stranger (or strangers) whom he encounters soon after his departure from the house that is the initial setting. [12] The otherworldly nature of that encounter is thereby strongly hinted at, without any clear information being given as to exactly who the stranger is and whether he or she is benevolent or threatening in nature (or some combination of the two).

An example of this tendency for the protagonist of tale-type 2412B to be singled out by name is found in a version of the tale that was taken down in November 1965 from the recital of Michael James Timoney of county Donegal. Annotating this narrative on the occasion of its publication in Bealoideas, the journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, Almqvist describes it as the most “perfectly balanced” and “sophisticated” of all versions of the tale that he had encountered up to that date. [13] Timoney’s version, which features a wandering basketmaker as protagonist, begins as follows:

Well, bhi fear thios annseo i mBarr a’ Ghaoith i bhfad o shin, agus

b’e an t-ainm a bhi air Brianai O Braonachain (O Cathain 1969-70,


[Well, there was a man down here in Barr an Ghaoith a long time ago

and his name was Brian O Braonachain …] (O Cathain 1969-70, 55).

The name of the protagonist is thus introduced at the start. Before long, Brian finds himself cut off from other company by a terrible fog, and–here I must shorten the tale, which includes many bizarre details–eventually he blunders into a long house with “two lights in it and a fine light out of the door.” This turns out to be a wake-house filled with two rows of men. Here he is greeted by a black-haired girl seated in the centre of the room. When one of the men declares his intention to go out in search of a fiddler, for “it is a very lonely wake we are having here to-night,” the girl replies:

“O”, a deir an cailin catach dubh, “nil feidhm daoibh a bheith a ghabhail fa choinne fidilear’ ar bith anocht’, a deir si, “ta an fidileir is fearr in Eirinn in bhur measc annseo anocht”, a deir si, “Brianai O Braonachain as Barr a’ Ghaoith” (O Cathain 1969-70, 53).

[“Oh”, said the girl with the curly black hair, “you don’t need to go for any fiddler to-night”, said she, “you have the best fiddler in Ireland among you here to-night”, said she, “Brian O Braonachain from Barr an Ghaoith”] (O Cathain 1969-70, 57).

Although Brian protests that “that is something I never did in my life, play a turn on a fiddle,” before he knows it the bow and the fiddle are in his hands, “and they all said that they had never heard any fiddler playing a tune on a fiddle better than Brian O Braonachain from Barr an Ghaoith.” Toward the end of the tale, once he returns from this remarkable wake-house (where other equally strange adventures await him), he is told he will always be an fear a bhfuil an sceal [aige] le hinnse (“the man who has the story to tell”). [14] The detail of the naming of the lowly protagonist by someone whom he encounters in an otherworldly setting confirms the structural resemblance between Bede’s tale and modern versions of Irish tale-type 2412B.

Marchen or Folk Legend?

Still, the objection might be raised that Bede’s story of Caedmon is scarcely a Marchen “wonder tale,” and so any comparisons of this chapter of the Ecclesiastical History with the folktale genre ought to be ruled out. The story of Caedmon is not set somewhere “long ago and far away,” as are the classic fairytales of Europe. It is localised at a particular monastery in Bede’s own kingdom of Northumbria, and its action takes place in the not-very-distant past. Certain of its details, such as its real-world geographical setting and its naming of the Abbess Hild as a respected witness, are clearly meant to leave the impression that nothing in this chapter is to be taken as untrue. Bede’s narrative thus gravitates out of the genre of the folktale in the direction of local history and the saint’s legend, two types of narrative that often converge. Parallels with any folktale type must therefore (according to this view) be rejected as generically impertinent.

While that objection might at first seem to carry weight, in fact it only confirms the connection I am making. Specialists who have written on Irish tale-type 2412B have emphasised that the action of this tale often takes part in a real-world setting. The author of a survey of twentieth-century Irish versions of this story, as Zimmerman remarks, therefore “prefers to call this tale a “folk legend’ rather than a ‘folktale’ because of the precise (though varying) localization of the framing part, the naming of the central character (who has as many identities as there are versions), and other ‘realistic’ details.” [15] Similarly, Almqvist has remarked that “In its strong local coloring and in its closeness to genuine folk-belief, too, The Man Who Had No Story is more reminiscent of a popular legend than of a folktale” (Almqvist 1969-70, 62). The setting of Bede’s tale at the monastery of Whitby, together with that author’s evident belief in the story as an actual occurrence, is therefore completely consistent with the account that professional folklorists have given of tale-type 2412B.

