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A page from the Ormulum: Note the careful and repeated editing performed over time by Orm, as well as the insertions of new readings by "Hand B."
A page from the Ormulum: Note the careful and repeated editing performed over time by Orm, as well as the insertions of new readings by "Hand B."

The Ormulum or Orrmulum is a 12th-century work of Biblical exegesis, written in early Middle English verse by a monk named Orm (or Ormin). Because of the unique phonetic orthography adopted by the author, the work preserves many details of English pronunciation at a time when the language was in flux after the Norman Conquest; consequently, despite its lack of literary merit, it is invaluable to philologists in tracing the development of English. Orm was concerned that priests were unable to speak the vernacular properly, and so he developed an idiosyncratic spelling system to tell his readers how to pronounce every vowel, and he composed his work using a strict poetic meter that ensured that readers would know which syllables were stressed. Modern scholars can use these two features to reconstruct Middle English just as Orm spoke it.


Unusually for a work of this period, the Ormulum is neither anonymous nor untitled. The author names himself at the end of the dedication:

Icc was þær þær i crisstnedd wass
  Orrmin bi name nemmnedd
Where I was christened, I was
named Ormin by name

(Ded. 323-324)

At the start of the preface, the author identifies himself again, using a different spelling, and gives the work a title:

Þiss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum
  forrþi þatt Orrm itt wrohhte
This book is named Ormulum
because Orm wrote it

(Pref. 1-2)

The name "Orm" is derived from Old Norse, meaning worm, dragon. With the suffix of "myn" for "man" (hence "Ormin"), it was a common name throughout the Danelaw area of England. The choice between the two forms of the name was probably dictated by the meter. The title of the poem itself, "Ormulum", is modeled on the Latin speculum ("mirror"); it can be interpreted as either the boastful "Reflection of Orm" or the modest "Researches of Orm."

The Danish name is not unexpected; the language of the Ormulum, an East Midlands dialect, is stringently Danelaw. It includes numerous Old Norse phrases (particularly doublets, where an English and Old Norse term are cojoined), but there are very few Old French influences on Orm's language (Bennett 33). Orm therefore shows both the sluggishness of the Norman influence in the formerly Danish areas of England (compare the Peterborough Chronicle, also from the East Midlands, which shows a great deal of French influence even though it was likely written before Ormulum) and the assimilation of Old Norse features into early Middle English.

The interior of the church of Bourne Abbey, where the Ormulum was composed: the two nave arcades, though now unpainted, remain from the church Orm would have known.
The interior of the church of Bourne Abbey, where the Ormulum was composed: the two nave arcades, though now unpainted, remain from the church Orm would have known.

According to the work's preface, Orm wrote it at the behest of one Brother Walter, who was his brother both affterr þe flæshess kinde (i.e. biologically) and as a fellow canon of an Augustinian order. With this information, and the evidence of the dialect of the text, it is possible to propose a place of origin with reasonable certainty. While some scholars have held that the likely origin is Elsham Priory in north Lincolnshire, recently it has been widely accepted that Orm wrote in the Arrouaisian Bourne Abbey (in Bourne, Lincolnshire). Two additional pieces of evidence support this conjecture: firstly, the Arrouaisian abbey was established by Augustinian canons in 1138, and secondly, the work includes dedicatory prayers to Peter and Paul, who are the patrons of the Arrouaisian abbey (Parkes).

The date of composition is impossible to pinpoint. Orm wrote his book over a period of decades, and the manuscript shows signs of multiple corrections through time. Since it is apparently an autograph, with two of the three hands in the text generally believed to be Orm's own, the date of the manuscript and the date of composition will be the same. On the evidence of the third hand, a collaborator who entered the pericopes at the head of each homily, it is thought that the manuscript was finished circa 1180, but Orm himself may have begun the work as early as 1150 (Parkes). The text has few topical references to specific events that could be used to identify the period of composition more precisely; Orm may have been an eyewitness to the Anarchy of the reigns of Stephen and Matilda, since some have seen references to this in some of his admonitions to readers, but, if so, he is quite elliptical, as the sermons almost never stray from their source material.


Only one copy of the Ormulum exists, as Bodleian Library MS Junius 1. In its current state, this is incomplete: the book's table of contents claims that there were 242 homilies, but there are only 32 remaining. It seems likely that the work was never finished on the scale planned when the table of contents was written, but much of the discrepancy will have been caused by the loss of gatherings from the manuscript; there is no doubt that such losses have occurred even in modern times, as shown by the fact that the Dutch antiquarian Jan van Vliet, one of its 17th-century owners, copied out passages that are not in the present text. The amount of redaction in the text, plus the loss of possible gatherings, led J. A. W. Bennett to comment that "only about one fifth survives, and that in the ugliest of manuscripts" (Bennett, 30).

The parchment used in the manuscript is of the lowest quality, and the text itself is written untidily, with an eye to economical use of space; it is laid out in continuous lines like prose, with words and lines close together, and with various additions and corrections, new exegesis and allegorical readings, crammed into the corners of the margins (as can be seen in the reproduction above). Robert W. Burchfield argues that these indications "suggest that it was a 'workshop' draft which the author intended to have recopied by a professional scribe" (Burchfield, 280).

