A page from the Ormulum demonstrating the editing performed over time by Orm (Parkes 1983, pp. 115–16), as well as the insertions of new readings by "Hand B".

The Ormulum or Orrmulum is a twelfth-century work of biblical exegesis, written by a monk named Orm (or Ormin) and consisting of just under 19,000 lines of early Middle English verse. Because of the unique phonetic orthography adopted by its author, the work preserves many details of English pronunciation existing at a time when the language was in flux after the Norman Conquest. Consequently, it is invaluable to philologists in tracing the development of the language.

After a preface and dedication, the work consists of homilies explicating the biblical texts set for the mass throughout the liturgical year; it was intended to be consulted as the texts changed, and is agreed to be tedious and repetitive when read straight through. Only about a fifth of the promised material is in the single manuscript of the work to survive, which is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Orm was concerned with priests' ability to speak the vernacular, and developed an idiosyncratic spelling system to guide his readers in the pronunciation of the vowels. He used a strict poetic metre to ensure that readers know which syllables are to be stressed. Modern scholars use these two features to reconstruct Middle English as Orm spoke it (Burchfield 1987, p. 280).


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

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

(Ded. 323–24)

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

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

(Pref. 1–2)[A]

The name "Orm" is derived from Old Norse, meaning worm, serpent or 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 probably was dictated by the meter at each use. The title of the poem, "Ormulum", is modeled after the Latin word speculum ("mirror") (Matthew 2004, p. 936), so popular in the title of medieval Latin non-fiction works that the term speculum literature is used for the genre.

Comment on identity of author as found in the following document<http://booksnow1.scholarsportal.info/ebooks/oca9/48/p2athenaeum1906lond/p2athenaeum1906lond_djvu.txt> ' WHERE WAS THE ' ORMULUM ' WRITTEN ?

Balston Vicarage, Cumberland.

When Dr. Bradley (AtMnceum, May 19th) undertakes to identify the place where the ' Ormulum ' was written, he raises an issue which he cannot expect to pass unchallenged. The definite facts known about the author, he says, are that his name was Orm, and that he had a brother Walter who was, like him- self, an Augustinian canon. So far he pro- bably carries everybody with him. When he goes on to say that the " work, according to palaeograpbical and linguistic evidence, must have been written about a.d. 1200 in the North-East Midlands," his ground dees not appear quite so safe. In the matter of date, however, one is glad to note that he has slipped back some years beyond what a past generation of philologists was willing to concede. But it is difficult to follow him when he selects the monastic house of Elsham in Lincolnshire, and builds up a theory on what he calls " extremely slight evidence," where plain men can see no evidence at all. Had Dr. Bradley proved that Walter of Amundeville's steward had two sons Orm and Walter, and that either or both of them were inmates of Elsham, his theory would be worthy of consideration. Inasmuch as the names of the steward's sons are not known, and there is no evidence that either of them had taken the religious habit, Dr. Bradley's hypothesis may be dismissed as wholly imaginative. Elsham had a founder named Walter of Amundeville ; Walter had a steward named William, son of Leofwine ; William had unnamed sons and daughters and an uncle called Orm, who was, like him- self, a villein. There is absolutely nothing else to be gleaned from the charters to connect the authorship of the 'Ormulum ' with this Augustinian house.

It is not necessary to repeat that Orm the author and Walter, whom he addresses as " broken* nun affterr )'e flaeshess kinde," were members of the Augustinian order and " actually brothers." For the purpose of this discussion, so much of Dr. Bradley's paper on the authorship is admitted, and no more. For a considerable time I have been hopeful, though not altogether con- vinced, that some day it may be accepted that the ' Ormulum ' was a Cumberland pro- duction, and that the date will have to be set further back than philologists contem- plate. My reasons for suggesting that Orm and Walter were members of the chapter of Carlisle are founded solely on a study of all the available evidence relating to Cumber- land in the twelfth century. It is not my intention to review that evidence now. It will be sufficient to point out that a Walter was Prior of Carlisle, say from 1150 to 1170. These are two certain dates in his priorate. I will also show that he had a brother Orm, though I must confess that I have not found Orm described as an ecclesiastic, clerk, chaplain, priest, or canon. Before I discuss the relationship, a word must be said on the social rank of the brothers — the stock from which they sprang.

The priory of Carlisle, soon after its founda- tion about 1102, was much indebted to the munificence of the illjstrious house of Barn- borough, Waldeve, son of Earl Gospatric of Northumberland, and Alan, son of Waldeve, being its earliest benefactors. Alan gave to the canons lands and churches in Aller- dale, an extensive fief on the north-west coast of Cumberland, stretching from the Derwent at Workington to the Shauk, within five miles of Carlisle ; he also gave the Holy Rood to their church, and the body of his only son for burial there. Now this Alan, grandson of the famous earl, was a near kinsman of Walter, Prior of Carlisle, and Orm his brother. It is desirable to give a short table to show the relationship, and to make intelligible the evidence on which I conclude that Walter and Orm were brothers : —



Earl Gospatric.