Bede’s Originality

As is to be expected (and as I have been quick to acknowledge), Bede’s account of Caedmon departs from the usual contours of tale-type 2412B in regard to a number of details. Caedmon does not find lodgings at the monastery “for the night,” for example; he is already living there as one of its lay members. He is not sent away from the feast so as to go on some errand, but rather he leaves the feast of his own choice. That night he has no more than a single remarkable experience, not a string of them–and, correspondingly, nothing is said about his being “exhausted” upon his return the next day. In addition, Caedmon wins esteem as a singer, not as a storyteller, departing from the usual situation with tale-type 2412B. These differences, it will perhaps be conceded, fall into the category of details of the sort that any narrator might vary in the course of individualising a tale.

In two regards, however, Bede’s tale of Caedmon differs importantly from modern variants of tale-type 2412B. The first of these differences regards its religious tenor. Caedmon is not just any poor fellow suffering from a bad case of nerves; he is a lay member of a monastic community, one who soon takes on monastic vows. Similarly, the stranger who accosts him in his dream is manifestly to be taken as an emissary from God, and what Caedmon sings in response to that person’s commands is a hymn with liturgical overtones. All the songs that Caedmon later goes on to compose (as Bede tells the story) are devoted to religious themes, and their language is exceptionally beautiful because they are divinely inspired. Here we see to what end Bede is directing his talents as a writer of providential history, for tale-type 2412B is normally anything but a religious tale. What Bede seems to have done is to adopt the core idea of a tale that, today, is told chiefly for the sake of “mere entertainment” so as to turn it into a narrative glorifying the power of God. Of course, all that Bede ever wrote has a religious tenor, and so the development of his chapter in such a direction should come as no surprise.

In addition, Bede’s story of Caedmon departs importantly from versions of tale-type 2412B in its development of a long aftermath to the initial “frame-tale.” Normally, modern versions of the tale end as soon as the protagonist has recounted his adventures and has won a kind of local fame. Bede’s chapter, however, includes two sequel episodes. Bede first tells that the monks of Whitby proceeded to read Caedmon a passage of sacred history or doctrine, “bidding him to make a song out of it, if he could, in metrical form.” Caedmon’s successful response to this challenge leads to his being invited to become a monk. Thereafter, Bede says, Caedmon composed any number of songs on devotional themes. An account of that man’s memorable death rounds off the chapter on a suitably pious note. By introducing supplementary details along these lines, Bede ensures that his narrative will have exemplary value. God’s grace reaches even as far as an obscure byre in Northumbria, and an ignorant cattle-man becomes a mouthpiece for the divine Word.

No variant of tale-type 2412B with which I am familiar includes sequel episodes resembling these. On the contrary, modern variants often dwell at some length (and with droll humour) on the protagonist’s series of fantastic adventures. Bede tells of only a single dream-vision. In comparison with modern versions of tale-type 2412B, Bede’s chapter thus strikes one as “top-light” in its initial development, then “bottom-heavy” in its emphasis on the role of the monks in receiving Caedmon into their midst and nursing his talents along. As a result of this shift of narrative weight, Bede’s tale celebrates the virtues of a life lived in accord with monastic discipline, including the habit of rumination over scriptural texts. Bede’s story of Caedmon can thus be read as a showpiece demonstrating that the Latin textual culture of medieval Christianity was such a powerful institutional entity as to be able to absorb the native English tradition of oral poetry as the source of yet more devotional texts. O’Donnell makes this same point in his own way:

Given modern interest in the mechanics of Caedmon’s inspiration,

perhaps the most surprising thing about Bede’s chapter is the

extent to which it is not about the “miracle” that made Caedmon

a poet. The real story in IV.24 is not how Caedmon learned to sing

as much as it is how well he learned to do so and how this ability

affected his life and the lives of those lucky enough to hear him

(O’Donnell 2005, [section] 1.10).

My own thesis helps to clarify this state of affairs, for it is easy to see that what Bede has done in this chapter is to take a remarkable story that could have stood alone (paragraphs 1 and 2, as summarised earlier), and to “gloss” that account with both an introduction and a long sequel (paragraphs 3 and 4) that further develop the story and bring out its significance for his chief audience, members of the clergy.

