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Cædmon was an Anglo-Saxon herdsman, poet and monk attached to Streonæshalch (Whitby Abbey) during Hild’s abbacy (657 × 681). He is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in medieval sources, and one of only three for whom we have both roughly contemporary biographical information about his life and surviving examples of his work.Template:Ref.



Bede's Historia ecclesiastica

Summary of narrative

Our sole source of original information about Cædmon’s life and work is found in Bede's, Historia ecclesiastica, Book IV Chapter 24 (edited in Colgrave and Mynors 1969):

According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother at Streonæshalch who was inspired to compose vernacular English poetry after a dream in which an unknown interlocutor approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum “the beginning of created things.” He immediately produced a short eulogistic poem praising God as the creator of heaven and earth. The next morning he was taken to the abbess and her counsellors. They asked him about his vision and tested his gift by giving him a second commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine” of their own choosing. When Cædmon returned the next morning with the desired poem, he was ordered to take monastic vows. He was given further religious instruction from which according to Bede he produced a large oeuvre of splendid vernacular religious songs. After a long and zealous life, Cædmon died like a saint: receiving a premonition of death, Cædmon asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice for the terminally ill, where, having gathered his friends around him, he expired just before nocturn.


Bede gives no specific dates in his story. Cædmon is said to have taken holy orders at an advanced age and he lived at Streonæshalch at least in part during Hild’s lifetime. Book IV Chapter 25 of the Historia ecclesiastica appear to suggest that Cædmon’s death occurred at about the same time as the fire at Coldingham Abbey, an event dated in the E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to 679 but after 681 by Bede (see Ireland 1986, pp. 228; Dumville 1981, p. 148). The reference to his temporibus ‘at this time’ in the opening lines of chapter 25 may refer more generally to Cædmon’s floruit, however. The next datable event in the Historia ecclesiastica is King Ecgfrith’s raid on Ireland in 684 (IV.26). Taken together, this evidence suggests an active period beginning in 657 × 680 and ending in 679 × 684.

Modern discoveries

The only biographical or historical information modern scholarship has been able to add to Bede’s account concerns the Brittonic origins of the poet’s name. Although Bede specifically notes that English was Cædmon’s “own” language, the poet’s name is of Celtic origin: from Proto-Welsh *Cadan and Brittonic *Catumandos (Jackson 1953, p. 554). Several scholars have suggested on the basis of this etymology, Hild’s close contact with Celtic political and religious hierarchies, and some (not very close) analogues to the Hymn in Old Irish poetry that Cædmon himself may have been bilingual (see in particular Ireland 1986, p. 238 and Schwab 1972, p. 48). Other scholars have noticed a possible onomastic allusion to ‘Adam Kadmon’ in the poet’s name (see in particular O’Hare 1992, pp. 350-351).

Other (possible) medieval sources

The Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica

No other independent accounts of Cædmon’s life and work are known to exist. With the exception of the Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica, indeed, no explicit references to Cædmon or his story are known from English sources before the twelfth century other than Bede. The name itself is found nowhere else in the corpus of surviving Old English. The Old English translation of the Historia ecclesiastica does contain several minor details not found in Bede’s Latin original account, the most significant being the claim that Cædmon felt “shame” for his inability to sing vernacular songs before his vision and the suggestion that Hild’s scribes copied down his verse æt muðe ‘from his mouth’ (see Opland 1980, pp. 111-120). These differences are in keeping with the Old English translator’s practice in reworking Bede’s Latin original (see Whitelock 1963 for a general discussion), however, and need not, as Wrenn argues, suggest the existence of an independent English tradition of the Cædmon story (Wrenn 1946, p. 281).

