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Saint Godric of Finchale: Translations of the Oldest Rhymes in the English Language?

Did Saint Godric of Finchale write the oldest rhyming poems and rhyming songs in the English language? Reginald of Durham recorded four verses of Saint Godric's: they are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive. If you like these translations you are welcome to share them for noncommercial purposes, but please be sure to credit the original poet and the translator. You can do that by copying the credit line along with the poem. For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

The first song is said in the Life of Saint Godric to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, like him a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven. She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric rendered her song in Old English, bracketed by a Kyrie eleison:

Led By Christ and Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

By Christ and Saint Mary I was so graciously led
that the earth never felt my bare foot’s tread!

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
žat ic on žis erše ne silde wid mine bare fote itredie


In the second poem, Godric puns on his name: godes riche means “God’s kingdom” and it sounds like “God is rich” ...

A Cry to Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I.
Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarenė,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

II.
Saintė Mariė, Christ’s bower,
Virgin among Maidens, Motherhood’s flower,
Blot out my sin, fix where I’m flawed,
Elevate me to Bliss with God!

Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazarenė,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Godės riche.

Saintė Mariė Cristes bur,
Maidenės clenhad, moderės flur;
Dilie min sinnė, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winnė with the selfd God.


Godric also wrote a prayer to St. Nicholas:

Prayer to St. Nicholas
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Saint Nicholas, beloved of God,
Build us a house that’s bright and fair;
Watch over us from birth to bier,
Then, Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there!

Sainte Nicholaes godes druš
tymbre us faire scone hus
At ži burth at ži bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel žare


The earliest evidence of rhyming is commonly ascribed to China’s Book of Songs, which was compiled circa 750-600 BC. The Book of Songs is China’s earliest poetry collection and the earliest poems included may date back as far as 1200 BCE.

These are other candidates for the oldest English rhyming poem ...

Timeline of Rhyme

All dates are AD unless specified BC. The beginnings of important eras are underlined and other landmark events are bolded. Poems can be read by clicking their hyperlinked titles. Please be sure to click back if you want to continue reading the timeline.

4500 BC — There is evidence of farming in Britain, along with the development of large earthwork barrows for burials and rituals.
2500 BC — Major work takes place on Stonehenge and the Great Sphinx of Giza. The rise of the Beaker Culture.
2350 BC — Egyptian funerary texts, known as the Pyramid Texts, date back at least to Pharaoh Unas (c. 2353-2323 BC) and include poems and hymns.
2285 BC — Enheduanna, daughter of King Saragon the Great, may be the first named poet in human history, for hymns such as The Exaltation of Inanna.
2100 BC — The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh appears to be the earth's oldest extant major poem and the first great work of literature.
2000 BC — The first love poem may be the Sumerian Love Song of Shu-Sin. Britain enters the Bronze Age and will soon export tin.
1800 BC — The Egyptian Prisse Papyrus (c. 1800 BC) is the oldest writing on paper and thus the first extant book.
1268 BC — This is Robert Graves' date for the Celtic Song of Amergin, but dating oral works of the Prehistoric Period seems iffy to us.
1200 BC — Possible early date for Chinese rhyming poems and songs later compiled in the Shi Jing (see the entry for 750 BC).
800 BC — Britain enters the Iron Age. Around this time most natives speak Brythonic, a Celtic tongue, as reflected in place names.
750 BC — Celts reach Britain; Hebrew proverbs; Chinese poems of the Shi Jing ("Book of Songs" or "Book of Odes") include the first known rhyming poems.
55 BC — Julius Caesar invades Britain; the Anglo-Roman Period (55 BC-410 AD) makes Latin the language of rulers, clergy and scholars.
51 BC — Julius Caesar in his Gallic War mentions that Celtic Druids studied poetry and committed a "great number of verses" to memory.
410 — Visigoths sack Rome; the Roman legions depart Britain, leading to the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period (410-1066).
450 — With the Romans gone Anglo-Saxons invade England, which will take its name from the Angles as the lingo becomes more Germanic.
658 — Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest known English poem, marks the beginning of English poetry (although its language was still largely Germanic).

The oldest Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) poems did not rhyme, but were alliterative and used repetition of consonant and vowel sounds to create word-music. "Caedmon's Hymn" was probably composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and appears to be the English language's oldest extant poem. That makes it older than Beowulf, as far as we know.

