Part 2 out of 13
stories which we owe to our Celtic forefathers, let us see what
the Saxons brought us from over the sea.
Almost the oldest Anglo-Saxon book that we have is called
Beowulf. Wise men tell us that, like the tales of Arthur, like
the tales of Ossian, this book was not at first the work of one
man, but that it has been gradually put together out of many
minstrel songs. That may be so, but what is sure is that these
tales are very old, and that they were sung and told for many
years in the old homes of the English across the sea before they
came to Britain and named it Angleland.
Yet, as with the old Gaelic and Cymric tales, we have no very old
copy of this tale. But unlike these old tales, we do not find
Beowulf told in different ways in different manuscripts. There
is only one copy of Beowulf, and that was probably written in the
tenth or eleventh century, long years after the English were
firmly settled in the land.
As Beowulf is one of our great book treasures, you may like to
hear something of its story.
Long ago, in the time when Queen Elizabeth, James I., and Charles
I. sat upon the throne, there lived a learned gentleman called
Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. He was an antiquary. That is, he loved
old things, and he gathered together old books, coins,
manuscripts and other articles, which are of interest because
they help to make us understand the history of bygone days.
Sir Robert Cotton loved books especially, and like many other
book lovers, he was greedy of them. It was said, indeed, that he
often found it hard to return books which had been lent to him,
and that, among others, he had books which really ought to have
belonged to the King.
Sir Robert's library soon became famous, and many scholars came
to read there, for Sir Robert was very kind in allowing other
people to use his books. But twice his library was taken from
him, because it was said that it contained things which were
dangerous for people to know, and that he allowed the enemies of
the King to use it. That was in the days of Charles I., and
those were troublous times.
The second time that his library was taken from him, Sir Robert
died, but it was given back to his son, and many years later his
great-great-grandson gave it to the nation.
In 1731 the house in which the library was took fire, and more
than a hundred books were burned, some being partly and some
quite destroyed. Among those that were partly destroyed was
Beowulf. But no one cared very much, for no one had read the
book or knew anything about it.
Where Sir Robert found Beowulf, or what he thought about it, we
shall never know. Very likely it had remained in some quiet
monastery library for hundreds of years until Henry VIII.
scattered the monks and their books. Many books were then lost,
but some were saved, and after many adventures found safe
resting-places. Among those was Beowulf.
Some years after the fire the Cotton Library, as it is now
called, was removed to the British Museum, where it now remains.
And there a Danish gentleman who was looking for books about his
own land found Beowulf, and made a copy of it. Its adventures,
however, were not over. Just when the printed copies were ready
to be published, the British bombarded Copenhagen. The house in
which the copies were was set on fire and they were all burned.
The Danish gentleman, however, was not daunted. He set to work
again, and at last Beowulf was published.
Even after it was published in Denmark, no Englishman thought of
making a translation of the book, and it was not until fifty
years more had come and gone that an English translation
When the Danish gentleman made his copy of Beowulf, he found the
edges of the book so charred by fire that they broke away with
the slightest touch. No one thought of mending the leaves, and
as years went on they fell to pieces more and more. But at last
some one woke up to the fact that this half-burned book was a
great treasure. Then it was carefully mended, and thus kept from
So now, after all its adventures, having been found, we shall
never know where, by a gentleman in the days of Queen Elizabeth,
having lain on his bookshelves unknown and unread for a hundred
years and more, having been nearly destroyed by fire, having been
still further destroyed by neglect, Beowulf at last came to its
own, and is now carefully treasured in a glass case in the
British Museum, where any one who cared about it may go to look
And although it is perhaps not much to look at, it is a very
great treasure. For it is not only the oldest epic poem in the
Anglo-Saxon language, it is history too. By that I do not mean
that the story is all true, but that by reading it carefully we
can find out much about the daily lives of our forefathers in
their homes across the seas. And besides this, some of the
people mentioned in the poem are mentioned in history too, and it
is thought that Beowulf, the hero himself, really lived.
And now, having spoken about the book and its adventures, let us
in the next chapter speak about the story. As usual, I will give
part of it in the words of the original, translated, of course,
into modern English. You can always tell what is from the
original by the quotation marks, if by nothing else.
Chapter XI THE STORY OF BEOWULF
HROTHGAR, King of the Spear Danes, was a mighty man in war, and
when he had fought and conquered much, he bethought him that he
would build a great and splendid hall, wherein he might feast and
be glad with his people.
And so it was done. And when the hall was built, there night by
night the thanes gathered and rejoiced with their King; and
there, when the feast was over, they lay them down to sleep.
Within the hall all was gladness, but without on the lone
moorland there stalked a grim monster, named Grendel, whose dark
heart was filled with anger and hate. To him the sound of song
and laughter was deep pain, and he was fain to end it.
"He, the Grendel, set off then after night was come to seek the
lofty house, to see how the Ring Danes had ordered it after the
service of beer. He found them therein, a troup of nobles
sleeping after the feast. They knew not sorrow, the wretchedness
of men, they knew not aught of misfortune.
"The grim and greedy one was soon prepared, savage and fierce,
and in sleep he seized upon thirty of the thanes, and thence he
again departed exulting in his prey, to go home with the carcases
of the slain, to reach his own dwelling.
"Then was in the morning twilight, at the breaking of day,
Grendel's war-craft revealed to men. Then was lamentation
upraised after the feast, a great noise in the morning.
"The mighty prince, a noble of old goodness, sat unblithe; the
strong in armies suffered, the thanes endured sorrow, after they
beheld the track of the hated one, the accursed spirit."
But in spite of all their grief and horror, when night came the
thanes again lay down to rest in the great hall. And there again
the monster returned and slew yet more thanes, so that in horror
all forsook the hall, and for twelve long years none abode in it
after the setting of the sun.
And now far across the sea a brave man of the Goths, Beowulf by
name, heard of the doings of Grendel, and he made up his mind to
come to the aid of King Hrothgar.
"He commanded to make ready for him a good ship; quoth he, he
would seek the war-king over the swan's path; the renowned prince
since he had need of men.
"The good chieftain had chosen warriors of the Geátish people,
the bravest of those who he could find. With fifteen men he
sought the sea-wood. A warrior, a man crafty in lakes, pointed
out the boundaries of the land.
"The time passed on, the ship was on the waves, the boat beneath
a mountain, the ready warriors stept upon the prow. The men bore
into the bosom of the bark bright ornaments, their ready warlike
"The men shoved forth the bounden wood, the men upon the journey
"The likest to a bird the foam-necked ship, propelled by the
wind, started over the deep waves of the sea, till that about one
hour of the second day, the wreathed prowed ship had sailed over,
so that the traveller saw the land.
"Then quickly the people of the Westerns stepped upon the plain.
They tied the sea-wood, they let down their shirts of mail, their
war-weeds. They thanked God because that the waves had been easy
And now these new-come warriors were led to King Hrothgar. He
greeted them with joy, and after feasting and song the Danes and
their King departed and left the Goths to guard the hall.
Quietly they lay down to rest, knowing that ere morning stern
battle would be theirs.
"Then under veils of mist came Grendel from the moor; he bare
God's anger. The criminal meant to entrap some one of the race
of men in the high hall. He went under the welkin, until he saw
most clearly the wine hall, the treasure house of men, variegated
with vessels. That was not the first time that he had sought
Hrothgar's home. Never he, in all his life before or since found
bolder men keepers of the hall.
"Angry of mood he went, from his eyes, likest to fire, stood out
a hideous light. He saw within the house many a warrior
sleeping, a peaceful band together. Then his mood laughed. The
foul wretch meant to divide, ere day came, the life of each from
Quickly then he seized a warrior and as quickly devoured him.
But as he stretched forth his hand to seize another, Beowulf
gripped him in his awful grasp.
Then began a terrible combat. The hall echoed with cries and
sounds of clashing steel. The Goths awoke, joining in the fight,
but all their swords were of no avail against the ogre. With his
bare hands alone Beowulf fought, and thought to kill the monster.
But Grendel escaped, though wounded to death indeed, and leaving
his hand, arm, and shoulder behind in Beowulf's grip.
When morning came there was much rejoicing. Hrothgar made a
great feast, at which he gave rich gifts to Beowulf and his
friends. The evening passed in song and laughter, and when
darkness fell the Danes lay down to rest in the hall as of old.
But the evil was not over. Grendel indeed was slain, but his
mother, an ogre almost as fierce as he, was ready to avenge him.
So when night fell she hastened to the hall, and carried off
Hrothgar's best loved thane.