The Heliand

One possibly pre twelfth-century allusion to the Cædmon story is known from two Latin texts associated with the Old Saxon Heliand poem. These texts, the Praefatio and Versus de Poeta, explain the origins of an Old Saxon biblical translation (for which the Heliand is the only known candidate (Andersson 1974, p. 278)), in language strongly reminiscent of, and indeed at times identical to, Bede’s account of Cædmon’s career (convenient accounts of the relevant portions of the Praefatio and Versus can be found in Smith 1978, pp. 13-14, and Plummer 1896 II pp. 255-258). According to the prose Praefatio, the Old Saxon poem was composed by a renowned vernacular poet at the command of the emperor Louis the Pious; the text then adds that this poet had known nothing of vernacular composition until he was ordered to translate the precepts of sacred law into vernacular song in a dream. The Versus de Poeta contain an expanded account of the dream itself, adding that the poet had been a herdsman before his inspiration and that the inspiration itself had come through the medium of a heavenly voice when he fell asleep after pasturing his cattle. While our knowledge of these texts is based entirely on a sixteenth-century edition by Flacius Illyricus (Catalogus testium ueritatis [1562]), both are usually assumed on semantic and grammatical grounds to be of medieval composition (see Andersson 1974 for a review of the evidence for and against the authenticity of the prefaces). This apparent debt to the Cædmon story agrees with semantic evidence attested to by Green demonstrating the influence of Anglo-Saxon biblical poetry and terminology on early continental Germanic literatures (see Green 1965, particularly pp. 286-294).

(Supposed) Analogues to the Cædmon story

The Heliand prefaces are two of nearly fifty supposed “analogues” to the Cædmon story identified by scholars since the early 1830’s. These analogues have been drawn from sources from all around the world, including biblical and classical literature, stories told by the aboriginal peoples of Australia, North America and the Fiji Islands, mission-age accounts of the conversion of the Xhosa in Southern Africa, the lives of English romantic poets, and various elements of Hindu and Moslem scripture and tradition (good reviews of analogue research can be found in Pound 1929 and Lester 1974). Although the search was begun by scholars such as Sir Francis Palgrave, who hoped either to find Bede’s source for the Cædmon story or to demonstrate that that its details were so commonplace as to hardly merit consideration as legitimate historiography (Palgrave 1832), subsequent research has, perhaps ironically, instead ended up demonstrating the uniqueness of Bede’s version: as Lester shows, no “analogue” to the Cædmon story found before 1974 paralleled Bede’s chapter in more than about half its key features (Lester 1974); the same observation can be extended to cover all analogues since identified.


Bede's description of Cædmon's oeuvre

Bede’s account indicates that Cædmon was responsible for the composition of a large oeuvre of vernacular religious poetry. In contrast to Saints Aldhelm and Dunstan (on whose careers as vernacular poets in comparison to that of Cædmon, see Opland 1980, pp. 120-127 and 178-180), Cædmon’s poetry is said to have been exclusively religious. Bede reports that Cædmon “could never compose any foolish or trivial poem, but only those which were concerned with devotion” and his list of Cædmon’s output includes work on religious subjects only: accounts of creation, translations from the Old and New Testaments, and songs about the “terrors of future judgement, horrors of hell,… joys of the heavenly kingdom,… and divine mercies and judgements.” Of this corpus, only the opening lines of his first poem survive. While vernacular poems matching Bede’s description of several of Cædmon’s later works are found in London, British Library, Junius 11 (traditionally referred to as the “Junius” or “Cædmon” manuscript), the older traditional attribution of these texts to Cædmon or Cædmon’s influence cannot stand. The poems show significant stylistic differences both internally and with Cædmon’s original Hymn (see Wrenn 1946) and there is nothing about their order or content to suggest that they could not have been composed and anthologised without any influence from Bede’s discussion of Cædmon’s oeuvre: the first three Junius poems are in their biblical order and, while Christ and Satan could be understood as partially fitting Bede’s description of Cædmon’s work on future judgement, pains of hell and joys of the heavenly kingdom (Gollancz 1927, p. xlvi), the match is not exact enough to preclude independent composition. As Fritz and Day have shown, indeed, Bede’s list itself may owe less to direct knowledge of Cædmon’s actual output than to traditional ideas about the subjects fit for Christian poetry (Fritz 1969, p. 336) or the order of the catechism (Day 1975, pp. 54-55). Similar influences may, of course, also have affected the makeup of the Junius volume (see Day 1975, p. 55, for a discussion of Christ and Satan).