Oral Narrative, Present and Past

“The Man Who Had No Story” provides such delightful opportunities for storytellers to display their improvisational skills that I am sorely tempted to cite additional versions of it so as to flesh out the claims made in the preceding paragraphs. Such an exercise is unnecessary, however. It would reveal far more about modern Scottish and Irish storytelling than about Bede and his narrative art. In any event, other versions of the story are readily available. One of these is Scottish traveller Betsy Whyte’s story “The Man and the Boat,” a droll tale that hinges upon the protagonist’s sex change from male to female and back again (Figure 1). [16]


Also available in print is a version of “The Man and the Boat” as told by another Scottish traveller, Willie McPhee. [17] With tongue-in-cheek flair, McPhee recounts his version in the first person singular voice, as if the experience of being transformed into a nubile young girl had been his own, sometime back in his younger days. Having spent a pleasant evening with “Big Willie” during the summer of 1988 in a cottage in Fife, Scotland (not all that great a distance from Bede’s Jarrow or Caedmon’s Whitby), I can well imagine his friends doubling up in laughter to hear him relate this tale. Willie was not only a strong, grizzled old man at the time I met him. He also was enjoying a reputation as an outstanding storyteller and as one of the finest pipers among the Scottish travelling people, among whom he often had received the high honour of piping at the graveside during funerals. The notion that “Big Willie” McPhee would have to slink away from a ceilidh-house with the Caedmon-esque excuse that “I canny [can’t] tell stories, I canny sing sangs. I canny play pipes. I can dae naething like that. I’m useless!” (Douglas 1987, 67) would have struck his listeners as deliciously absurd.

With this last reference to the value still set on music, song, and storytelling among the travelling people of Scotland, we have come a long way away from Northumbria in the era of the breoma bocera Beda (“the famous scholar Bede”), as the author of the late Old English poem known as Durham refers to that respected authority. [18] All the same, as we shift our attention back and forth between the exquisitely learned Bede and the storytellers of the present day, some things change and others do not. Not many present-day Irish and Scottish storytellers live and breathe Latin, as Bede did. Only some may share his deeply devout outlook on human experience. What the skilled storytellers of today do have in common with Bede is the ability to spin the threads of life into the multi-coloured garment of a well-told tale. As John McNamara has written, calling attention to Bede as an author who absorbed a great deal of knowledge from oral tradition and who wrote in a milieu that had only recently ceased being wholly preliterate,

For all his learning, Bede lived in a predominately oral community,

one that constituted itself as a community largely by its

circulation of oral narratives. […] I therefore employ the

principles and methods of folklore research to the Historia

Ecclesistica in order to render “audible” some of the ways Bede

treats oral narratives, focusing especially on legends circulating

in monastic and popular tradition. […] In the age of Bede, the

culture of the monastery was never very far from the mentality of

the popular culture taken as a whole (McNamara 1994, 61 and 63).

Citing numerous examples to support his case, McNamara argues that as a member of a textual community that was not isolated from the practice of oral storytelling, Bede served as a conduit for any number of legends current in his day.

We begin to learn something about the folkloric dimension of Bede’s learned history from his very first chapter, where stories relating to Ireland have a prominent place, as they often do in later books and chapters as well. Bede first recounts a fascinating and apparently quite fabulous story about the arrival in Ireland of Picts sailing from Scythia in search of a new homeland. He then makes the improbable assertion (to our way of thought) that no reptile is capable of surviving in Ireland, “for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish.” [19] If by the end of book 3 of his history–even after reading his quasi-mythic account of the English Conquest and his punning story of the English slave-boys in the market-place in Rome [20]–one has not yet come to appreciate Bede’s skill as a raconteur, one might dwell for a while on his elaborate account there of the vision of Fursa (book 3, chapter 19). As a holy man of Ireland (Bede reports), Fursa settled in East Anglia so as to found a monastery there. On two occasions he had an extended “out-of-body” experience, during which he was permitted to witness the joys of the angelic hosts while also suffering the fierce onslaughts of evil spirits who sought to prevent his journey to heaven. Although Bede refers to an unknown Life of Fursa (probably of Irish origin) as his main source for his knowledge of that monk, he also makes clear that it was through oral tradition that he knew of the full substance of Fursa’s visions:

Superest adhuc frater quidam senior monasterii nostri, qui narrare

solet dixisse sibi quondam multum ueracem ac religiosum hominem,

quod ipsum Furseum uiderit in prouincia Orientalium Anglorum,

illasque uisiones ex ipsius ore audierit, adiciens quia tempus

hiemis fuerit acerrimum et glacie constrictum, cure sedens in tenui

ueste uir ita inter dicendum propter magnitudinem memorati timoris

uel suauitatis quasi in mediae aestatis caumate sudauerit.