"Then was there a cry in Heorot. Then was the prudent king, the
hoary warrior, sad of mood, when he learned that his princely
thane, the dearest to him, no longer lived. Quickly was Beowulf
fetched to the bower, the man happy in victory, at break of day."
And when Beowulf heard the mournful tale he comforted the King
with brave and kindly words, and quickly he set forth to the
dreadful mere, the dwelling of the water-witch, Grendel's mother.
And here he plunged in ready to fight.
"Soon did she, who thirsting for gore, grim and greedy, for a
hundred years had held the circuit of the waves, discover that
some one of men, some strange being, was trying from above the
land. She grappled then towards him, she seized the warrior in
her foul claws."
Then beneath the waves was there a fierce struggle, but Beowulf
in the end conquered. The water-witch was slain, and rejoicing,
the hero returned to Hrothgar.
Now indeed had peace come to the Danes, and loaded with thanks
and rewards, Beowulf returned homeward.
Many years passed. Beowulf himself became king in his own land,
and for fifty years he ruled well, and kept his folk in peace.
Then it fell that a fearful Fire-Dragon wasted all the land, and
Beowulf, mindful of his deeds of old, set forth to slay him.
Yet ere he fought, he bade farewell to all his thanes, for he
knew well that this should be his last fight.
"Then greeted he every one of the men, the bold helm bearer
greeted his dear comrades for the last time. I would not bear
sword or weapon against the worm if I knew how else I might
proudly grapple with the wretch, as I of old with Grendel did.
But I ween this war fire is hot, fierce and poisonous; therefore
have I on me shield and byrnie. . . . Then did the famous warrior
arise beside his shield, hard under helmet he bare the sword-
shirt, under the cliffs of stone, he trusted in the strength of
one man; nor is such an expedition for a coward."
Fiercely then did the battle rage between hero and dragon. But
Beowulf's sword failed him in his need, and it was like to go ill
with him. Then, when his thanes who watched saw that, fear fell
upon them, and they fled. One only, Wiglaf was his name, would
not forsake his liege lord. Seizing his shield and drawing his
sword, he cried, "Come, let us go to him, let us help our
chieftain, although the grim terror of fire be hot."
But none would follow him, so alone he went: "through the fatal
smoke he bare his war helmet to the assistance of his lord."
Fierce was the fight and long. But at length the dragon lay
dead. Beowulf had conquered, but in conquering he had received
his death wound. And there, by the wild seashore, he died. And
there a sorrowing people buried him.
"For him, then did the people of the Geáts prepare upon the earth
a funeral pile, strong, hung round with helmets, with war boards
and bright byrnies as he had requested. Weeping, the heroes laid
down in the midst their dear lord.
"Then began the warriors to awake upon the hill the mightiest of
bale-fires. The wood smoke rose aloft, dark from the foe of
wood. Noisily it went mingled with weeping. . . .
"The people of the Westerns wrought then a mound over the sea:
it was high and broad, easy to behold by the sailors over the
waves, and during ten days they built up the beacon of the war-
renowned, the mightiest of fires. . . . Then round the mound rode
a troupe of beasts of war, of nobles, twelve in all. They would
speak about their King, they would call him to mind. They
praised his valor, and his deeds of bravery they judged with
praise, even as it is fitting that a man should extol his
friendly lord, should love him in his soul, when he must depart
from the body to become of naught.
"Thus the people of the Geáts, his hearth comrades, mourned their
dear lord. They said that he was of the kings of the world, the
mildest and gentlest of men, the most gracious to his people, and
the most jealous of glory."
BOOKS TO READ
Stories of Beowulf, by H. E. Marshall. Beowulf, translated by W.
Chapter XII THE FATHER OF ENGLISH SONG
ALTHOUGH there are lines of Beowulf which seem to show that the
writer of the poem was a Christian, they must have been added by
some one who copied or retold the story long after the Saxons had
come to Britain, for the poet who first told the tale must have
been a heathen, as all the Saxons were.
The Britons were Christian, for they had learned the story of
Christ from the Romans. But when the Saxons conquered the land
they robbed and ruined the churches, the Christian priests were
slain or driven forth, and once more the land became heathen.
Then, after many years had passed, the story of Christ was again
brought to England. This time it came from Ireland. It was
brought from there by St. Columba, who built a church and founded
a monastery on the island of Iona. And from there his eager,
wandering priests carried the story far and wide, northward to
the fortress of the Pictish kings, and southward to the wild
Saxons who dwelt amid the hills and uplands of Northumbria.
To this story of love and gentleness the wild heathen listened in
wonder. To help the weak, to love and forgive their enemies, was
something unthought of by these fierce sea-rovers. Yet they
listened and believed. Once again churches were built, priests
came to live among the people, and the sound of Christian prayer
and praise rose night and morning from castle and from hut.
For thirty years and more St. Columba, the passionate and tender,
taught and labored. Many monasteries were founded which became,
as it were, the lighthouses of learning and religion. There the
monks and priests lived, and from them as centers they traveled
out in all directions teaching the heathen. And when at last St.
Columba closed his tired eyes and folded his weary hands, there
were many more to carry on his work.
Then, also, from Rome, as once before, the story of Christ was
brought. In 597, the year in which St. Columba died, St.
Augustine landed with his forty followers. They, too, in time
reached Northumbria; so, side by side, Roman and Celt spoke the
message of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
The wild Saxon listened to this message, it is true. He took
Christianity for his religion, but it was rather as if he had put
on an outer dress. His new religion made little difference to
his life. He still loved fighting and war, and his songs were
still all of war. He worshiped Christ as he had worshiped Woden,
and looked upon Him as a hero, only a little more powerful than
the heroes of whom the minstrels sang. It was difficult to teach
the Saxons the Bible lessons which we know so well, for in those
far-off days there were no Bibles. There were indeed few books
of any kind, and these few belonged to the monks and priests.
They were in Latin, and in some of them parts of the Bible had
been translated into Latin. But hardly any of the men and women
of England could read or understand these books. Indeed, few
people could read at all, for it was still the listening time.
They learned the history of their country from the songs of the
minstrels, and it was in this way, too, that they came to learn
the Bible stories, for these stories were made into poetry. And
it was among the rugged hills of Northumbria, by the rocky shore
where the sounding waves beat and beat all day long, that the
first Christian songs in English were sung. For here it was that
Caedmon, the "Father of English Song," lived and died.
At Whitby there was a monastery ruled over by the Abbess Hilda.
This was a post of great importance, for, as you know, the
monasteries were the schools and libraries of the country, and
they were the inns too, so all the true life of the land ebbed
and flowed through the monasteries. Here priest and soldier,
student and minstrel, prince and beggar came and went. Here in
the great hall, when work was done and the evening meal over,
were gathered all the monks and their guests. Here, too, would
gather the simple folk of the countryside, the fishermen and
farmers, the lay brothers and helpers who shared the work of the
monastery. When the meal was done the minstrels sang, while
proud and humble alike listened eagerly. Or perhaps "it was
agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in
But when, at the monastery of Whitby, it was agreed that all
should sing in turn, there was one among the circle around the
fire who silently left his place and crept away, hanging his head
This man was called Caedmon. He could not sing, and although he
loved to listen to the songs of others, "whenever he saw the harp
come near him," we are told, "he arose out of shame from the
feast and went home to his house." Away from the bright
firelight out into the lonely dark he crept with bent head and
lagging steps. Perhaps he would stand a moment outside the door
beneath the starlight and listen to the thunder of the waves and
the shriek of the winds. And as he felt in his heart all the
beauty and wonder of the world, the glory and the might of the
sea and sky, he would ask in dumb pain why, when he could feel it
touch his heart, he could not also sing of the beauty and wonder,
glory and might. 
One night Caedmon crept away as usual, and went "out of the house
where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take
care of the horses that night. He there composed himself to
rest. A person appeared to him then in a dream and, calling him
by name, said, 'Caedmon, sing some song to me.'
"He answered, 'I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left
the entertainment and retired to this place, because I cannot
"The other who talked to him replied, 'However, you shall sing.'
"'What shall I sing?' rejoined he.
"'Sing the beginning of created things,' said the other.
"Whereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of
God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus:--
'Now must we praise the guardian of heaven's kingdom,
The creator's might and his mind's thought;
Glorious father of men! as of every wonder he,
Lord eternal, formed the beginning.
He first framed for the children of earth
The heaven as a roof; holy Creator!
Then mid-earth, the Guardian of mankind,
The eternal Lord, afterwards produced;
The earth for men, Lord almighty.'
"This," says the old historian, who tells the story in Latin, "is
the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his
sleep. For verses, though never so well composed, cannot be
literally (that is word for word) translated out of one language
into another without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."*
*Bede, Ecclesiastical History.
