ACCORDING to the Venerable Bede, our first reliable English historian, English literature had a miraculous origin in the late seventh century in a religious somniloquy by an illiterate cowherd named Cædmon. Writing at least a half century after the miracle, Bede represents Cædmon’s Old English “Hymn” in only a Latin paraphrase in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Our earliest vernacular versions of the “Hymn” appear, not as part of Bede’s text, but rather as notes later appended by scribes to two eighth-century manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica.1 From its humble start as a marginal, secondary text, the vernacular “Hymn” first worked its way into the central, primary text by means of a tenth-century Old English translation of Bede’s entire History.2 It continued to appear, nonetheless, as a marginal text from the eleventh to the fifteenth century in Latin manuscripts of Bede. Nowadays scholars are generally convinced that we have inherited by this process authentic witnesses of Cædmon’s debut as a poet; in fact, they print the “Hymn,” in both scholarly editions and general anthologies, as the central text, with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica relegated to the margins. The textual history of Cædmon’s “Hymn” provides an unmiraculous case history of how re-productions of literary texts both purposely and unintentionally re-present our past.
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