Cædmon's Hymn

Textual evidence

Cædmon’s Hymn is the only known survivor from Cædmon’s oeuvre. It is known from twenty-one manuscript copies, making it the best attested Old English poem after Bede’s Death Song (thirty-five witnesses) and the best attested in the poetic corpus in manuscripts copied or owned in the British Isles during the Anglo-Saxon period (see Dobbie 1937 and the additional manuscripts described in Humphreys and Ross 1975). The Hymn also has by far the most complicated textual history of any surviving Anglo-Saxon poem. It is found in two dialects and five distinct recensional versions, all but one of which is known from three or more witnesses (Dobbie 1937 with important additions and revisions in Humphreys and Ross 1975; O’Donnell 1996; and Orton 1998).

All copies of Hymn are found in manuscripts of the Historia ecclesiastica or its translation, where they serve as either a gloss to Bede’s paraphrase of the Old English poem, or in the case of the Old English version, its replacement. Despite this close connection with the Bede’s work, the Hymn does not appear to have been transmitted with the Historia ecclesiastica regularly until relatively late in its textual history. The vernacular text of the Hymn is often copied in manuscripts of the Latin Historia by scribes other than those responsible for the main text and in three cases (Laud 243, Hatton 43, and Winchester 1) by scribes described by Ker as working a quarter-century or more after the main text was first set down (see Ker 1957, arts. 341, 326 and 396; also O’Keeffe 1990, p. 36). Even when the poem is in the same hand as the manuscript’s main text, there is often little evidence to suggest that it was copied from the same exemplar as the Latin Historia. Nearly identical versions of the Old English poem are found in manuscripts belonging to different recensions of the Latin text and closely related copies of the Latin Historia sometimes contain very different versions of the Old English poem. With the exception of the Old English translation, moreover, no single recension of the Historia ecclesiastica is characterised by the presence of a particular recension of the vernacular poem (compare the recensional identifications for witnesses to the Old English Hymn in Dobbie 1937 with those for manuscripts of the Latin Historia in Colgrave and Mynors 1969, pp. xxxix-lxx.

(Supposed) Sources and analogues

Formulaic parallels

Depending on the specific recension chosen and definition used, between nine and fifteen of the poem’s eighteen half-lines have verbatim or very close echoes elsewhere in the poetic corpus (Fry 1975, pp. 50-61); some more controversial formulaic analyses claim as much as 100% of the poem can be assigned to attested poetic formulae (see Fry 1975 and Fry 1979, but cf. the objections in Miletich 1983). In most cases, however, these echoes are not so much evidence that the poets in question knew of Cædmon’s work as evidence that the Cædmon himself had a deep knowledge of what later poetry suggests to have been a traditional body of Old English formulaic constructions.

(Supposed) more specific borrowings

Some scholars have also proposed a number of slightly more specific parallels to the Hymn, particularly from medieval Germanic and Celtic literature (see, among others, Morland 1992, Hieatt 1985, and Bessinger 1972). In almost all cases, however, the proposed “analogues” represent little more than parallel treatments of the relatively common theme of “The Beginning of Things.” Few show any specific verbal similarities to Cædmon’s text. The principal exception to this is a passage from the Old English Genesis A poem (lines 112-117a) in which the creation of the earth is described (see Bessinger 1972, p. 98 and Klaeber 1912, p. 113, both of whom mention the passage in passing). The Genesis A passage deals with an almost identical topic, is structurally and stylistically similar to the Cædmon’s Hymn (to the last five lines in particular), and shares three half-lines with Cædmon’s poem. Even here however, there is room to doubt any direct influence: the Genesis A passage uses an epithet for God not found in Cædmon’s work, drops any explicit expression of the idea that God created heaven and earth for men, and expresses some ideas that are very similar to those in Cædmon’s poem using completely different formulae. Although the case for this passage is stronger than for any other in the Old English poetic corpus, the similarity is probably no greater than can be accounted for by pointing to the two poems’ common subject and membership in a common poetic tradition.