Awakening from his sleep, Caedmon remembered all that he had sung
in his dream. And the dream did not fade away as most dreams do.
For he found that not only could he sing these verses, but he who
had before been dumb and ashamed when the harp was put into his
hand, could now make and sing more beautifully than could others.
And all that he sang was to God's glory.
In the morning, full of his wonderful new gift, Caedmon went to
the steward who was set over him, and told him of the vision that
he had had during the night. And the steward, greatly marveling,
led Caedmon to the Abbess.
The Abbess listened to the strange tale. Then she commanded
Caedmon, "in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream
and repeat the verses that they might all give their judgment
what it was and whence his verse came."
So the simple farm laborer, who had no learning of any kind, sang
while the learned and grave men listened. And he who was wont to
creep away in dumb shame, fearing the laughter of his fellows,
sang now with such beauty and sweetness that they were all of one
mind, saying that the Lord Himself had, of His heavenly grace,
given to Caedmon this new power.
Then these learned men repeated to Caedmon some part of the
Bible, explained the meaning of it, and asked him to tell it
again in poetry. This Caedmon undertook to do, and when he fully
understood the words, he went away. Next morning he returned and
repeated all that he had been told, but now it was in beautiful
Then the Abbess saw that, indeed, the grace of God had come upon
the man. She made him at once give up the life of a servant
which he had been leading, and bade him become a monk. Caedmon
gladly did her bidding, and when he had been received among them,
his brother monks taught to him all the Bible stories.
But Caedmon could neither read nor write, nor is it at all likely
that he ever learned to do either even after he became a monk,
for we are told that "he was well advanced in years" before his
great gift of song came to him. It is quite certain that he
could not read Latin, so that all that he put into verse had to
be taught to him by some more learned brother. And some one,
too, must have written down the verses which Caedmon sang.
We can imagine the pious, humble monk listening while another
read and translated to him out of some Latin missal. He would
sit with clasped hands and earnest eyes, intent on understanding.
Then, when he had filled his mind with the sacred story, he would
go away by himself and weave it into song. Perhaps he would walk
about beneath the glowing stars or by the sounding sea, and thank
God that he was no longer dumb, and that at last he could say
forth all that before had been shut within his heart in an agony
of silence. "And," we are told, "his songs and his verse were so
winsome to hear, that his teachers themselves wrote and learned
from his mouth."
"Thus Caedmon, keeping in mind all he heard, and, as it were,
chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse;
and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn
"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."
As has been said, there are lines in Beowulf which seem to have
been written by a Christian. But all that is Christian in it is
merely of the outside; it could easily be taken away, and the
poem would remain perfect. The whole feeling of the poem is not
Christian, but pagan. So it would seem that what is Christian in
it has been added long after the poem was first made, yet added
before the people had forgotten their pagan ways.
For very long after they became Christian the Saxons kept their
old pagan ways of thought, and Caedmon, when he came to sing of
holy things, sang as a minstrel might. To him Abraham and Moses,
and all the holy men of old, were like the warrior chieftains
whom he knew and of whom the minstrels sang. And God to him was
but the greatest of these warriors. He is "Heaven's Chief," "the
Great Prince." The clash and clang of sword and trumpet calls
are heard "amid the grim clash of helms." War filled the
greatest half of life. All history, all poetry were bound up in
it. Caedmon sang of what he saw, of what he knew. He was
Christian, he had learned the lesson of peace on earth, but he
lived amid the clash of arms and sang them.
Chapter XIII HOW CAEDMON SANG, AND HOW HE FELL ONCE MORE ON SILENCE
ONE of Caedmon's poems is call The Genesis. In this the poet
begins by telling of how Satan, in his pride, rebelled against
God, and of how he was cast forth from heaven with all those who
had joined with him in rebelling.
This story of the war in heaven and of the angels' fall is not in
the Bible. It is not to be found either in any of the Latin
books which the monks of Whitby may have had. The story did not
come from Rome, but from the East. How, then, did Caedmon hear
Whitby, we must remember, was founded by Celtic, and not by Roman
monks. It was founded by monks who came from Ireland to Iona,
and from thence to Northumbria. To them the teaching of Christ
had come from Jerusalem and the East rather than from Rome. So
here again, perhaps, we can see the effect of the Celts on our
literature. It was from Celtic monks that Caedmon heard the
story of the war in heaven.
After telling of this war, Caedmon goes on to relate how the
wicked angels "into darkness urged them their darksome way."
"They might not loudly laugh,
But they in hell-torments,
And woe they knew
Pain and sorrow,
With darkness decked,
For that they had devised
Against God to war."
Then after all the fierce clash of battle come a few lines which
seem like peace after war, quiet after storm.
"Then was after as before
Peace in heaven,
The Lord dear to all."
Then God grieved at the empty spaces in heaven from whence the
wicked angels had been driven forth. And that they might at last
be filled again, he made the world and placed a man and woman
there. This to the chief of the fallen angels was grief and
pain, and his heart boiled within him in anger.
"Heaven is lost to us," he cried; "but now that we may not have
it, let us so act that it shall be lost to them also. Let us
make them disobey God,
"Then with them will he be wroth of mind,
Will cast them from his favor,
Then shall they seek this hell
And these grim depths,
Then may we have them to ourselves as vassals,
The children of men in this fast durance."
Then Satan asks who will help him to tempt mankind to do wrong.
"If to any followers I princely treasure gave of old while we in
that good realm happy sate," let him my gift repay, let him now
So one of Satan's followers made himself ready. "On his head the
chief his helmet set," and he, "wheeled up from thence, departed
through the doors of hell lionlike in air, in hostile mood,
dashed the fire aside, with a fiend's power."
Caedmon next tells how the fiend tempted first the man and then
the woman with guileful lies to eat of the fruit which had been
forbidden to them, and how Eve yielded to him. And having eaten
of the forbidden fruit, Eve urged Adam too to eat, for it seemed
to her that a fair new life was open to her. "I see God's
angels," she said,
With feathery wings
Of all folk greatest,
Of bands most joyous.
I can hear from far
And so widely see,
Through the whole world,
Over the broad creation.
I can the joy of the firmament
Hear in heaven.
It became light to me in mind
From without and within
After the fruit I tasted."
And thus, urged by Eve, Adam too ate of the forbidden fruit, and
the man and woman were driven out of the Happy Garden, and the
curse fell upon them because of their disobedience.
So they went forth "into a narrower life." Yet there was left to
them "the roof adorned with holy stars, and earth to them her
ample riches gave."
In many places this poem is only a paraphrase of the Bible. A
paraphrase means the same thing said in other words. But in
other places the poet seems to forget his model and sings out of
his own heart. Then his song is best. Perhaps some of the most
beautiful lines are those which tell of the dove that Noah sent
forth from the ark.
"Then after seven nights
He from the ark let forth
A palid dove
To fly after the swart raven,
Over the deep water,
To quest whether the foaming sea
Had of the green earth
Yet any part laid bare.
Wide she flew seeking her own will,
Far she flew yet found no rest.
Because of the flood
With her feet she might not perch on land,
Nor on the tree leaves light.
For the steep mountain tops
Were whelmed in waters.
Then the wild bird went
At eventide the ark to seek.
Over the darling wave she flew
Weary, to sink hungry
To the hands of the holy man."
A second time the dove is sent forth, and this is how the poet
tells of it:--
"Far and wide she flew
Glad in flying free, till she found a place
On a gentle tree. Gay of mood she was and glad
Since she sorely tired, now could settle down,
On the branches of the tree, on its beamy mast.
Then she fluttered feathers, went a flying off again,
With her booty flew, brought it to the sailor,
From an olive tree a twig, right into his hands
Brought the blade of green.
"Then the chief of seamen knew that gladness was at hand, and he
sent forth after three weeks the wild dove who came not back
again; for she saw the land of the greening trees. The happy
creature, all rejoicing, would no longer of the ark, for she
needed it no more."*
Besides Genesis many other poems were thought at one time to have
been made by Caedmon. The chief of these are Exodus and Daniel.
They are all in an old book, called the Junian MS., from the name
of the man, Francis Dujon, who first published them. The MS. was
found among some other old books in Trinity College, Dublin, and
given to Francis Dujon. He published the poems in 1655, and it
is from that time that we date our knowledge of Caedmon.
Wise men tell us that Caedmon could not have made any of these
poems, not even the Genesis of which you have been reading. But
if Caedmon did not make these very poems, he made others like
them which have been lost. It was he who first showed the way,
and other poets followed.
