According to England’s first historian, the Venerable Bede, King Edwin of seventh-century Northumbria pondered the question of whether he should adopt and extend throughout his reign the Christian faith of his new wife Aethelburg. To seek advice, he brought his thanes and advisers together for a feast and was persuaded by the last thane to speak, a poet.
O mighty King, your versifying thane
Now takes his turn to speak of that campaign
To bring the Christian faith to this fair land
—And Truth (or so we’re led to understand).
As we warm ourselves at this mead-hall fire
And hear the maidens sing and pluck the lyre,
I have been meditating on the flight
Of these small birds that somehow find our light.
Through yonder mead-hall door the sparrows enter
And find brief refuge from an angry winter.
Across the hall and out another door
They flit, and having gone are seen no more.
How like the life of man who comes to light
For such a little while, goes back to night,
And leaves no spoor of whence he came or why
Or where he goes when he has said goodbye.
Of settled Truth, as previous speakers said,
We now have none, but tides of chance instead,
So if this doctrine brought here by your wife
Can cut through doubt (to quote her) like a knife,
We would be prudent, Sire, as well as wise
To learn more than a man is born, then dies.
Let us then heed the words of your wife’s priest,
But first, King Edwin, let’s complete our feast.