I Waldeve.


Walter, Prior Orm. of Carlisle.

Wal- deve.

Gos- Ailward patric.

In this list there is little variety of personal names : evidently they all belong to one family or group.

In order to curtail the argument I shall select four charters of Alan, son of Waldeve, issued with varying attestation to different persons or institutions, and these are the facts they disclose. The witnesses of Alan's charters, taken seriatim, are : —

1. Walter, Prior of Carlisle ; Ailward and Gospatric, sons of Dolfin.

2. Ailward, son of Dolfin ; Gospatric, Waldeve, and Orm his brothers.

3. Walter, Prior of Carlisle, and Gos- patric his brother.

4. Ailward, son of Dolfin, and Gospatric his brother.

When it is remembered that the names of Orm, Gospatric, Dolfin, and Ailward were prevalent in Cumberland and Lancashire at this time, an expert genealogist, with a taste for making objections, might pick holes in the pedigree I have compiled from these charters. But when these names are found in four charters by the same magnate, a different complexion is put on the story. The relationship of the donor to his witnesses seems to make the deduction fairly accept- able. It can scarcely be denied that the Norman annexation of Carlisle in 1092 made little change among the territorial owners of the district. Not more than two fiefs were held by Normans immediately after that event. There was no displacement of the English (so-called) tenants, except in the narrow strip of territory on the border line north of Carlisle for defensive purposes. Walter the prior and Orm his brother clearly be- longed to one of these English families. The great house of Gospatric is well known. Though of Celtic or Norse descent, the terri- torial owners after 1092 were invariably described as Englishmen. Feudalism gained little foothold in Cumberland during the twelfth century. The Norman ruler was soon withdrawn as a great failure. When the place was not English, it was Scotic. The only document we possess relating to Cumberland and Westmorland before the Conquest is in English. Scribes often intro- duce English words into early charters. The reconstruction of ecclesiastical institutions on Norman lines was carried out by the agency and liberality of Englishmen. Adol- ulf, the first bishop of the new see, created in 1133, was of the same race. Probably the; Priory of Carlisle owed many of its broad acres to the fact that its superior was not only an Englishman, but connected witli the principal families of the district. I have no direct evidence, as I have said, that Orm, brother of Walter, was an inmate of the priory ; but there is this singular circumstance about him. The descendants of his brothers Gospatric, Waldeve, and Ailward appear as lay owners in the neigh- bourhood, whereas Orm and his descend- ants, if he had any, drop out of view. It was a common thing among the most dis- tinguished families of Cumberland at this date for younger sons to become clerks. The names of many of the local clergy are distinctly native, and not a few of them were scions of great houses. That Orm's name should not appear as a canon of Carlisle, if canon he was, need excite no remark. For two centuries or more after the foundation of the priory, the names of not more than half a dozen of the canons are known. The survival of Walter's name may be ascribed to his official position and its influence in the locality. That Carlisle was a likely place for the production of the ' Ormulum ' there is some reason to believe. The canons must have had a reputation for learning a century or so later, when Edward I. selected them to make a report on the history of the rela- tions between the two kingdoms from the documents and writings in their possession ; and as a matter of fact the report they pre- sented by the hand of Alan de Frysington, their precentor, is the most exhaustive and the most trustworthy of all those drawn up on that occasion by the principal religious houses of the land. The report of 1291 did not reflect credit on the canons of that date half so much as on the work of the scrip- torium during the two previous centuries of its existence. There was a school, too, in Carlisle in the days of Walter and Orm which was no insignificant institution. It was in some sense distinct from the priory, though it enjoyed its patronage. It had a separate endowment, and was in close relation with the bishop. Itsjearliest school- masters were canons. In a place so remote from the world, and so difficult of access except by sea, the school of Carlisle must have been the educational centre of the north-western district in the twelfth century, as it undoubtedly was at a later period. Carlisle was just the place where such an English work might have been written at the date above indicated. The bishop, the prior, many of the local clergy, and the overwhelming majority of the lay folk ot the neighbourhood were Englishmen, that is, English as distinguished from French. The manor where Dolfin brought up his five sons was within a short distance of the school and priory. One of these sons had attained an exalted position in the Augustinian Order. There is nothing improbable in the supposi- tion that Orm, another son of such a large family, should have followed the example of his brother and adopted the religious calling as canon or schoolmaster. The priory was under sufficient obligation to Dolfin's family connexions to entitle his sons to adequate recognition. The phrase of the dedication in which Orm says, " Ice hafe don swa suinm ]>u badd & forj'edd te I'm wille," seems to imply that Walter was his official superior as well as his brother



N° 4107, July 14, 1906

after the flesh. The need of a work of this kind would naturally appear to members of an institution which was the cathedral chapter of the diocese. The gradual infusion of Norman ideas into the religious life of Carlisle, which began in earnest after the recovery of the Northern ! counties by Henry II., would account for Orm's indigna- tion against that hateful crew which had done so much to hinder his purpose.