We need not wonder, perhaps, that our poetry is a splendor of the
world when we remember that it is rooted in these grand old
tales, and that it awoke to life through the singing of a strong
son of the soil, a herdsman and a poet. We know very little of
this first of English poets, but what we do know makes us love
him. He must have been a gentle, humble, kindly man, tender of
heart and pure of mind. Of his birth we know nothing; of his
life little except the story which has been told. And when death
came to him, he met it cheerfully as he had lived.
For some days he had been ill, but able still to walk and talk.
But one night, feeling that the end of life for him was near, he
asked the brothers to give to him for the last time the
Eucharist, or sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
"They answered, 'What need of the Eucharist? for you are not
likely to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were
in perfect health.'
"'However,' said he, 'bring me the Eucharist.'
"Having received the same into his hand, he asked whether they
were all in charity with him, and without any enmity or rancour.
"They answered that they were all in perfect charity and free
from anger; and in their turn asked him whether he was in the
same mind towards them.
"He answered, 'I am in charity, my children, with all the
servants of God.'
"Then, strengthening himself with the heavenly viaticum,* he
prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked how near
the time was when the brothers were to be awakened to sing the
nocturnal praises of our Lord.
*The Eucharist given to the dying.
"They answered, 'It is not far off.'
"Then he said, 'Well, let us wait that hour.' And signing
himself with the sign of the cross, he laid his head on the
pillow, and falling into a slumber ended his life so in silence."
Thus his life, which had been begun in silence, ended also in
silence, with just a few singing years between.
"Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple
and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to
His presence, leaving the world by a quiet death. And that
tongue which had composed so many holy words in praise of the
Creator, uttered its last words while he was in the act of
signing himself with a cross, and recommending himself into His
*Bede, Ecclesiastical History
At Whitby still the ruins of a monastery stand. It is not the
monastery over which the Abbess Hilda ruled or in which Caedmon
sang, for in the ninth century that was plundered and destroyed
by the fierce hordes of Danes who swept our shores. But in the
twelfth century the house was rebuilt, and parts of that building
are still to be seen.
Chapter XIV THE FATHER OF ENGLISH HISTORY
WHILE Caedmon was still singing at Whitby, in another
Northumbrian village named Jarrow a boy was born. This boy we
know as Bede, and when he was seven years old his friends gave
him into the keeping of the Abbot of Wearmouth. Under this Abbot
there were two monasteries, the one at Jarrow and the other at
Wearmouth, a few miles distant. And in these two monasteries
Bede spent all the rest of his life.
When Bede was eight years old Caedmon died. And although the
little boy had never met the great, but humble poet, he must have
heard of him, and it is from Bede's history that we learn all
that we know of Caedmon.
There is almost as little to tell of Bede's life as of Caedmon's.
He passed it peacefully, reading, writing, and teaching within
the walls of his beloved monastery. But without the walls wars
often raged, for England was at this time still divided into
several kingdoms, whose kings often fought against each other.
Bede loved to learn even when he was a boy. We know this, for
long afterward another learned man told his pupils to take Bede
for an example, and not spend their time "digging out foxes and
coursing hares."* And when he became a man he was one of the
most learned of his time, and wrote books on nearly every subject
that was then thought worth writing about.
Once, when Bede was still a boy, a fearful plague swept the land,
"killing and destroying a great multitude of men." In the
monastery of Jarrow all who could read, or preach, or sing were
killed by it. Only the Abbot himself and a little lad were left.
The Abbot loved services and the praises of the church. His
heart was heavy with grief and mourning for the loss of his
friends; it was heavy, too, with the thought that the services of
his church could no longer be made beautiful with song.
For a few days the Abbot read the services all alone, but at the
end of a week he could no longer bear the lack of singing, so
calling the little lad he bade him to help him and to chant the
The story calls up to us a strange picture. There stands the
great monastery, all its rooms empty. Along its stone-flagged
passages the footsteps of the man and boy echo strangely. They
reach the chapel vast and dim, and there, before the great altar
with its gleaming lights, the Abbot in his robes chants the
services, but where the voices of choir and people were wont to
join, there sounds only the clear high voice of one little boy.
That little boy was Bede.
And thus night and morning the sound of prayer and praise rose
from the deserted chapel until the force of the plague had spent
itself, and it was once more possible to find men to take the
places of those singers who had died.
So the years passed on until, when Bede was thirty years of age,
he became a priest. He might have been made an abbot had he
wished. But he refused to be taken away from his beloved books.
"The office," he said, "demands household care, and household
care brings with it distraction of mind, hindering the pursuit of
*H. Morley, English Writers.
Bede wrote many books, but it is by his Ecclesiastical History
(that is Church history) that we remember him best. As Caedmon
is called the Father of English Poetry, Bede is called the Father
of English History. But it is well to remember that Caedmon
wrote in Anglo-Saxon and Bede in Latin.
There were others who wrote history before Bede, but he was
perhaps the first who wrote history in the right spirit. He did
not write in order to make a good minstrel's tale. He tried to
tell the truth. He was careful as to where he got his facts, and
careful how he used them. So those who came after him could
trust him. Bede's History, you remember, was one of the books
which Layamon used when he wrote his Brut, and in it we find many
of the stories of early British history which have grown familiar
It is in this book that we find the story of how Gregory saw the
pretty children in the Roman slave market, and of how, for love
of their fair faces, he sent Augustine to teach the heathen
Saxons about Christ. There are, too, many stories in it of how
the Saxons became Christian. One of the most interesting,
perhaps, is about Edwin, King of Northumbria. Edwin had married
a Christian princess, Ethelberga, sister of Eadbald, King of
Kent. Eadbald was, at first, unwilling that his sister should
marry a pagan king. But Edwin promised that he would not try to
turn her from her religion, and that she and all who came with
her should be allowed to worship what god they chose.
So the Princess Ethelberga came to be Queen of Northumbria, and
with her she brought Paulinus, "a man beloved of God," as priest.
He came to help her to keep faithful among a heathen people, and
in the hope, too, that he might be able to turn the pagan king
and his folk to the true faith.
And in this hope he was not disappointed. By degrees King Edwin
began to think much about the Christian faith. He gave up
worshipping idols, and although he did not at once become
Christian, "he often sat alone with silent lips, while in his
inmost heart he argued much with himself, considering what was
best to do and what religion he should hold to." At last the
King decided to call a council of his wise men, and to ask each
one what he thought of this new teaching. And when they were all
gathered Coifi, the chief priest, spoke.
"'O King,' he said, 'consider what this is which is now preached
to us; for I verily declare to you, that the religion which we
have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in
it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently
to the worship of our gods than I. And yet there are many who
receive greater favors from you, and are more preferred than I,
and are more prosperous in their undertakings. Now if the gods
were good for anything, they would rather forward me, who have
been more careful to serve them. It remains, therefore, that if
upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now
preached to us, better and more efficacious, we immediately
receive them without delay.'
"Another of the King's chief men, approving of his words and
exhortations, presently added: 'The present life of man, O King,
seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us,
like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein
you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers,
and a good fire in the midst, while the storms of rain and snow
prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and
immediately out at another, whilst he is within is safe from the
wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he
immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from
whence he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short
space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are
utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains
something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be
Others of the King's wise men and counselors spoke, and they all
spoke to the same end. Coifi then said that he would hear yet
more of what Paulinus had to tell. So Paulinus rose from his
place and told the people more of the story of Christ. And after
listening attentively for some time Coifi again cried out, "'I
advise, O King, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those
temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any
benefit from them.'
"In short, the King publicly gave his license to Paulinus to
preach the Gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he
received the faith of Christ. And when he inquired of the high
priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their
idols with the enclosures that were about them, Coifi answered,
'I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things
which I worshiped through ignorance, for an example to all others
through the wisdom which has been given me by the true God?'
"Then immediately, in contempt of his former superstitions, he
desired the King to furnish him with arms and a stallion. And
mounting the same he set out to destroy the idols. For it was
not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms or to
ride upon any but a mare.
"Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with a spear in his
hand, he mounted the King's stallion and proceeded to the idols.
The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted. But he
lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned
the same, casting into it the spear which he held. And rejoicing
in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his
companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by
*Dr. Giles's translation of Ecclesiastical History.
One of the reasons why I have chosen this story out of Bede's
History is because it contains the picture of the sparrow
flitting through the firelit room. Out of the dark and cold it
comes into the light and warmth for a moment, and then vanishes
into the dark and cold once more.