[An aged brother is still living in our monastery [that is, Jarrow]

who is wont to relate that a most truthful and pious man told him

that he had seen Fursa himself in the kingdom of the East Angles

and had heard these visions from his own mouth. He added that

although it was during a time of severe winter weather and a hard

frost and though Fursa sat wearing only a thin garment, yet as he

told his story, he sweated as though it were the middle of summer,

either because of the terror or else the joy which his

recollections aroused] (Colgrave and Mynors 1969, 274-5).

Bede’s narrative of “the Vision of Fursa” is not only a flamboyant example of a narrative genre (the “otherworld journey”) that is still popular today after having been a narrative staple of the Middle Ages. [21] It is also an example of the kind of narrative that a folklorist would call a “friend-of-a-friend” tale (a “FOAF-tale”): that is, it is a story that Bede says he heard from a close personal acquaintance (“an aged brother”) who heard it from someone else of impeccable credentials (“a most truthful and pious man”). This man in turn heard it from the Irishman Fursa himself, who is both the topic of the story and its ultimate and unimpeachable source. It is precisely this kind of strategic linking-to and distancing-from the putative source of a “true” story that is characteristic of modern “urban legends” as a genre. These are narratives that, as folklorists are aware, need not be either “modern” in their date or “urban” in their location, but that have the power to shock and, often, amuse their audiences through their account of real-world experiences that are always just a shade “too good to be true.” [22]

So as not to be misunderstood, I should emphasise that I am not claiming that what Bede told when he recounted the “Vision of Fursa” was a prototypical “urban legend.” Nor do I wish to claim, more importantly, that Bede’s story of Coedmon is either “the source” of Irish tale-type 2412B or an early specimen of that narrative type (although it comes close to being one). On the contrary, what we are dealing with in each of these instances is what the Celticist R. Mark Scowcroft has called “abstract narrative patterns” (1995, 121-58). These are “thematic cores” or “narrative archetypes” that can be given concrete embodiment by different authors or storytellers in any number of different ways depending on such factors as genre, audience, ideology, and historical period. No two such tales will be alike, whatever their structural affinities may be. When we think in terms of “source” and “derivative,” “tale-type” and “example,” our conceptual categories are perhaps somewhat more constrained than they need be. The point that I wish to make is that a given story not only can be perceived as standing alone as a unique statement pertaining to its own time and place, but also, in all its individuality, can be seen to participate in an ongoing, collective process by which reality itself is perceived (and, even, experienced) according to certain recurrent narrative patterns. In my discussion of Bede’s Caedmon, I have tried to apply that principle with as much specificity as possible.

Conclusion: The Scholar as Storyteller

We are accustomed to honouring the author of the Ecclesiastical History as “Bede the Scholar” (Meyvaert 1976)–surely the most learned biblical exegete of his day. One has no difficulty thinking of that same man as “Bede the Educator” (Brown 1997), for he was generous in seeing that his knowledge was put to others’ use. [23] To one admirer living in the late Anglo-Saxon period, Byrhtferth of Ramsey, Bede deserved praise as both “the venerable Astronomer” and “the noble Computist.” [24] Perhaps the time is not far away when “Bede the Storyteller” will receive his due share of honour as well; for in that capacity too he excelled, so much as to deserve respect as, with the Beowulf poet, one of the two premier storytellers we know of from the Anglo-Saxon era.

Biographical Note

John D. Niles is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His specialty is the literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, and he also does research relating to current oral traditions, particularly in Scotland. He is currently at work on a book, Beowulf and Lejre, that responds to recent archaeological finds in Denmark.

