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Ormulum

From Academic Kids

The Ormulum is a work of metrical Biblical exegesis written in early Middle English by a man named "Ormin". The work is notable for being a key to the pronunciation of early Middle English at a critical time.

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Orrmulum.jpg
A page from the Ormulum: Note the careful and repeated editing performed over time by Orm.

The author is unusual, in that he names himself in his manuscript. The name "Orm" is derived from Old Norse for "worm/dragon," with the suffix of "man," and was common throughout the Danelaw area of England. Orm tells us that he wrote his book at the behest of his brother, Walter (who was either a biological or spiritual brother). We know that both Orm and Walter were canons of the Augustinian order, and the dialect of the manuscript is undoubtedly east Midlands. This has led some scholars to claim that, because there are dedicatory prayers to Peter and Paul, Orm was associated with Bourne in Lincolnshire. Other scholars have suggested that he was at Elsham Priory in north Lincolnshire. Orm wrote his book over a period of decades, and the manuscript (Junius I in the Bodleian library) is an autograph that shows signs of multiple corrections through time. Orm not only composed his work over a period of years, but he also revised and corrected it for years afterward. Additionally, Orm had a collaborator ("Hand C") who added in the pericopts (passages of Gospel text added at the head of homilies).

The date of composition is impossible to pinpoint, but it is most likely that Orm began composing as early as 1150 and that he ended as late as 1180. It is possible that he was an eye witness to the Anarchy of the reigns of Stephen and Matilda and that this informs some of his admonitions to readers.

The work is 20,000 lines of metrical verse explicating Christian teaching on each of the texts used in the mass throughout the church calendar. Inasmuch as Orm follows strict metrics, his work is unusual and is possibly meant for oral performance.

The chief value of the Ormulum for scholars is the fact that it is metrical and that Orm used an idiosyncratic orthographical system. Orm states that he dislikes the way that people are mispronouncing English, and so he will spell words exactly as they are pronounced. He therefore uses double vowels and consonants to indicate their length and value. When scholars add the values Orm gives with spelling to the stress patterns required by his verse structure, they can develop an exceptionally precise snapshot of exactly how Middle English was pronounced in the Midlands in the second half of the 12th century. This allows linguists to construct accurate maps of language change in the development of Middle and early Modern English.

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