The Saxon who more than thirteen hundred years ago made that
word-picture was a poet. He did not know it, perhaps, he was
only speaking of what he had often seen, telling in simple words
of something that happened almost every day, and yet he has given
us a picture which we cannot forget, and has made our literature
by so much the richer. He has told us of something, too, which
helps us to realize the rough life our forefathers lived. Even
in the king's palace the windows were without glass, the doors
stood open to let out the smoke from "the good fire in the
midst," for there were no chimneys, or at best but a hole in the
roof to serve as one. The doors stood open, even though "the
storms of snow and rain prevailed abroad," and in spite of the
good fire, it must have been comfortless enough. Yet many a
stray bird might well be drawn thither by the light and warmth.
Bede lived a peaceful, busy life, and when he came to die his end
was peaceful too, and his work ceased only with his death. One
of his pupils, writing to a friend, tells of these last hours.*
*Extracts are from a letter of Cuthbert, afterwards Abbot of
Wearmouth and Jarrow, to his friend Cuthwin.
For some weeks in the bright springtime of 735 Bede had been ill,
yet "cheerful and rejoicing, giving thanks to almighty God every
day and night, yea every hour." Daily, too, he continued to give
lessons to his pupils, and the rest of the time he spent in
singing psalms. "I can with truth declare that I never saw with
my eyes, or heard with my ears, any one return thanks so
unceasingly to the living God," says the letter. "During these
days he labored to compose two works well worthy to be remembered
besides the lessons we had from him, and singing of psalms: that
is, he translated the Gospel of St. John as far as the words,
'But what are these among so many,' into our own tongue for the
benefit of the church, and some collections out of the Book of
Notes of Bishop Isidor.
"When the Tuesday before the Ascension of our Lord came, he began
to suffer still more in his health. But he passed all that day
and dictated cheerfully, and now and then among other things
said, 'Go on quickly, I know not how long I shall hold out, and
whether my maker will not soon take me away.'
"But to us he seemed very well to know the time of his departure.
And so he spent the night awake in thanksgiving. And when the
morning appeared, that is Wednesday, he ordered us to write with
all speed what he had begun. . . .
"There was one of us with him who said to him, 'Most dear Master,
there is still one chapter wanting. Do you think it troublesome
to be asked any more questions?'
"He answered, 'It is no trouble. Take your pen and make ready
and write fast. . . .'
"Then the same boy said once more, 'Dear Master, there is yet one
sentence not written.'
"And he said, 'Well, then write it.'
"And after a little space the boy said, 'Now it is finished.'
"And he answered, 'Well, thou hast spoken truth, it is finished.
Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction
to me to sit facing my holy place, where I was wont to pray, that
I may also, sitting, call upon my Father.'"
And sitting upon the pavement of his little cell, he sang, "Glory
be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost." "When
he had named the Holy Ghost he breathed his last, and departed to
the heavenly kingdom."
So died Bede, surnamed the Venerable.
We have come to think of Venerable as meaning very old. But Bede
was only sixty-two when he died, and Venerable here means rather
"Greatly to be honored."
There are two or three stories about how Bede came to be given
his surname. One tells how a young monk was set to write some
lines of poetry to be put upon the tomb where his master was
buried. He tried hard, but the verse would not come right. He
could not get the proper number of syllables in his lines.
"In this grave lie the bones of
he wrote. But he could not find an adjective that would make the
line the right length, try how he might. At last, wearied out,
he fell asleep over his task.
Then, as he slept, an angel bent down, and taking the pen from
the monk's tired fingers, wrote the words, "the Venerable," so
that the line ran, "In this grave lie the bones of the Venerable
Bede." And thus, for all time, our first great historian is
known as The Venerable Bede.
BOOK TO READ
The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, by Bede,
translated by Dr. Giles.
Chapter XV HOW ALFRED THE GREAT FOUGHT WITH HIS PEN
WHILE Caedmon sang his English lays and Bede wrote his Latin
books, Northumbria had grown into a center, not only of English
learning, but of learning for western Europe. The abbots of
Jarrow and Wearmouth made journeys to Rome and brought back with
them precious MSS. for the monastery libraries. Scholars from
all parts of Europe came to visit the Northumbrian monasteries,
or sent thither for teachers.
But before many years had passed all that was changed. Times of
war and trouble were not yet over for England. Once again
heathen hordes fell upon our shores. The Danes, fierce and
lawless, carrying sword and firebrand wherever they passed,
leaving death and ruin in their track, surged over the land. The
monasteries were ruined, the scholars were scattered. A life of
peaceful study was no longer possible, the learning of two
hundred years was swept away, the lamp of knowledge lit by the
monks grew dim and flickered out.
But when sixty years or more had passed, a king arose who crushed
the Danish power, and who once more lit that lamp. This king was
Alfred the Great.
History tells us how he fought the Danes, how he despaired, and
how he took heart again, and how he at last conquered his enemies
and brought peace to his people.
Alfred was great in war. He was no less great in peace. As he
fought the Danes with the sword, so he fought ignorance with his
pen. He loved books, and he longed to bring back to England
something of the learning which had been lost. Nor did he want
to keep learning for a few only. He wanted all his people to get
the good of it. And so, as most good books were written in
Latin, which only a few could read, he began to translate some of
them into English.
In the beginning of one of them Alfred says, "There are only a
few on this side of the Humber who can understand the Divine
Service, or even explain a Latin epistle in English, and I
believe not many on the other side of the Humber either. But
they are so few that indeed I cannot remember one south of the
Thames when I began to reign."
By "this side of the Humber" Alfred means the south side, for now
the center of learning was no longer Northumbria, but Wessex.
Alfred translated many books. He translated books of geography,
history and religion, and it is from Alfred that our English
prose dates, just as English poetry dates from Caedmon. For you
must remember that although we call Bede the Father of English
History, he wrote in Latin for the most part, and what he wrote
in English has been lost.
Besides writing himself, Alfred encouraged his people to write.
He also caused a national Chronicle to be written.
A chronicle is the simplest form of history. The old chronicles
did not weave their history into stories, they simply put down a
date and something that happened on that date. They gave no
reasons for things, they expressed no feelings, no thoughts. So
the chronicles can hardly be called literature. They were not
meant to be looked upon as literature. The writers of them used
them rather as keys to memory. They kept all the stories in
their memories, and the sight of the name of a king or of a
battle was enough to unlock their store of words. And as they
told their tales, if they forgot a part they made something up,
just as the minstrels did.
Alfred caused the Chronicle to be written up from such books and
records as he had from the coming of the Romans until the time in
which he himself reigned. And from then onwards to the time of
the death of King Stephen the Saxon Chronicle was kept. It is
now one of the most useful books from which we can learn the
history of those times.
Sometimes, especially at the beginning, the record is very scant.
As a rule, there is not more than one short sentence for a year,
sometimes not even that, but merely a date. It is like this:--
"Year 189. In this year Severus succeeded to the empire and
reigned seventeen winters. He begirt Britain with a dike from
sea to sea.
"Year 200. In this year was found the Holy Rood."
And so on it goes, and every now and again, among entries which
seem to us of little or no importance, we learn something that
throws great light on our past history. And when we come to the
time of Alfred's reign the entries are much more full. From the
Chronicle we learn a great deal about his wars with the Danes,
and of how he fought them both by land and by sea.
The Saxon Chronicle, as it extended over many hundred years, was
of course written by many different people, and so parts of it
are written much better than other parts. Sometimes we find a
writer who does more than merely set down facts, who seems to
have a feeling for how he tells his story, and who tries to make
the thing he writes about living. Sometimes a writer even breaks
Besides causing the Chronicle to be written, Alfred translated
Bede's History into English. And so that all might learn the
history of their land, he rebuilt the ruined monasteries and
opened schools in them once more. There he ordered that "Every
free-born youth in the Kingdom, who has the means, shall attend
to his book, so long as he have no other business, till he can
read English perfectly."*
*Preface to Boethius' Pastoral Care, translated into English by
Alfred died after having reigned for nearly thirty years. Much
that he had done seemed to die with him, for once again the Danes
descended upon our coasts. Once again they conquered, and Canute
the Dane became King of England. But the English spirit was
strong, and the Danish invasion has left scarcely a trace upon
our language. Nor did the Danish power last long, for in 1042 we
had in Edward the Confessor an English king once more. But he
was English only in name. In truth he was more than half French,
and under him French forces began already to work on our
literature. A few years later that French force became
overwhelming, for in 1066 William of Normandy came to our shores,
and with his coming it seemed for a time as if the life of
English literature was to be crushed out forever. Only by the
Chronicle were both prose and poetry kept alive in the English
tongue. And it is to Alfred the Great that we owe this slender
thread which binds our English literature of to-day with the
literature of a thousand years ago.