References Cited

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[1] One of these motives is clear: Bede shapes his chapter so as to call attention to God’s power to work miracles on earth. In addition, Bede’s manner of telling the full story of Caedmon’s career and death ensures that any interest accruing to this person as a vernacular poet is firmly subsumed into the world of Latin monastic learning, the world that Bede himself both inhabited and esteemed.

[2] By calling attention to the mythopoeic aspects of Bede’s history, I do not wish to deny that there was a historical Caedmon, a monk who, in preceding years, had gained some fame for his vernacular verse. There very probably was such a man, for Bede would scarcely have wanted to face possible criticism for having invented him. What is at stake, both here and elsewhere in the Ecclesiastical History, is Bede’s ability to shape the materials of life into memorable forms, while subordinating every incident to the devotional purposes that animate his work as a whole.

[3] An overview of analogues to the Caedmon story proposed in the scholarly literature up to the early 1970s is provided by Lester (1974). Lester’s atomistic analysis of these parallels, however, is not conducive to distinguishing which elements pertain to the narrative core of the tale and which are incidental. O’Donnell (2005) devotes his chapter 2 (“Sources and Analogues”) to discussion of the story’s many proposed analogues, of which he counts approximately forty-five to the story and a few more to Caedmon’s Hymn. O’Donnell’s approach to these proposed parallels, too, is somewhat atomistic, as befits the ad hoc and impressionistic manner in which the authors of these studies have tended to advance them. My own preferred method of inquiry is to ask whether there is any well known tale-type, or abstract narrative pattern, to which the story of Caedmon can meaningfully be related, for any one individual tale that might be cited as a parallel will have idiosyncracies that undercut that comparison as soon as it is made. I am grateful to O’Donnell for his generosity in having sent me a copy of his precise and wide-ranging study in advance of publication.

[4] As is discussed by Dobbie (1942, c, note 3) and by Andersson (1974).

[5] Pound (1929). Working in a comparable vein, Osborn (1989, 16-17) discusses inter alia several Old Norse and Celtic parallels to the theme of poetic inspiration through dream visions, while Lord (1993) discusses singers from Turkey and the Fiji Islands whose inspiration is said to have come via a dream.

[6] Chappell (1934) cites a Scots Gaelic analogue culled from Campbell (1890-93, vol. II, 33-5), but the tale he discusses has only a glancing relation to either Bede or the tale-type I will discuss. Likewise Vincent (1946) cites a rather remote Irish parallel. Ireland (1997) calls attention to an Irish poet, Colman mac Leneni (died ca. 606), who refers to his own “inspired sleep” as the source of a poem. I am grateful to Dr Ireland for providing generous and expert assistance in regard to scholarship on the Irish side.

[7] O’Sullivan (1966, 274) notes that “one hundred and thirty-seven versions of it have been recorded in Ireland.” That number might be substantially augmented if a systematic effort to record the tale were made at the present time.

[8] The prolonged, intimate cultural contact between three different ethnic groups (the Saxons, the Irish, and the Britons) in Bede’s Northumbria is discussed by Ireland (1986). Similarly, Atherton (2002, 82) emphasises that Bede’s Northumbria had “many international connections” and was “an ideal situation for religious, cultural and literary contacts,” particularly at the monastery of Whitby under Abbess Hild (c. 614-680), who had been influenced by both the Roman mission from Canterbury and the Irish mission from Iona. O’Brien (1993) presents archaeological evidence showing that traffic between Ireland and England went both ways, for some burial types associated with Anglo-Saxon England can also be traced in Ireland at this time.

[9] O’Donnell (2005, [subsection] 1.2-1.5). So as to facilitate the present analysis, I re-number O’Donnell’s paragraphs and omit his explanatory notes.

[10] For discussion of this point see Cavill (2002, 4-5). Cavill’s inference that Bede knew Caedmon’s name from a written source (now lost) is intriguing, although speculative. If Bede did have a written source for the name, one need not conclude that he necessarily had a written source for the whole story.

[11] As in Betsy Whyte’s story “The Man and the Boat,” in Philip (1995, 52-4). In other published versions of tale-type 2412B, the man is variously said to be a horse trainer, a plowman, or an itinerant harvester, if any trade for him is specified. In short, the protagonist is normally of humble occupation and rural roots.

