It might come as a bit of a surprise to some, but English literature owes its start to a Benedictine nun. Her name is St. Hilda of Whitby (614 - 680), and in a moment, you will learn the story of how she became the mother of English literature. First, however, here is a little bit about her life which we know from the the book Ecclesiastical History which was written by St. Bede the Venerable (673 - 735).
Hilda's Early Life
Hilda was born in Northumbria, England to her father Hereric and her mother Bregusuit. She was of noble birth as her father was the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria. When Hilda was very young, her father was taken from his home by King Cerdic who ruled the rival Britons. Hilda and her mother were never to see him again as was kept a captive until he was finally poisoned by Cerdic.
The grief that Bregusuit had over the loss of her husband was great and was only alleviated somewhat by a dream she had. In her dream, Bregusuit searched for her husband. Although Hilda's mother had searched diligently for Hereric, she could not find him. After growing weary from looking for her husband, Bregusuit discovered that she carried a beautiful jewel under her cloak. She pulled it out and gazed at the precious gem. As she looked at it, the light from the jewel grew larger and larger until the light spread throughout all of Britain.
In his recounting of this story, Bede adds his commentary that this dream would be fulfilled through the life of her daughter Hilda.
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Baptisms by Water and by Blood
When she was 13 years of age, Hilda was baptized on Easter along with many others of noble birth including, notably, King Edwin himself. They were all baptized by St. Paulinus who was the Archbishop of York. The baptism took place in a hastily built wooden church that is near the present-day location of York Minster.
Paulinus was the first bishop of the region and had come to Britain along with St. Augustine, St. Justus, and St. Mellitus all of Canterbury. They had been sent from Rome by Pope St. Gregory the Great in 601 as missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons. After a number years of evangelization in Northumbria, Paulinus was beginning to see the fruits of his labor with these baptisms. After the baptism of Hilda, Paulinus would live for 17 more years and see thousands baptized and enter the fold of the Church.
However, despite the great joy that was celebrated as the Church grew in Northumbria, it was still missionary territory which was bordered by enemies who were as hostile to the Faith as they were to the Northumbrians. In an uprising by the rival Britons, many of the new Northumbrian Christians were killed including King Edwin. At the time, Hilda was nineteen years old when her great uncle had been killed along with so many others. Over those six years since her baptism, she had been receiving instruction and the sacraments from Bishop Paulinus. The graces she had received prepared her to remain strong in the midst of this devastating blow to the young believers.
At this point, Bede does not give us many details about the next fourteen years of Hilda's life. Although we do know that during that time, the Christians continued to suffer as other Northumbrians were martyred and Christians were captured and enslaved. What we do know is that what would have been the most expected things to occur in Hilda's life did not occur. Instead, at the age of thirty-three Hilda had not been carried off by a hostile force and she was an unmarried woman when Bede picks up the story.
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Dedicating Her Life to God
Hilda had instead decided to dedicate her life to the service of the Lord. Her first thought was to join her older sister, Queen Hereswith, who had entered the convent in Chelles, France after the death of her husband King Anna of East Anglia. However, St. Aidan who was now the bishop of Northumbria suggested another idea. He provided Hilda with a small plot of land on the north bank of the Wear River. Along with several companions, Hilda began to live the monastic life in the place that would eventually be named Whitby.
During the first year of their religious life, St. Aidan instructed the nuns in the tradition of Celtic monasticism with which he was quite familiar having come from the island of Iona which is off the west coast of present-day Scotland. It is on that island that St. Columba had established a monastery around the year 563. Then, at the end of their first year, Hilda was appointed abbess by Bishop Aidan.
It is clear that her years of life before becoming a Benedictine nun and abbess had prepared Hilda for this new life. Hilda had been studying the Faith for years under the bishops of the region, and she was thus prepared to teach and lead her nuns in their growth in the spiritual life. In addition, Hilda demonstrated great talent in administration and organization which was crucial for the young monastery as it began to grow and develop a routine of monastic life.
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Abbess at Whitby
As was typical of Celtic monasticism, the nuns would live in small houses with two or three persons per house. They would gather for prayer and mass in the chapel. Hilda insisted that every nun study the Scriptures and perform good works.
The monastery also was supported by growing crops and raising livestock which required Hilda to administer the work schedules and the employees who helped run the farm. In addition, eventually, the monastery was expanded to include men who lived as monks. The women and men lived separately but came together for worship. Hilda placed the men under the same plan for spiritual development and religious rule for living as the women.
As Whitby flourished, the reputation of the abbess grew. Kings, princes, and religious leaders would come and visit Hilda in order to benefit from her wisdom and common sense. In addition, the teaching program that she put in place was considered top-notch. Through it, no less than five men who had trained under her spiritual practices were ordained bishops.
The last thirty-three years of Hilda's life were dedicated to leading the nuns and monks as the Abbess of Whitby. However, her last seven years were plagued by illness. Nonetheless, with her great energy she continued to guide and to teach until her death on November 17, 680.
The First Poet of the English Language
The story of the beginning of English Literature starts with a man named Caedmon who was a regular fellow although not in the best of health. He also was very sure that he could not sing one whit which negated his participation in a popular form of entertainment of the day. Thus, at any type of celebration when they broke out the harp and started the singing, Caedmon would excuse himself and often end up heading home early. It was an embarrassment to him.
On one particular occasion, the singing was starting, and as was usual, Caedmon got up and left the party. He went to the cattle shed because he was taking care of the cattle at this time. Eventually, he laid down and fell asleep in the hay. Caedmon then had a dream in which a man stood beside him and spoke to him.
"Caedmon, sing me something," said the man.
"I cannot sing; and for that reason I left the banquet hall and came here because I did not know how to sing," answered Caedmon.
"Nevertheless, you can sing for me," replied the man.
"What shall I sing?", asked Caedmon.
"Sing of creation," said the man.
Then, at once, Caedmon began to sing of creation giving praise to God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. He sang all of this in his native tongue which we would call Old English. He had never heard the verses that he sang, but he sang to the man until he woke up from his dream. However, it really was not just a dream because Caedmon could sing and he could also compose. He remembered the verses he had sang and he began to add more verses to them in the same meter.
The next day, Caedmon told one of the town aldermen of his dream and his new found gift. The alderman promptly took Caedmon to Hilda who heard the story for herself. She gathered together some of the monks who listened to the story and Caedmon's singing and discerned that it truly was a gift from God.
Hilda then persuaded Caedmon to become a monk. Caedmon entered into the same spiritual program Hilda had designed as the other monks and began to study Scripture and to pray in accord with the monk's schedule. Through these disciplines, Caedmon gained additional knowledge that enabled him to compose many songs that shared the love of God through the stories of the Bible.
Through his gift, he would learn a passage of Scripture or lesson on doctrine and after meditating upon it would be able to produce beautiful verse that raised the spirits of all those who heard the words he shared. His verses were shared beyond the monastery and helped inspire men and women to turn from evil and to turn toward God.
Unfortunately, of all the works composed by Caedmon, we only have the several verses preserved by Bede in his book the Ecclesiastical History. All the same, these are some of the earliest known words in Old English and place Caedmon as the earliest poet in Old English for which we have a name. He died around the year 680 and is considered to be a saint.
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Feast Day: November 17 (Memorial)