Chapter XVI WHEN ENGLISH SLEPT
"William came o'er the sea,
With bloody sword came he.
Cold heart and bloody sword hand
Now rule the English land."
WILLIAM THE NORMAN ruled England. Norman knights and nobles
filled all the posts of honor at court, all the great places in
the land. Norman bishops and abbots ruled in church and
monastery. The Norman tongue was alone the speech in court and
hall, Latin alone was the speech of the learned. Only among the
lowly, the unlearned, and the poor was English heard.
It seemed as if the English tongue was doomed to vanish before
the conquering Norman, even as the ancient British tongue had
vanished before the conquering English. And, in truth, for two
hundred years it might have been thought that English prose was
dead, "put to sleep by the sword." But it was not so. It slept,
indeed, but to awake again. For England conquered the conqueror.
And when English Literature awoke once more, it was the richer
through the gifts which the Norman had brought.
One thing the Normans had brought was a liking for history, and
soon there sprang up a whole race of chroniclers. They, like
Bede, were monks and priests. They lived in monasteries, and
wrote in Latin. One after another they wrote, and when one laid
down his pen, another took it up. Some of these chroniclers were
mere painstaking men who noted facts and dates with care. But
others were true writers of literature, who told their tales in
vivid, stirring words, so that they make these times live again
for us. The names of some of the best of these chroniclers are
Eadmer, Orderic Vitalis, and William of Malmesbury.
By degrees these Norman and Anglo-Norman monks became filled with
the spirit of England. They wrote of England as of their home,
they were proud to call themselves English, and they began to
desire that England should stand high among the nations. It is,
you remember, from one of these chroniclers, Geoffrey of Monmout
(see chapter vi.), that we date the reawakening of story-telling
As a writer of history Geoffrey is bad. Another chronicler* says
of him, "Therefore as in all things we trust Bede, whose wisdom
and truth are not to be doubted: so that fabler with his fables
shall be forthwith spat out by us all."
*William of Newbury.
But if Geoffrey was a bad writer of history, he was good as "a
fabler," and, as we have seen in chapter vii., it was to his book
that we owe the first long poem written in English after the
The Norman came with sword in hand, bringing in his train the
Latin-writing chroniclers. But he did not bring these alone. He
brought minstrels also. Besides the quiet monks who sat in their
little cells, or in the pleasant cloisters, writing the history
of the times, there were the light-hearted minstrels who roamed
the land with harp and song.
The man who struck the first blow at Hastings was a minstrel who,
as he rode against the English, sang. And the song he sang was
of Roland, the great champion of Charlemagne. The Roland story
is to France what the Arthur story is to us. And it shows,
perhaps, the strength of English patriotic spirit that that story
never took hold of English minds. Some few tales there are told
of Roland in English, but they are few indeed, in comparison with
the many that are told of Arthur.
The Norman, however, who did not readily invent new tales, was
very good at taking and making his own the tales of others. So,
even as he conquered England by the sword, he conquered our
literature too. For the stories of Arthur were told in French
before they came back to us in English. It was the same with
other tales, and many of our old stories have come down to us,
not through their English originals, but through the French. For
the years after the Conquest are the poorest in English
From the Conquest until Layamon wrote his Brut, there was no
English literature worthy of the name. Had we not already spoken
of Layamon out of true order in following the story of Arthur, it
is here that we should speak of him and of his book, The Brut.
So, perhaps, it would be well to go back and read chapter vii.,
and then we must go on to the Metrical Romances.
The three hundred years from 1200 to 1500 were the years of the
Metrical Romances. Metrical means written in verse. Romance
meant at first the languages made from the Latin tongue, such as
French or Spanish. After a time the word Romance was used to
mean a story told in any Romance language. But now we use it to
mean any story of strange and wonderful adventures, especially
when the most thrilling adventures happen to the hero and
The Norman minstrels, then, took English tales and made them into
romances. But when the English began once more to write, they
turned these romances back again into English. We still call
them romances, although they are now written in English.
Some of these tales came to us, no doubt, from the Danes. They
were brought from over the sea by the fierce Northmen, who were,
after all, akin to the Normans. The Normans made them into
French stories, and the English turned them back into English.
Perhaps one of the most interesting of these Metrical Romances is
that of Havelok the Dane.
The poem begins with a few lines which seem meant to call the
people together to listen:--
"Hearken to me, good men,
Wives, maidens, and all men,
To a tale that I will tell to
Who so will hear and list thereto."
We can imagine the minstrel as he stands in some market-place, or
in some firelit hall, touching his harp lightly as he sings the
words. With a quick movement he throws back his long green
cloak, and shows his gay dress beneath. Upon his head he wears a
jaunty cap, and his hair is long and curled. He sings the
opening lines perhaps more than once, in order to gather the
people round him. Then, when the eager crowd sit or stand about
him, he begins his lay. It is most probably in a market-place
that the minstrel stands and sings. For Havelok the Dane was
written for the people and not for the great folk, who still
spoke only French.
"There was a king in byegone days
That in his time wrought good laws,
He did them make and full well hold,
Him loved young, him loved old,
Earl and baron, strong man and thane,
Knight, bondman and swain,
Widows, maidens, priests and clerks
And all for his good works."
If you will compare this poetry with that of Layamon, you will
see that there is something in it quite different from his. This
no longer rests, as that does, upon accent and alliteration, but
upon rhyme. The English, too, in which it is written, is much
more like the English of to-day. For Havelok was written perhaps
a hundred years after Layamon's Brut. These are the first lines
as they are in the MS.:--
"Herknet to me gode men
Wiues maydnes and alle men
Of a tale pat ich you wile telle
Wo so it wile here and yerto dwelle."
That, you see, except for curious spelling, is not very unlike
our English of to-day, although it is fair to tell you that all
the lines are not so easy to understand as these are.
Chapter XVII THE STORY OF HAVELOK THE DANE
THE good king of whom we read in the last chapter was called
Athelwold, and the poet tells us that there were happy days in
England while he reigned. But at length he became sick unto
death. Then was he sore grieved, because he had no child to sit
upon the throne after him save a maiden very fair. But so young
was she that she could neither "go on foot nor speak with mouth."
So, in this grief and trouble, the King wrote to all his nobles,
"from Roxburgh all unto Dover," bidding them come to him.
And all who had the writings came to the King, where he lay at
Winchester. Then, when they were all come, Athelwold prayed them
to be faithful to the young Princess, and to choose one of
themselves to guard her until she was of age to rule.
So Godrich, Earl of Cornwall, was chosen to guard the Princess.
For he was a true man, wise in council, wise in deed, and he
swore to protect his lady until she was of such age as no longer
to have need of him. Then he would wed her, he swore, to the
best man in all the land.
So, happy in thought that his daughter should reign after him in
peace, the King died, and there was great sorrow and mourning
throughout the land. But the people remained at peace, for the
Earl ruled well and wisely.
"From Dover to Roxburgh
All England of him stood in awe,
All England was of him adread."
Meanwhile the Princess Goldboru grew daily more and more fair.
And when Earl Godrich saw how fair and noble she became, he
sighed and asked himself:--
"Whether she should be
Queen and lady over me.
Whether she should all England,
And me, and mine, have in her hand.
Nay, he said,
'I have a son, a full fair knave,
He shall England all have,
He shall be king, he shall be sire.'"
Then, full of his evil purpose, Godrich thought no more of his
oath to the dead king, but cast Goldboru into a darksome prison,
where she was poorly clad and ill-fed.
Now it befell that at this time there was a right good king in
Denmark. He had a son named Havelok and two fair daughters. And
feeling death come upon him, he left his children in the care of
his dear friend Godard, and so died.
But no sooner was the King in his grave than the false Godard
took Havelok and his two sisters and thrust them into a dungeon.
"And in the castle did he them do
Where no man might come them to,
Of their kin. There they prison'd were,
There they wept oft sort,
Both for hunger and for cold,
Ere they were three winters old.
Scantily he gave them clothes,
And cared not a nut for his oaths,
He them nor clothed right, nor fed,
Nor them richly gave to bed.
Thane Godard was most sickerly
Under God the most traitorly
That ever in earth shapen was
Except the wicked Judas."
After a time the traitor went to the tower where the children
were, and there he slew the two little girls. But the boy
Havelok he spared.
"For the lad that little was,
He kneeled before that Judas
And said, 'Lord, mercy now!
Homage, Lord, to you I vow!
All Denmark I to you will give
If that now you let me live.'"
So the wicked Earl spared the lad for the time. But he did not
mean that he should live. Anon he called a fisherman to him and
"Grim, thou wist thou art my thral,
Wilt thou do my will all
That I will bid thee?