There is one other point worthy of con- sideration. Dr. Bradley admits the abund- ance of Scandinavian words in the dialect of the ' Ormulum,' though he thinks its " Northern features " reach only so far north as Lincolnshire. Let him not be too sure of the latter proposition. The philolo- gists are not agreed on the precise location of the Northern features. Hickes, for example, detected their Scotic flavour. In my own opinion, I hear the peculiarities of Orm's dialect every day in the folk-speech around me. But the waters of philology are too deep for my poor plummet. As the ethnological ancestry of the people for whom Orm wrote is obviously an important matter, I would venture to suggest that the Scandi- navian predominance in ancient Cumbria, and the permanence of its nomenclature in what was without doubt a Cymric district, should be examined closely by scholars like Dr. Bradley before they settle on the Augus- tinian house which produced so remarkable a treatise as that under review. It may be taken for granted that Carlisle was North- umbrian by instinct and tradition before it became a Norman possession. The inter- mittent periods of Scotic occupation had little to do with the moulding of its language. James Wilson.

Supporting document to establish the identity of Orm brother of Walter( Prior of Carlisle) <http://www.mocavo.com/The-Register-of-the-Priory-of-St-Bees/338231/698#371>

End of commentary on correct identity of the author- Orm <http://booksnow1.scholarsportal.info/ebooks/oca9/48/p2athenaeum1906lond/p2athenaeum1906lond_djvu.txt>

The Danish name is not unexpected; the language of the Ormulum, an East Midlands dialect, is stringently of the Danelaw (Bennett and Smithers 1982, pp. 174–75). It includes numerous Old Norse phrases (particularly doublets, where an English and Old Norse term are co-joined), but there are very few Old French influences on Orm's language (Bennett 1986, p. 33). Another—likely previous—East Midlands work, the Peterborough Chronicle, shows a great deal of French influence. The linguistic contrast between it and the work of Orm demonstrates both the sluggishness of the Norman influence in the formerly Danish areas of England and the assimilation of Old Norse features into early Middle English (Bennett 1986, pp. 259–63).

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

According to the work's dedication, Orm wrote it at the behest of Brother Walter, who was his brother both affterr þe flæshess kinde (biologically) and as a fellow canon of an Augustinian order (Matthew 2004, p. 936). 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, among them Henry Bradley, have held that the likely origin is Elsham Priory in north Lincolnshire (Bennett and Smithers 1982, pp. 174–75), as of the mid-1990s it has become widely accepted that Orm wrote in the Arrouaisian Bourne Abbey, in Bourne, Lincolnshire (Treharne 2000, p. 273). Two additional pieces of evidence support this conjecture: firstly, the abbey was established by Arrouaisian canons in 1138, and secondly, the work includes dedicatory prayers to Peter and Paul, who are the patrons of Bourne Abbey (Parkes 1983, pp. 115–27). The Arrouaisian rule was largely that of Augustine, so that its houses often are loosely referred to as Augustinian (Jack, George, in Matthew and Harrison 2004, pp. 936–37; Parkes 1983, pp. 115–27).

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 (Burchfield 1987, p. 280). Since it is apparently an autograph, with two of the three hands in the text generally believed by scholars to be Orm's own, the date of the manuscript and the date of composition would have been 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 may have begun the work as early as 1150 (Parkes 1983, pp. 115–27). The text has few topical references to specific events that could be used to identify the period of composition more precisely.


Only one copy of the Ormulum exists, as Bodleian Library MS Junius 1 (Burchfield 1987, p. 280). In its current state, the manuscript is incomplete: the book's table of contents claims that there were 242 homilies, but only 32 remain (Matthew 2004, p. 936). 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 was probably caused by the loss of gatherings from the manuscript. There is no doubt that such losses have occurred even in modern times, as the Dutch antiquarian Jan van Vliet, one of its seventeenth-century owners, copied out passages that are not in the present text (Jack, George, in Matthew and Harrison 2004, pp. 936–37). 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 1986, p. 30).

The parchment used in the manuscript is of the lowest quality, and the text 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 1987, p. 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. Treharne has taken this as suggesting that it is not only modern readers who have found the work tedious (Treharne 2000, p. 273). Orm, however, says in the preface that he wishes Walter to remove any wording that he finds clumsy or incorrect (quoted in Bennett and Smithers 1982, pp. 175–76).