680 — Possible early date for the composition of the epic poem Beowulf, a masterpiece of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poetry.
700 — Cynewulf pens and signs four Anglo-Saxon poems. Runic extracts from The Dream of the Rood are carved on the Ruthwell Cross.
731 — The Venerable Bede writes The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in Latin and composes Bede's Death Song.
760 — Hygeburg, author of the Latin Hodoeporicon is "the first known Englishwoman to have written a full-length literary work."
871 — King Alfred the Great defeats the Danes and becomes the first king of a united England. He was also a scholar, poet and translator.
890 — The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is "the single most important source for the history" of Anglo-Saxon England; Deor's Lament.
950 — The Exeter Book has two feminist poems, Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife's Lament, and the first English rhymed poem.

"The Rhyming Poem" also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem" is well-named, because it appears to be the oldest English rhyming poem. It was included in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to circa 950-990 AD. However the poem may be older than the collection in which it was discovered.

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, circa 990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

He who granted me life created this sun
and graciously provided its radiant engine.
I was gladdened with glees, bathed in bright hues,
deluged with joy’s blossoms, sunshine-infused.

The full poem can be read here: The Rhyming Poem

1000 — Now skruketh rose and lylie flour is an early English love poem; also a possible date for the Nowell Codex.
1066 — William the Conqueror invades and rules England; the Norman Conquest begins the Anglo-Norman or Middle English Period (1066-1340).
1086 — King William I commissions the Domesday Book, written in Latin, to catalog his English holdings.
1096 — Teaching begins at Oxford. French and Latin are the primary languages of rulers, clergy, scholars and fashionable poets.
1100 — The rhyming poems and songs of Saint Godric of Finchale.
1200 — How Long the Night ("Myrie it is while sumer ylast") is a stellar rhyming poem of the Middle English period; also the first Ballads.
1215 — The Magna Carta, drafted in French, forces King John to grant liberties and rights to Englishmen in return for taxation.
1225 — Saint Thomas Aquinas may have written the first limerick: a prayer in Latin! My, how things have changed!
1250 — Early rhyming poems: Fowles in the Frith, Ich am of Irlaunde, Now Goeth Sun Under Wood, Pity Mary.
1260 — Sumer is icumen in is an early rhyming poem with a refrain, circa 1260; it may be the oldest extant English song as well, with a musical score in Latin!
1322 — A limerick-like poem "The lion is wondirliche strong" is one of the oldest such poems extant today.
1340 — Birth of Geoffrey Chaucer, the first major vernacular English poet; thus begins the Late Middle English Period (1340-1500).
1362 — The Statute of Pleading replaces French with English as the language of law; English is used in Parliament for the first time.
1370 — William Langland writes Piers Plowman.
1380 — Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty") is an early rondel by the first major English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1380.
1384 — John Wycliffe publishes his English translation of the Bible. English replaces Latin as the main language in schools.
1399 — Henry IV is the first English-speaking monarch since before the Norman Conquest!
1415 — Charles d'Orleans writes the first known Valentine poem, "My Very Gentle Valentine" (provided below).
1430 — A "haunting riddle-chant" is I Have a Yong Suster, an anonymous Medieval English poem.
1455 — The Guttenberg Bible is the first book printed with moveable type. Printed books will lead to an explosion of knowledge.
1476 — William Caxton prints Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the first book published in England with moveable type.
1485 — The Tudor Period (1457-1603) ends the Middle Ages; English rules Henry VII's court; England now speaks Early Modern English!
1500 — Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard introduce the sonnet, iambic pentameter and blank verse, in the English Renaissance (1500-1558).

Related Pages in Chronological Order: Song of Amergin, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, Deor's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, How Long the Night, Ballads, Sumer is Icumen in, Fowles in the Frith, Ich am of Irlaunde, Tom O'Bedlam's Song, Now Goeth Sun Under Wood, Pity Mary, Sweet Rose of Virtue, Lament for the Makaris, Adam Lay Ybounden, This World's Joy, Michael R. Burch Free Verse, Charles Baudelaire Translations by Michael R. Burch, Rabindranath Tagore Translations by Michael R. Burch, Yosa Buson Haiku Translations by Michael R. Burch, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles d'Orleans, Poetry by Michael R. Burch

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