To-morrow I shall make thee free,
And give thee goods, and rich thee make,
If that thou wilt this child take
And lead him with thee, to-night,
When thou seest it is moonlight,
Unto the sea, and do him in!
And I will take on me the sin."
Grim, the fisherman, rejoiced at the thought of being free and
rich. So he took the boy, and wound him in an old cloth, and
stuffed an old coat into his mouth, so that he might not cry
aloud. Then he thrust him into a sack, and thus carried him home
to his cottage.
But when the moon rose, and Grim made ready to drown the child,
his wife saw a great light come from the sack. And opening it,
they found therein the prince. Then they resolved, instead of
drowning him, to save and nourish him as their own child. But
they resolved also to hide the truth from the Earl.
At break of day, therefore, Grim set forth to tell Godard that
his will was done. But instead of the thanks and reward promised
to him, he got only evil words. So, speeding homeward from that
traitor, he made ready his boat, and with his wife and three sons
and two daughters and Havelok, they set sail upon the high sea,
fleeing for their lives.
Presently a great wind arose which blew them to the coast of
England. And when they were safely come to land, Grim drew up
his boat upon the shore, and there he build him a hut, and there
he lived, and to this day men call the place Grimsby.
Years passed. Havelok lived with the fisherman, and grew great
and fair and strong. And as Grim was poor, the Prince thought it
no dishonor to work for his living, and he became in time a
Havelok had to work hard. But although he worked hard he was
always cheerful and merry. He was so strong that at running,
jumping, or throwing a stone no one could beat him. Yet he was
so gentle that all the children of the place loved him and played
"Him loved all, quiet or bold,
Knight, children, young and old,
All him loved that him saw,
Both high men and low,
Of him full wide the word sprang
How he was meek, how he was strong."
At last even the wicked Godrich in his palace heard of Havelok in
the kitchen. "Now truly this is the best man in England," he
said, with a sneer. And thinking to bring shame on Goldboru, and
wed her with a kitchen knave, he sent for Havelok.
"Master, wilt wed?" he asked, when the scullion was brought
"Nay," quoth Havelok, "by my life what should I do with a wife?
I could not feed her, nor clothe her, nor shoe her. Whither
should I bring a woman? I have no cot, I have no stick nor twig.
I have neither bread nor sauce, and no clothes but one old coat.
These clothes even that I wear are the cook's, and I am his
At that Godrich shook with wrath. Up he sprang and began to beat
Havelok without mercy.
"And said, 'Unless thou her take,
That I well ween thee to make,
I shall hangen thee full high
Or I shall thrusten out thine eye.'"
Then seeing that there was no help for it, and that he must
either be wedded or hanged, Havelok consented to marry Goldboru.
So the Princess was brought, "the fairest woman under the moon."
And she, sore afraid at the anger and threats of Godrich, durst
not do aught to oppose the wedding. So were they "espoused fair
and well" by the Archbishop of York, and Havelok took his bride
home to Grimsby.
You may be sure that Havelok, who was so strong and yet so
gentle, was kind to his beautiful young wife. But Goldboru was
unhappy, for she could not forget the disgrace that had come upon
her. She could not forget that she was a princess, and that she
had been forced to wed a low-born kitchen knave. But one night,
as she lay in bed weeping, an angel appeared to her and bade her
sorrow no more, for it was no scullion that she had wed, but a
king's son. So Goldboru was comforted.
And of all that afterward befell Havelok and Goldboru, of how
they went to Denmark and overcame the traitor there, and received
the kingdom; and of how they returned again to England, and of
how Godrich was punished, you must read for yourselves in the
book of Havelok the Dane. But this one thing more I will tell
you, that Havelok and Goldboru lived happily together until they
died. They loved each other so tenderly that they were never
angry with each other. They had fifteen children, and all the
sons became kings and all the daughters became queens.
I should like to tell you many more of these early English
metrical romances. I should like to tell you of Guy of Warwick,
of King Horn, of William and the Werewolf, and of many others.
But, indeed, if I told all the stories I should like to tell this
book would have no end. So we must leave them and pass on.
BOOKS TO READ
The Story of Havelok the Dane, rendered into later English
by Emily Hickey. The Lay of Havelok the Dane, edited by W. W.
Skeat in the original English.
Chapter XVIII ABOUT SOME SONG STORIES
BESIDES the metrical romances, we may date another kind of story
from this time. I mean the ballads.
Ballad was an old French word spelt balade. It really means a
dance-song. For ballads were at first written to be sung to
dances--slow, shuffling, balancing dances such as one may still
see in out-of-the-way places in Brittany.
These ballads often had a chorus or refrain in which every one
joined. But by degrees the refrain was dropped and the dancing
too. Now we think of a ballad as a simple story told in verse.
Sometimes it is merry, but more often it is sad.
The ballads were not made for grand folk. They were not made to
be sung in courts and halls. They were made for the common
people, and sometimes at least they were made by them. They were
meant to be sung, and sung out of doors. For in those days the
houses of all but the great were very comfortless. They were
small and dark and full of smoke. It was little wonder, then,
that people lived out of doors as much as they could, and that
all their amusements were out of doors. And so it comes about
that many of the ballads have an out-of-door feeling about them.
A ballad is much shorter than a romance, and therefore much more
easily learned and remembered. So many people learned and
repeated the ballads, and for three hundred years they were the
chief literature of the people. In those days men sang far more
and read and thought far less than nowadays. Now, if we read
poetry, some of us like to be quietly by ourselves. Then all
poetry was made to be read or sung aloud, and that in company.
I do not mean you to think that we have any ballads remaining to
us as old as the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth
century, which was the time in which Havelok was written. But
what I want you to understand is that the ballad-making days went
on for hundreds of years. The people for whom the ballads were
made could not read and could not write; so it was of little use
to write them down, and for a long time they were not written
down. "They were made for singing, an' no for reading," said an
old lady to Sir Walter Scott, who in his day made a collection of
ballads. "They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye
hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair."
And so true is this, that ballads which have never been written
down, but which are heard only in out-of-the-way places, sung or
said by people who have never learned to read, have really more
of the old-time feeling about them than many of those which we
find in books.
We cannot say who made the ballads. Nowadays a poet makes a
poem, and it is printed with his name upon the title-page. The
poem belongs to him, and is known by his name. We say, for
instance, Gray's Elegy, or Shakespeare's Sonnets. But many
people helped to make the ballads. I do not mean that twenty or
thirty people sat down together and said, "Let us make a ballad."
That would not have been possible. But, perhaps, one man heard a
story and put it into verse. Another then heard it and added
something to it. Still another and another heard, repeated,
added to, or altered it in one way or another. Sometimes the
story was made better by the process, sometimes it was spoiled.
But who those men were who made and altered the ballads, we do
not know. They were simply "the people."
One whole group of ballads tells of the wonderful deeds of Robin
Hood. Who Robin Hood was we do not certainly know, nor does it
matter much. Legend has made him a man of gentle birth who had
lost his lands and money, and who had fled to the woods as an
outlaw. Stories gradually gathered round his name as they had
gathered round the name of Arthur, and he came to be looked upon
as the champion of the people against the Norman tyrants.
Robin was a robber, but a robber as courtly as any knight. His
enemies were the rich and great, his friends were the poor and
"For I never yet hurt any man
That honest is and true;
But those that give their minds to live
Upon other men's due.
I never hurt the husbandmen
That used to till the ground;
Nor spill their blood that range the wood
To follow hawk or hound.
My chiefest spite to clergy is
Who in those days bear a great sway;
With friars and monks with their fine sprunks
I make my chiefest prey."
The last time we heard of monks and priests they were the friends
of the people, doing their best to teach them and make them
happy. Now we find that they are looked upon as enemies. And
the monasteries, which at the beginning had been like lamps of
light set in a dark country, had themselves become centers of
darkness and idleness.
But although Robin fought against the clergy, the friars and
monks who did wrong, he did not fight against religion.
"A good manner then had Robin;
In land where that he were,
Every day ere he would dine,
Three masses would he hear.
The one in worship of the Father,
And another of the Holy Ghost,
The third of Our Dear Lady,
That he loved all the most.
Robin loved Our Dear Lady,
For doubt of deadly sin,
Would he never do company harm
That any woman was in."
And Robin himself tells his followers:--
"But look ye do not husbandman harm
That tilleth with his plough.
No more ye shall no good yeoman
That walketh by green wood shaw,
Nor no knight nor no squire
That will be good fellow.
These bishops and these archbishops,
Ye shall them beat and bind,
The high sheriff of Nottingham,
Him hold ye in your mind."
