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Cædmon the Outsider

13th of November, 2022

“When the pagan gods of Ireland—the Tuath-De-Danān—robbed of worship and offerings, grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies, the pagan heroes grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the giants.”
—W. B. Yeats

The past serves as the most basic raw material for national mythmaking, and appeals to history tend to serve as the bread and butter of arguments made by nationalists in very new states. Some rather hideous examples of this sort of creative writing can be found in the Balkans, an especially egregious example that saw a lot of use in the 1990s by the Serbian intelligentsia was the use of the 1389 defeat of Serb forces by Turks at the battle of Kosovo to justify Serbian brutality towards the majority Albanian population of Kosovo. An even less persuasive appeal to history is made by Israeli settler colonists who claim to be indigenous to Palestinian land based on the spurious inheritance of the Kingdom of Judea from thousands of years ago.

In the preface to Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500 author Leonard Patrick Harvey points out that when one is to take stock of the Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula in this period, one tends to produce two distinct categories: the Arabic speaking inhabitants of the small but very populous independent Muslim Emirate of Granada, and the populations of Muslims living as minority subjects in the Christian Kingdoms of Castille, Aragon, and Navarre.

“It is normal for these two groups to be treated quite separately. Islamic, Arabic-speaking Granada is rightly held to form part of the Islamic world, and so its history often is seen as a mere eccentric far-western appendage to that of the Middle East. The Muslim subjects of the Christian monarchs, on the other hand, in almost all cases quite small minorities in the regions where they lived, for that reason became in some accounts almost irrelevant footnotes to a story that is not their own. A quarter of a millennium of the history of Islamic Spain at the end of the Middle Ages has thus been subjected to a double process of marginalisation, and in consequence has not always been well understood.”

All study of history serves to produce ideological and ideal partitions in reality; this is an inevitability of the asymmetry between linguistic models of reality and the gross complexity of existence that these models crudely attempt to explain. The task of a responsible historian, or anyone attempting to reckon with the material of reality, is to aim as much as possible for the crude lumpy bits to produce the ideological thrust of historical argument, rather than the wholesale ontological disenfranchisement of human beings. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 is rightly seen as a pivotal moment in the history of the rest of Europe, but a popular history of Spain all too often sees the introduction of Jews into the history of that land only at the very moment that they cease to inhabit it.

This is not a phenomenon exclusive to our times, nor is it exclusively a problem in academia. “Byzantine” as a name for the Eastern Roman Empire in fact originates as a sort of unflattering euphemism invented by the West. Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Eastern Romans maintained a striking cultural continuity. The Western dark ages—an historiographical meme thankfully extinct in serious history but alive and well in the popular imagination—relies on the Eurocentric ideological disinterest in this fact. This period of a few hundred years, during which the common peoples in western Europe largely forgot about the existence of Rome, was to end only once Charlemagne and his descendants began to organise a new Papal-led vision of Imperial Rome which rejected the hegemony of the surviving Eastern Roman sphere. The great city of Constantinople—Emperor Constantine's eastern Nova Roma—was originally called Byzantium before the 4th century CE, and so the insistence by the West on the Byzantine label served effectively to disinherit the East from this connection with the Roman Imperial legacy and instead saddle it with the ideological baggage of a mythical pagan Anatolia.

When the history of early Europe is told by nationalists and reactionaries, the object is the substitution of record for argument and philosophy for rhetoric. The extent that their persuasive account succeeds often depends on the subtlety of their handling of Christianity. Charting the spread of new gospels is inevitably a study adjacent to that of imperial conquest, but it is important for new believers that their dignities are not compromised by an historical narrative that something as intrinsic to their vital condition as their faith was imposed from outside by superior martial forces. The early history of Christianity's spread cannot of course by charted as a parallel development with some military expansion, as for instance Islam can be in its first century. But it obviously cannot be understood as an a progressive enlightenment that spreads by virtue of its compelling spiritual force either. It developed, as did all cultural schema, according to a negotiation between a present materialist substrate and the a set of conditional processes which are immanent within the schema itself.