Editorial history

Cædmon’s Hymn has never been edited critically. Most discussions of the Hymn, including references in the Dictionary of Old English, are to Dobbie’s 1942 edition of “Northumbrian” and “West-Saxon” texts of the poem (Dobbie 1942). This edition, however, ignores Dobbie’s own seminal work on the poem’s textual history (Dobbie 1937; also Humphreys and Ross 1975, O’Donnell 1996, and Orton 1998), which demonstrated that dialect was a relatively unimportant criteria in the textual development of the poem: several key recensional readings cut across dialectal lines, and the two Northumbrian texts show greater affinities with West-Saxon versions of the poem than each other. In the absence of a critical edition of the poem as a whole, several individual recensions have been edited separately. A critical edition of the Northumbrian aelda recension (Group “*β” in Dobbie 1937, p. 48) can be found in Smith 1978. The Northumbrian eordu recension (Group “*Y” in Dobbie 1937, p. 48) has been edited in Wuest 1906 and O’Donnell 1996. An electronic critical edition of the Hymn and its individual recensions is forthcoming from the Medieval Academy of America (O'Donnell forthcoming). Black and white facsimiles of all known witnesses to the Hymn can be found in Stanley and Robinson 1991; colour facsimiles will be included in the new edition.


Cædmon's Hymn survives in two dialects and five distinct recensions: Northumbrian aelda, Northumbrian eordu, West-Saxon eorðan, West-Saxon ylda, and West-Saxon eorðe. The traditional view of the poem's textual development can be found in Dobbie 1937. In recent years, this view has been the subject of sustained debate among professional Anglo-Saxonists. For recent accounts see Schwab 1972, O'Donnell 1996, Orton 1998, Cavill 2000, and O'Donnell forthcoming.

Northumbrian aelda recension

Transcribed from a facsimile of M (mid-8th century; Northumbria). Text has been lightly normalised:

Nu scylun hergan   hefaenricaes uard Now we should praise   the heaven-kingdom's guardian,
metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc the measurer's might   and his mind-conception,
uerc uuldurfadur   sue he uundra gihuaes   work of the glorious father,   as he each wonder,
eci dryctin   or astelidæ eternal Lord,   instilled at the origin.
he aerist scop   aelda barnum He first created   for men's sons
heben til hrofe   haleg scepen heaven as a roof,   holy creator;
tha middungeard   moncynnæs uard then, middle-earth,   mankind's guardian,
eci dryctin   æfter tiadæ eternal Lord,   afterward made
firum foldu   frea allmectig the earth for men,   father almighty.

Northumbrian eordu recension

Based on Di (12th century; France) with readings from Br (1489; Lowlands) and P1 (after 1422; German). Text has been corrected and normalised silently:

Nu wue sciulun herga hefunricaes wueard,
metudaes mechti, and his modgedanc,
wuerc wuldurfadur— suae he wundra gihuaes,
eci drichtin, or astalde!
He aerist scoop eordu bearnum
hefen to hrofe, halig sceppend;
ða middungeard, moncinnes weard,
eci drichtin, aefter tiade
firum on foldu, frea allmechtig.
West-Saxon eorðan recension

Transcribed from a facsimile of T1 (early 10th century; southern England). Text has been lightly normalised:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder --swa he wundra gehwæs
ece drihten or onstealde.
He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum,
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
þa middangeard moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig·
West-Saxon ylda recension

Transcribed from H (early 11th century; unknown ?southern provenance). Text has been lightly normalised:

Nu we sculon herian heofonrices weard,
metudes myhte ond hıs modgeþanc,
wurc wuldarfæder --swa he wundra gehwilc,
ece drihten, ord astealde.
He ærest gesceop ylda bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
mancynnes weard,
éce drihten, æfter t[eo]d[e],
firum on foldum, frea ælmyhtig.