It seems curious that a text so obviously written with the expectation that it would be widely copied should exist in only one manuscript, and that apparently a draft. Some (e.g. Treharne, 274) have taken this as suggesting that it is not only modern readers who have found the work tedious. Orm himself, however, says in the Preface that he wishes Walter to remove any wording that he finds clumsy or incorrect; this implies that a revision or approval process was anticipated, and it is possible that the Ormulum remained in draft form simply because it never left Walter's possession.

The provenance of the manuscript before the 17th century is unclear. From a signature on the flyleaf we know that it was in van Vliet's collection in 1659; it was auctioned in 1666, after his death, and was probably purchased by Franciscus Junius, from whose library it came to the Bodleian as part of the Junius donation (Holt, liv-lvi).

Contents and style

The Ormulum consists of 20,000 lines of metrical verse, explicating Christian teaching on each of the texts used in the mass throughout the church calendar. As such, it is the first new homily cycle in English since the works of Ælfric (c. 990). The motivation was to provide an accessible English text for the benefit of the less educated Englishmen, from clergy who could not navigate the Latin of the Vulgate to the parishioners who would not understand spoken Latin.

Each homily begins with a paraphrase of a Gospel reading, followed by exegesis. The theological content is derivative; Orm closely follows Bede's exegesis of Luke, the Enarrationes in Matthoei, and the Glossa ordinaria of the Bible. Thus he reads each verse primarily allegorically rather than literally. Rather than identify individual sources, Orm refers frequently to "ðe boc" and to the "holy book", and Bennett has speculated that the Acts of the Apostles, Glossa Ordinaria, and Bede were bound together in a large Vulgate Bible in the abbey and that Orm was truly getting all of his material from a source that was, to him, a single book (Bennett 31).

Although "the sermons are of little literary or theological value" (Burchfield) and Orm possesses "only one rhetorical device", that of repetition (Bennett), the Ormulum was never intended as a book in the modern sense, but rather as a companion to the liturgy. Priests would read, and congregations hear, only a day's entry at a time. The tedium that many experience when attempting to read the Ormulum today would not exist for persons hearing only a single homily at a time. Further, although Orm's poetry is, at best, subliterary, the homilies were meant for easy recitation or chanting, not for aesthetic appreciation; everything from the overly strict meter to the orthography might function only to aid oratory.

Though earlier metrical homilies, such as those of Ælfric and Wulfstan, were based on the rules of Old English poetry, they took sufficient liberties with meter to be readable as prose. Orm does not follow their example: rather he adopts a "jog-trot fifteener" for his rhythm (Bennett 31), based on the Latin iambic septenarius, and writes continuously, neither dividing his work into stanzas nor rhyming his lines, again following Latin poetry. The work is unusual in that no critic has ever stepped forward to defend it on literary grounds. Indeed, Orm himself was aware of its flaws: he admits in the preface that he has frequently padded the lines to fill out the meter, "to help those who read it", and urges his brother Walter to edit the poetry to make it more meet.

A brief sample may help to illustrate the style of the work. This passage explains the background to the Nativity:

Forrþrihht anan se time comm
  þatt ure Drihhtin wollde
ben borenn i þiss middellærd
  forr all mannkinne nede
he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn
  all swillke summ he wollde
& whær he wollde borenn ben
  he chæs all att hiss wille.
As soon as the time came
that our Lord wanted
to be born in this middle-earth
for the sake of all mankind,
at once he chose kinsmen for himself,
all just as he wanted,
and he decided that he would be born
exactly where he wished.



Rather than any literary merit, therefore, the chief value of the Ormulum for scholars derives from Orm's idiosyncratic orthographical system. He states that since he dislikes the way that people are mispronouncing English, he will spell words exactly as they are pronounced, and describes a system whereby vowel length and value are indicated unambiguously.

Orm's chief innovation was to employ doubled consonants to show that the preceding vowel is short and single consonants when the vowel is long. For syllables that ended in vowels, he used accent marks to indicate length. In addition to this, he used two distinct letter forms for <g>, using the old yogh for [ʤ] and [j], and the new <g> for [g]. His devotion to precise spelling was meticulous; for example, having originally used <eo> and <e> inconsistently for words such as "beon" and "kneow" that had been spelled with <eo> in Old English, at line 13,000 he changed his mind and went back to change all "eo" spellings and replace them solely with "e" alone ("ben" and "knew"), to reflect the pronunciation.

The combination of this system with the rigid meter, and the stress patterns this implies, provides enough information to reconstruct his pronunciation with some precision; making the reasonable assumption that Orm's pronunciation was in no way unusual, this permits scholars to develop an exceptionally precise snapshot of exactly how Middle English was pronounced in the Midlands in the second half of the 12th century.


Orm's book has a number of innovations that make it valuable. As Bennett points out, Orm's adaptation of a Classical meter with fixed stress patterns anticipates future English poets, who would do much the same when encountering foreign language prosodies. The Ormulum is also the only specimen of the homiletic tradition in England between Ælfric and the 14th century, as well as the last example of the Old English verse homily. It also demonstrates what would become Received Standard English two centuries before Chaucer (Burchfield). Further, Orm himself was concerned with the laity. He sought to make the Gospel comprehensible to the congregation, and he did this perhaps 40 years before the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 "spurred the clergy as a whole into action" (Bennett, 33).

At the same time, Orm's idiosyncrasies and attempted orthographic reform make his work vital for understanding Middle English. The Ormulum is, with the Ancrene Wisse and the Ayenbite of Inwyt, one of the three crucial texts that have allowed philologists to document the transformation of Old English into Middle English.

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