[12] The folkloric motif present here–“Person Accidentally Met Unexpectedly Knows the Other’s Name,” motif N762 in Thompson (1955-8)–is a characteristic component of tale-type 2412B. For two variants including this motif see Zimmerman (2001, 542 and 543). The first of these tales, dating from 1828, features “Joan Coleman of Kinsale,” a woman of poor means who is addressed by name by “a very old man, with a long beard, roasting another man as old as himself on a spit before a great fire.” The other tale, from the same era, features “Ned Sheehy,” a serving man who is addressed by name in similar circumstances. For another instance see O’Sullivan (1966, 182-4), a tale recorded in 1933 featuring “Rory O’Donoghue,” a peddler who is repeatedly addressed by name in one or another magical setting.

[13] Almqvist (1969-70, 60). Timoney’s story appears in that article at pp. 51-5 (in Irish) and 55-9 (in English). In quoting from the English version I use this translation, which is reprinted in Glassie (1985, 319-23).

[14] The pronominal form agat, which occurs at this point in the Irish version of the tale as published in Bealoideas, is here replaced with aige for the sake of grammaticality. The translation given here–“the man who has the story to tell”–is slightly more precise than the one published in Bealoideas, which reads “the man who will have a story to tell.” What the man will always be able to tell is this story, not just any. Moreover, Timoney’s wording implies that this story stands out among others. I am grateful to Patricia Lysaght for linguistic advice at this point.

[15] Zimmerman (2001, 544), paraphrasing Mac Carthaigh (1980). What Mac Carthaigh claims is that “Although classified as a Folktale, and though bearing a good deal of resemblance to the accepted form of the Western European folktale in its humour and its sometimes multiepisodic structure, the story does however have more in common with the Folk Legend in both its closeness to reality and in its use of topical social themes” (116-17).

[16] See note [11]. In a forthcoming study (Niles c. 2006) I offer a paraphrase of a different performance of that tale as I recorded it from Whyte in 1986. Whyte is one of the storytellers discussed in Niles 1999 (166-72 passim).

[17] “The Man Who Had No Story to Tell,” as told by Willie MacPhee and as published by Douglas (1987, 67-9). For another Scottish version see MacColl and Seeger (1986, 80-3) (“The Laddie That Became a Lass,” as told by Belle Stewart).

[18] Verse 15a of the Old English poem known as Durham, in Dobbie (1942, 27).

[19] “Nam saepe illo de Brittania adlatai serpentes, mox ut proximante terris nauigio odore aeris illius adtacti fuerint, intereunt” (Colgrave and Mynors 1969, 18-19).

[20] In chapter 1 of a forthcoming collection of essays titled Old English Heroic Poetry and the Social Life of Texts, I discuss Bede’s account of the coming of the English (and the Old English translation of Bede’s account) as an example of early medieval mythopoesis. As for his famous story of the English slave-boys in Rome, with its onomastic punning on Angli and “angels,” Deira and de ira, and AElle and “allelujia,” such wordplay is “a common feature in early Irish narratives (both vernacular and Latin), with some claiming that it derives from, or is heavily influenced by, Isidore of Seville’s etymologizing style” (pers. commun, from Colin Ireland, 25 May, 2005).

[21] Zaleski (1987) provides a bibliography of both primary sources (pp. 248-54) and secondary sources (pp. 254-7) relating to medieval instances of this extremely popular narrative genre, of which Bede’s account of the “Vision of Dryhthelm” (from book 5, chapter 12 of his Historia) was one of the most influential examples.

[22] For a concise account of this narrative genre see Brunvand (1996). Brunvand defines the urban legend as “an apocryphal contemporary story, told as true but incorporating traditional motifs, and usually attributed to a friend of a friend (FOAF).” He notes that some modern urban legends “may have ancient and/or rural prototypes” (p. 730). See further Brunvand (1999), one of the more recent and comprehensive of his many anthologies of these tales.

[23] In a brief tribute that runs along similar lines, Byrhtferth of Ramsey refers to Bede as se aeglaeca lareow (“the awe-inspiring teacher”), using a Beowulfian-style adjective (ag-laece) that might mean something like “monstrous good!” if here it is not merely, as has been suspected, a corruption of ae-gleawa “learned in law.” See Healey 1986-, s.v. ag-laece (adj.).

[24] Baker and Lapidge 1995, 46 (Beda […] astrologus uenerandus) and 48 (Beda […] se arwurda rimcraeftiga).

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