7a [þa] middangeard[] middangearde (all witnesses; unmetrical);

8b t[eo]d[e] tida (all witnesses; nonsensical).

West-Saxon eorðe recension

Based on Hr (late 11th/early 12th century; ?Battle Abbey) with readings from CArms (12th century; ?Chichester) and Ld (early 12th century; unknown ?southern provenance). Text has been silently normalised and corrected:

Nu we sceolon herian heofonrices weard,
metudes mihte, ond his modgeþanc,
weorc wulderfæder— swa he
ærest sceop eorðe bearnum
heofon to hrofe.
Þa middangeard, moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, æfter teode
fyrum on folden, frea ælmihtig,
halig scyppend.

Note: This version of the Hymn makes poor sense and metre in all surviving manuscripts.

Known manuscripts

  • Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, 8245-57 (Br)
  • Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 41 (B1)
  • Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 5. 22 (Tr1)
  • Cambridge, University Library, Kk. 3. 18 (Ca)
  • Cambridge, University Library, Kk. 5. 16 (“The Moore Bede”) (M)
  • Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 574 (Di)
  • Hereford, Cathedral Library, P. 5. i (Hr)
  • London, British Library, Additional 43703 (N [see also C])
  • † Cotton Otho B. xi (London, British Library, Cotton Otho B. xi + Otho B. x, ff. 55, 58, 62 + Additional 34652, f. 2) (C [see also N])
  • London, College of Arms, s.n. (CArms)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 163 (Bd)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 43 (H)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 243 (Ld)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 10 (T1)
  • Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 279, B (O)
  • Oxford, Lincoln College, lat. 31 (Ln)
  • Oxford, Magdalen College, lat. 105 (Mg)
  • Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 5237 (P1)
  • St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (“The St. Petersburg Bede”; “The Leningrad Bede”) (P)
  • San Marino CA, Huntington Library, HM 35300 [formerly Bury St. Edmunds, Cathedral Library, 1] (SanM)
  • † Tournai, Bibliothèque de la Ville, 134 (To)
  • Winchester, Cathedral I (W)

Works Cited

Andersson, Theodore M. "The Cædmon Fiction in the Heliand Preface” PMLA 89 (1974) 278-84.

Bessinger, J. B. Jr. "Homage to Caedmon and Others: A Beowulfian Praise Song” in Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope ed. Robert B. Burlin, Edward B. Irving, Jr. and Marie Borroff (Toronto, 1974) 91-106.

Colgrave, Bertram and R.A.B. Mynors, eds. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1969).

Day, Virginia "The Influence of the Catechetical narratio on Old English and Some Other Medieval Literature” ASE 3 (1975) 51-61.

Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk The Manusscripts of Caedmon's Hymn and Bede's Death Song with a Critical Text of the Epistola Cuthberti de Obitu Bedae Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature 128 (New York, 1937).

Dumville, David. "'Beowulf' and the Celtic World: The Uses of Evidence” Traditio 37 (1981) 109-160.

Fritz, Donald W. "Caedmon: A Traditional Christian Poet” Mediaevalia 31 (1969) 334-337.

Fry, Donald K. "Caedmon as Formulaic Poet” in Oral Literature: Seven Essays ed. J.J. Duggan (Edinburgh and London, 1975) 41-61.

Fry, Donald K. "Old English Formulaic Statistics” In Geardagum 3 (1979) 1-6.

Gollancz, Sir Israel, ed. The Cædmon Manuscript of Anglo-Saxon Biblical Poetry: Junius XI in the Bodleian Library (Oxford, 1927).

Green, D.H. The Carolingian Lord: Semantic Studies on Four Old High German Words: Balder, Frô, Truhtin, Hêrro (Cambridge, 1965).

Hieatt, Constance B. "Cædmon in Context: Transforming the Formula” JEGP 84 (1985) 485-497.

