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
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.
Baptisms by Water and by Blood
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.
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.
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 First Poet of the English Language
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.
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.
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