February 11 – Theodora the Empress and Cædmon

Icon of Theodora (Restorer of Icons) by Emmanouel Tzanes, 1671Theodora the Empress, Restorer of Icons (d. 867) (aka “Theodora the Restora,” but only by me). After the restoration of icons in 787, iconoclasm once again raised its undepicted head in 814 (or 815) under Emperor Leo V. It was continued by his successor Michael II, who however urged more lenience on the iconodules than he showed his predecessor, in whose murder he is implicated. Michael’s successor, Theophilus, got tough on the iconodules again, and executed his dad’s co-conspirators, just to demonstrate his dedication to justice.

This same Theophilus was the husband of today’s saint, Theodora (I’ll bet you wondered when we’d get to her). When he died, his son Michael III (see Feb 6), was still a lad, and Theodora became regent. She called the Council of Constantinople in 843, and asked for icons to be reinstated, on the condition that her husband not be censured. (He recanted of his iconoclasm on his deathbed, she said. Okay.) The assembled bishops knew a good deal when they saw one, and soon, on the first Sunday of Lent, Theodora was leading a procession of icons through the streets of the capital (wouldn’t you?). The Orthodox have been celebrating that Sunday as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” (or, more boringly, “Sunday of Orthodoxy”) ever since. She was eventually exiled by her son to a monastery (such a good lad), where she died in peace.

Modern stele depicting Caedmon, from St Mary's church, Whitby, UKCaedmon (d. ca. 681) in his latter years (which are all we know about) served as cowherd for the great Whitby Abbey* in Yorkshire (ruined by Henry VIII, dispraise be unto him). Apparently at the time it was the fashion to have shindigs where people passed the harp, each in turn singing a ditty (I know people like this; I hope you do too). Caedmon was ashamed of his own voice and his lack of skill in either making or remembering verse, so when it looked close to being his turn, he’d skip out and go home. We’re not told if anybody noticed this. Perhaps they were too busy singing, or perhaps they were just too polite to bug him about it. Anyway, after one particular party of this sort (or, strictly speaking, in the middle of one particular party of this sort), he went home to sleep in the barn, and had a strange dream: a man stood before him and asked for a song. “But I can’t sing,” said Caedmon, “and besides I don’t know any songs.” “Piffle,” said the man (or the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of “piffle”). “Fine. What shall I sing about?” asked the saint. “The creation of the world,” came the answer. And Caedmon sang a beautiful song on that subject, much to his surprise.

When he awoke he told his supervisor, who ushered him into see Abbess (St.) Hilda (Jun 23). He sang his song to her and her counselors, and all agreed that he had received a miraculous gift, and persuaded him to become a monk (monk vs. cowherd? gee, twist my arm). Since he was unable to read, the other monks would read a Bible story to him, and he would go to bed and awake with a newly-minted song about it, each more beautiful than the last. In this way, we are told, he covered the whole of the Scriptures in song (at least according to Bede*). One day he had a premonition that he was soon to die, and checked himself into the hospice. There he called for his brother monks and asked if they had anything against him. “What? No, of course not,” they all said, and he assured them of the same. He received the Sacrament, and died in peace.

Unfortunately only his first song (“Caedmon’s Hymn”) survives, scribbled in the margins of various manuscripts of Bede’s History*. It is the oldest surviving poem in (Old) English, and among the oldest preserved alliterative verse in any Germanic language. Incidentally, Tolkien fans will perhaps be amused to learn that the poem contains the word “middungeard”—Middle Earth.