Humphreys, K.W. and Ross, Alan S.C. "Further Manuscripts of Bede's "Historia Ecclesiastica", of the "Epistola Cuthberti de Obitu Bedae", and Further Anglo-Saxon Texts of "Cædmon's Hymn" and "Bede's Death Song"“ N&Q 220 (1975) 50-55.

Ireland, Colin Abbott "The Celtic Background to the Story of Caedmon and his Hymn” Unpublished Ph.D. diss. UCLA.

Jackson, Kenneth Language and History in Early Britain (1953; Dublin, 1994).

Klaeber, Fr. "Die Christlichen Elemente im Beowulf” Anglia 35 (1912) 111-136.

Lester, G.A. "The Caedmon Story and its Analogues” Neophilologus 58 (1974) 225-37.

Miletich, John S. “Old English 'Formulaic' Studies and Caedmon's Hymn in a Comparative Context” in Festschrift für Nikola R. Pribic ed. Josip Matesic and Erwin Wendel. Selecta Slav. 9 (Neuried, 1983) 183-194.

Morland, Laura “Caedmon and the Germanic Tradition” in De Gustibus: Essays for Alain Renoir ed. John Miles Foley, J. Chris Womack and Whitney A. Womack Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1482 (New York, 1992) 324-358.

O’Donnell, Daniel Paul "A Northumbrian Version of 'Cædmon's Hymn' (Northumbrian eordu-Recension) in Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale MS 8245-57 ff. 62r2-v1: Identification, Edition and Filiation” in Beda Venerabilis: Historian, Monk and Northumbrian ed. L.A.J.R. Houwen and A.A. MacDonald Mediaevalia Groningana 19 (Groningen, 1996) 139-165.

O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. Cædmon’s Hymn, A multimedia study, edition, and witness archive (Cambridge MA: Medieval Academy" forthcoming 2005).

O'Hare, Colman. “The Story of Caedmon: Bede's Account of the First English Poet.” American Benedictine Review 43 (1992): 345-57

O’Keeffe, Katherine O’Brien Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 4 (Cambridge, 1990).

Opland, Jeff Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven and London, 1980).

Orton, Peter "The Transmission of the West-Saxon Versions of Caedmon's Hymn: A Reappraisal” Studia Neophilologica 70 (1998) 153-164.

Palgrave, Francis “Observations on the History of Cædmon” Archaeologia 24 (1832) 341-342.

Plummer, Charles, ed. Venerabilis Baedae: Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis anglorum, historiam abbatum, epistolam ad ecgberctum una cum historia abbatum (Oxford, 1896).

Pound, Louise "Caedmon's Dream Song” in Studies in English Philology: A Miscellany in Honor of Frederick Klaeber ed. Kemp Malone and Martin B. Ruud (Mineapolis, 1929) 232-239.

Schwab, Ute Caedmon. Testi e Studi: Pubblicazioni dell'Istituto di Lingue e Letterature Germanische, Università di Messina. Messina: Peloritana Editrice, 1972.

Smith, A.H., ed. Three Northumbrian Poems: Cædmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song and the Leiden Riddle with a bibliography compiled by M.J. Swanton Revised Edition Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies (Exeter, 1978).

Whitelock, Dorothy “The Old English Bede” Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture 1962 Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1963) 57-93.

Wrenn, C.L. "The Poetry of Cædmon” Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture 1945 Proceedings of the British Academy 32 (1946) 277-295.


  1. Template:Note The twelve named Anglo-Saxon poets are Æduwen, Aldhelm, Alfred, Anlaf, Baldulf, Bede, Cædmon, Cnut, Cynewulf, Dunstan, Hereward, and Wulfstan (or perhaps Wulfsige). The three for whom biographical information and documented texts survive are Alfred, Bede, and Cædmon. Cædmon is the only Anglo-Saxon poet known primarily for his ability to compose vernacular verse. (No study appears to exist the "named" Anglo-Saxon poets--the list here has been compiled from Frank 1993, Opland 1980, Sisam 1953 and Robinson 1990).

See also

See also: alliterative verse

External links



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