The great idea of the Robin Hood ballads is the victory of the
poor and oppressed over the rich and powerful, the triumph of the
lawless over the law-givers. Because of this, and because we
like Robin much better than the Sheriff of Nottingham, his chief
enemy, we are not to think that the poor were always right and
the rulers always wrong. There were many good men among the
despised monks and friars, bishops and archbishops. But there
were, too, many evils in the land, and some of the laws pressed
sorely on the people. Yet they were never without a voice.
The Robin Hood ballads are full of humor; they are full, too, of
English outdoor life, of hunting and fighting.
Of quite another style is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. That
takes us away from the green, leafy woods and dells of England to
the wild, rocky coast of Scotland. It takes us from the singing
of birds to the roar of the waves. The story goes that the King
wanted a good sailor to sail across the sea. Then an old knight
says to him that the best sailor that ever sailed the sea is Sir
So the King writes a letter bidding Sir Patrick make ready. At
first he is pleased to get a letter from the King, but when he
has read what is in it his face grows sad and angry too.
"Who has done me this evil deed?" he cries, "to send me out to
sea in such weather?"
Sir Patrick is very unwilling to go. But the King has commanded,
so he and his men set forth. A great storm comes upon them and
the ship is wrecked. All the men are drowned, and the ladies who
sit at home waiting their husbands' return wait in vain.
There are many versions of this ballad, but I give you here one
of the shortest and perhaps the most beautiful.
"The king sits in Dumferling toune
Drinking the blude reid wine:
'O whar will I get a guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?'
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king's richt kne:
'Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
That sails upon the se.'
The king has written a braid letter,
And signed it wi his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick red,
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick red,
The teir blinded his ee.
'O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed don to me,
To send me out this time o' the yeir,
To sail upon the se?
'Mak hast, mak hast, my merry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne.'
'Oh, say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.
'Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone,
Wi the auld moone in her arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will cum to harme.'
O, our Scots nobles wer richt laith
To weet their cork-heild schoone;
Bot lang owre a' the play wer played
Thair hats they swam aboone.
O lang, lang, may their ladies sit,
Wi their fans into their hand,
Or eir they see Sir Patrick Spence
Cum sailing to the land.
O lang, lang, may the ladies stand,
Wi their gold kaims in their hair,
Waiting for their ain deir lords,
For they'll see them na mair.
Haf ower, haf ower to Aberdour,
It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence.
Wi the Scots lords at his feit."
And now, just to end this chapter, let me give you one more poem.
It is the earliest English song that is known. It is a spring
song, and it is so full of the sunny green of fresh young leaves,
and of all the sights and sounds of early summer, that I think
you will like it.
"Summer is a-coming in,
Loud sing cuckoo;
Groweth seed and bloweth mead,
And springeth the wood new,
Ewe bleateth after lamb,
Loweth after calf the cow;
Bullock starteth, buck verteth,*
Merry sing cuckoo.
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singeth thou cuckoo,
Thou art never silent now.
Sing cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,
Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!"
*Turns to the green fern or "vert." Vert is French for
Is that not pretty? Can you not hear the cuckoo call, even
though the lamps may be lit and the winter wind be shrill
But I think it is prettier still in its thirteenth-century
English. Perhaps you may be able to read it in that, so here it
"Sumer is ycumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu;
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wde nu,
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu cuccu,
Ne swike thu naver nu.
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!"*
*Ritson's Ancient Songs.
BOOKS TO READ
Stories of Robin Hood, by H. E. Marshall. Stories of the
Ballads, by Mary Macgregor. A Book of Ballads, by C. L. Thomson.
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (Everyman's Library).
Chapter XIX "PIERS THE PLOUGHMAN"
DURING the long years after the Norman Conquest when English was
a despised language, it became broken up into many dialects. But
as time went on and English became once more the language of the
educated as well as of the uneducated, there arose a cultured
English, which became the language which we speak to-day.
In the time of Edward III England was England again, and the
rulers were English both in heart and in name. But England was
no longer a country apart, she was no longer a lonely sea-girt
island, but had taken her place among the great countries of
Europe. For the reign of Edward III was a brilliant one. The
knightly, chivalrous King set his country high among the
countries of Europe. Men made songs and sang of his victories,
of Creçy and of Calais, and France bowed the knee to England.
But the wars and triumphs of the King pressed hardly on the
people of England, and ere his reign was over misery, pestilence,
and famine filled the land.
So many men had been killed in Edward's French and Scottish wars
that there were too few left to till the land. Then came a
terrible disease called the Black Death, slaying young and old,
rich and poor, until nearly half the people in the land were
Then fewer still were left to do the work of the farms. Cattle
and sheep strayed where they would, for there were none to tend
them. Corn ripened and rotted in the fields, for there were none
to gather it. Food grew dear as workers grew scarce. Then the
field laborers who were left began to demand larger wages. Many
of these laborers were little more than slaves, and their masters
refused to pay them better. Then some left their homes and went
away to seek new masters who would be willing to pay more, while
others took to a life of wandering beggary.
The owners of the land had thought that they should be ruined did
they pay the great wages demanded of them. Now they saw that
they should be ruined quite as much if they could find no one at
all to do the work. So laws were made forcing men to work for
the same wages they had received before the plague, and
forbidding them to leave the towns and villages in which they had
been used to live. If they disobeyed they were imprisoned and
Yet these new laws were broken again and again, because bread had
now become so dear that it was impossible for men to live on as
little as they had done before. Still many masters tried to
enforce the law, and the land was soon filled not only with
hunger and misery, but with a fierce class hatred between master
and man. It was the beginning of a long and bitter struggle, and
as the cry of the poor grew louder and louder, the hatred and
spirit of revolt grew fiercer.
But the great of the land seemed little touched by the sorrows of
the people. While they starved and died, the King, surrounded by
a glittering court, gave splendid feasts and tournaments. He
built fair palaces and chapels, founded a new round table, and
thought to make the glorious days of Arthur live again.
And the great among the clergy cared as little for the poor as
did the great among the nobles. Many of them had become selfish
and worldly, some of them wicked, though of course there were
many good men left among them too.
The Church was wealthy but the powerful priests kept that wealth
in their own hands, and many of the country clergy were almost as
miserably poor as the people whom they taught. And it was
through one of these poor priests, named William Langland, that
the sorrows of the people found a voice.
We know very little about Langland. So little do we know that we
are not sure if his name was really William or not. But in his
poem called The Vision of Piers the Ploughman he says, "I have
lived in the land, quoth I, my name is long Will." It is chiefly
from his poem that we learn to know the man. When we have read
it, we seem to see him, tall and thin, with lean earnest face,
out of which shine great eyes, the eyes that see visions. His
head is shaven like a monk's; he wears a shabby long gown which
flaps in the breeze as he strides along.
Langland was born in the country, perhaps in Oxfordshire, perhaps
in Shropshire, and he went to school at Great Malvern. He loved
school, for he says:--
"For if heaven be on earth, and ease to any soul,
It is in cloister or in school. Be many reasons I find
For in the cloister cometh no man, to chide nor to fight,
But all is obedience here and books, to read and to learn."
Perhaps Langland's friends saw that he was clever, and hoped that
he might become one of the great ones in the Church. In those
days (the Middle Ages they were called) there was no sharp line
dividing the priests from the people. The one shaded off into
the other, as it were. There were many who wore long gowns and
shaved their heads, who yet were not priests. They were called
clerks, and for a sum of money, often very small, they helped to
sing masses for the souls of the dead, and performed other
offices in connection with the services of the Church. They were
bound by no vows and were allowed to marry, but of course could
never hope to be powerful. Such was Langland; he married and
always remained a poor "clerk."
But if Langland did not rise high in the Church, he made himself
famous in another way, for he wrote Piers the Ploughman. This is
a great book. There is no other written during the fourteenth
century, in which we see so clearly the life of the people of the
There are several versions of Piers, and it is thought by some
that Langland himself wrote and re-wrote his poem, trying always
to make it better. But others think that some one else wrote the
The poem is divided into parts. The first part is The Vision of
Piers the Ploughman, the second is The Vision Concerning Do Well,
Do Bet, Do Best.
In the beginning of Piers the Ploughman Langland tells us how
"In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I wrapped myself in a cloak as if I were a shepherd
In the habit of a hermit unholy of works,
Abroad I wandered in this world wonders to hear.
But on a May morning on Malvern Hills
Me befell a wonder, a strange thing. Methought,
I was weary of wandering, and went me to rest
Under a broad bank by a burn side.
And as I lay, and leaned, and looked on the waters
I slumbered in a sleeping it sounded so merry."