The provenance of the manuscript before the seventeenth 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 probably was purchased by Franciscus Junius, from whose library it came to the Bodleian as part of the Junius donation (Holt 1878, pp. liv–lvi).[A]

Contents and style

The Ormulum consists of 18,956 lines of metrical verse, explaining Christian teaching on each of the texts used in the mass throughout the church calendar (Treharne 2000, p. 273). As such, it is the first new homily cycle in English since the works of Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 990). The motivation was to provide an accessible English text for the benefit of the less educated, which might include some clergy who found it difficult to understand the Latin of the Vulgate Bible, and the parishioners who in most cases would not understand spoken Latin at all (Treharne 2000, p. 273).

Each homily begins with a paraphrase of a Gospel reading (important when the laity did not understand Latin), followed by exegesis (Bennett and Smithers 1982, pp. 174–75). 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 (Jack, George, in Matthew and Harrison 2004, pp. 936–37). Rather than identify individual sources, Orm refers frequently to "ðe boc" and to the "holy book" (Bennett 1986, p. 31). Bennett has speculated that the Acts of the Apostles, Glossa Ordinaria, and Bede were bound together in a large Vulgate Bible in the abbey so that Orm truly was getting all of his material from a source that was, to him, a single book. (Bennett 1986, p. 31).

Although the sermons have been deemed "of little literary or theological value" (Burchfield 1987, p. 280) and though Orm has been said to possess "only one rhetorical device", that of repetition (Bennett 1986, p. 32), the Ormulum never was 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 each day. Furthermore, although Orm's poetry is, perhaps, 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 (Bennett and Smithers 1982, pp. 174–75).

Although 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, based on the Latin iambic septenarius, and writes continuously, neither dividing his work into stanzas nor rhyming his lines, again following Latin poetry (Bennett 1986, p. 31). The work is unusual in that no critic ever has stepped forward to defend it on literary grounds. Indeed, Orm was humble about his oeuvre: he admits in the preface that he frequently has 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 (Treharne 2000, pp. 274–75).

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 conspicuous literary merit, the chief scholarly value of the Ormulum derives from Orm's idiosyncratic orthographical system (Treharne 2000, p. 273). 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 (Bennett 1986, pp. 31–32).

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 (Treharne 2000, p. 273). 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 [d͡ʒ] and [j], and the new <g> for [ɡ] (Jack, George, in Matthew and Harrison 2004, pp. 936–37). His devotion to precise spelling was meticulous; for example, having originally used <eo> and <e> inconsistently for words such as "beon" and "kneow," which had been spelled with <eo> in Old English, at line 13,000 he changed his mind and went back to change all "eo" spellings, replacing them solely with "e" alone ("ben" and "knew"), to reflect the pronunciation (Matthew 2004, p. 936; Jack, George, in Matthew and Harrison 2004, pp. 936–37).

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 of the History of the English language to develop an exceptionally precise snapshot of exactly how Middle English was pronounced in the Midlands in the second half of the twelfth century (Matthew 2004, p. 936).


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 (Bennett 1986, p. 31). The Ormulum is also the only specimen of the homiletic tradition in England between Ælfric and the fourteenth century, as well as being the last example of the Old English verse homily. It also demonstrates what would become Received Standard English two centuries before Chaucer (Burchfield 1987, p. 280). Further, Orm was concerned with the laity. He sought to make the Gospel comprehensible to the congregation, and he did this perhaps forty years before the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 "spurred the clergy as a whole into action" (Bennett 1986, p. 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 enabled philologists to document the transformation of Old English into Middle English (Burchfield 1987, p. 280).

See also


A. ^ Quotations are from Holt (1878). The dedication and preface are both numbered separately from the main body of the poem.


  • Bennett, J. A. W. (1986). Gray, Douglas (ed.). Middle English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-812214-4.
  • Bennett, J. A. W.; Smithers, G. V., eds. (1982). Early Middle English Verse and Prose (2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-871101-8.
  • Burchfield, Robert W. (1987). "Ormulum". In Strayer, Joseph R. (ed.). Dictionary of the Middle Ages. 9. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 280. ISBN 0-684-18275-0.
  • Holt, Robert, ed. (1878). The Ormulum: with the notes and glossary of Dr R. M. White. Two vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Internet Archive: Volume 1; Volume 2.
  • Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, Brian, eds. (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 41. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 936. ISBN 0-19-861391-1.
  • Parkes, M. B. (1983). "On the Presumed Date and Possible Origin of the Manuscript of the Orrmulum". In Stanley, E. G.; Gray, Douglas (eds.). Five Hundred Years of Words and Sounds: A Festschrift for Eric Dobson. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. pp. 115–27. ISBN 0-85991-140-3.
  • Treharne, Elaine, ed. (2000). Old and Middle English: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-20465-2.

External links

  • "The Ormulum Project". Stockholm University website. Stockholm University. 5 September 2000. Retrieved 16 October 2010.