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A Project by the Department of Medieval English Literature and Historical Linguistics, University of Düsseldorf

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The Ormulum

The Ormulum is a late twelfth-century poem from the East Midlands of some 20,000 short lines. It is named after its author, an Augustinian canon called Orrm, a Scandinavian name meaning 'serpent'. While The Ormulum is commonly held to be only of minor literary interest, it is remarkable in linguistic terms: The author devised a semi-phonetic spelling system in which the consonants are consistently doubled after short vowels. Thus it is of primary importance for linguists and dialectologists.

In The Ormulum, the author introduces himself and says that he is writing at the request of his brother Walter, also an Augustinian canon.

His objective is to give an English paraphrase of the gospels for the year as arranged in the Mass book, supplemented by a homily on each; but in fact the extant text is a series of sermons arranged chronologically around the gospel versions of the life of Christ. Of the 242 homilies listed in the table of contents, only 32 have come down to us. The text is considered to have been left unfinished.

Evidently, it was Orrm's overall objective to offer religious teaching in the vernacular both as instruction for a lay audience as well as pastoral care. Orrm's exegesis of the Biblical matter is mainly based on the widely spread twelfth-century Glossa Ordinaria, which provided ample commentaries on the Scripture.

The following is an excerpt from the text:
Nu, broþerr Wallterr, broþerr min,
Affter þe flæshess kinde;
Annd broþerr min i Crisstenndom
þurrh fulluhht and þurrh trowwþe
Annd broþerr min i Godess hus,
3et o þe þridde wise,
þurrh þatt witt hafenn takenn ba
An re3hellboc to foll3henn,
Unnderr kanunnkess had annd lif,
Swa-summ Sannt Awwsten sette;
Icc hafe don swa-summ þu badd
Annd forþedd te þin wille,
Icc haf wennd inntill Ennglissh
Goddspelless hall3he lare,
Affterr þatt little witt þatt me
Min Drihhtin hafeþþ lenedd.
(Vv. 1-15)
Literature, Middle English Period, Poetry