The dignity of organised religion is curious in that it often depends on an alternating and conflicting emphasis on the strong and the weak, the sober and the sublime. Crucially: the oppressed and the oppressor. One especially interesting illustration of this is that the world-renouncing Buddhist monks of China were forbidden to own property as individuals while their monasteries loaned seeds to peasants and made debt slaves of those who could not pay back the interest. The more obvious example is that of the Catholic church, whose obscene and intentionally visible wealth depends on the veneration of a man born in a stable to penniless refugees.

Some of the most important early Christian leaders of 7th century England include St Theodore of Tarsus: a man from what is now southern Turkey who served as a cleric in Constantinople before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, and St Adrian: a Berber monk who was an abbot near Naples before being sent by by the Pope on a mission to converted the English. The most important poet of 7th century England was Cædmon: A Northumbrian illiterate cowherd who was already middle aged before he composed a single line. The most important historian was Bede: a monk who writes of Cædmon as though he is a semi-mythical figure like Homer, though Cædmon was only a generation his senior. According to Bede, Cædmon slipped away from a night of festivities and fell asleep in a stable amongst the horses. In his dream, a figure who might have been an angel visited him and ordered that he should “sing the beginning of created beings”. Cædmon began to sing. When he woke up, he remembered every word.

“In the morning he came to the steward, his superior, and having acquainted him with the gift he had received, was conducted to the abbess, by whom he was ordered, in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream, and repeat the verses, that they might all give their judgement what it was, and whence his verse proceeded. They all concluded that heavmenly grace had been conferred on him by our Lord. They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical, or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away, and returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse.”
“He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments…”
—Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Hymn from the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, translated from the Old English by Benjamin Slade

Bede’s account, if it is to be persuasive in some way, does not depend and has never depended on its listeners believing it to be a literal account of English history. The truth or falsity of “myth” seems to have been by all accounts irrelevant for ancient and mediaeval audiences and poets. “Fiction” tends to be considered as a genre which is denoted by its invention of scenarios, but people tacitly understand fiction to be a style or form, rather than a condition about the veracity of its content. We can easily imagine a book which is written as if it is a piece of fiction which, in fact, just describes real events. Falsification might appear only in the prose device: in its translation of the uncompressible universal substance of truth into the lossy schema of narrative and the aesthetically novel voice of a spiritually specific artist. This would still be fiction. A painting is still a painting if the artist attempts to record the true appearance of her subject. Like fiction and figurative painting, “myth” is more a formal style than a designation of historical veracity.

“Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counter-revolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but it was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of them indulgently accepted by the Roman Pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.”
—Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism

The only way for the petty provincialism of the Anglo-Saxons to survive the confrontation with the vast wealth and culture of the Christian East was to approach them as both a lesser and greater force. Bede’s treatment of Cædmon as a mythical figure, though he was still alive when Bede was born, cannot make sense until we make a qualitative distinction between the past as material for the generation of myth and myth as the material for the generation of a present. Prophecy depends on this phenomenon: prophecy is the attribution of a vision of the future to a figure of the past which concerns some moral or political lesson about the state of the present. Cædmon is necessarily something of a noble savage, but Christian revelation does not admit a sort of traditionalist priority to the Celts over the Romans. Cædmon’s priority has to come from his quality as a figure in the present: an outsider who cannot be compared with any greater poet because he is lesser than them, except for the part of his circumstance which makes him immeasurably greater.

“Others after him attempted, in the English nation, to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, but from God.”

I would like to thank my friend Tanner Wood for helping me to write this piece with encouragement and lots of exposition on the history of early Christianity. The piece is dedicated to him, whether he likes it or not.

Further Reading:

Oxymoron: A Philosophy of History in Avant-Garde Jazz
Nostalgia, Nowak
The Historical Peculiarity of the Greek Chorus