Born: fl. 1200 AD
Died: fl. 1200 AD
Cause of death: unspecified
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Ormulum
Orm, or Ormin, the author of an English book, called by himself Ormulum ("because Orm made it"), consisting of metrical homilies on the gospels read at mass. The unique manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, is certainly Orm's autograph, and contains abundant corrections by his own hand. On palaeographical grounds it is referred to about AD 1200, and this date is supported by the linguistic evidence. The dialect is midland, with some northern features. It is marked in an unparalleled degree by the abundance of Scandinavian words, while the French element in its vocabulary is extraordinarily small. The precise determination of the locality is not free from difficulty, as it is now recognized that the criteria formerly relied on for distinguishing between the eastern and the western varieties of the midland dialect are not valid, at least for this early period. The Ormulum certainly contains a surprisingly large number of words that are otherwise nearly peculiar to western texts; but the inference that might be drawn from this fact appears to be untenable in face of the remarkable lexical affinities between this work and Havelok, which is certainly of northeast midland origin. On the whole, the language of the Omulum seems to point to north Lincolnshire as the author's native district.
The work is dedicated to a certain Walter, at whose request it was composed, and whom Orm addresses as his brother in a threefold sense -- "according to the flesh", as his fellow Christian, and as being a member of the same religious fraternity, that of the Augustinian Canons. Orm and Walter may have been inmates of the Augustinian priory of Elsham, near the Humber, which was established about the middle of the 12th century by Walter de Amundeville. In his foundation charter Walter endows the priory with lands, and also grants to it the services of certain villeins, among whom are his steward (praepositus) William, son of Leofwine, and his wife and family. As this William is said to have had an uncle named Orm, and probably owed his Norman name to a godfather belonging to the Amundeville family, it seems not unlikely that the author of the Ormulum and his brother Walter were his sons, named respectively after their father's uncle and his lord, and that they entered the religious house of which they had been made subjects.
The name Orm is Scandinavian (Old Norse Ormr, literally "serpent", corresponding to the Old English wyrm, "worm"), and was not uncommon in the Danish parts of England. It occurs once in the book. The Gallicized form Ormin is found only in one passage, where the author gives it as the name by which he was christened. If this statement be meant literally (i.e. if the writer was not merely treating the two names as equivalent), it shows that he must, like his brother, have had a Norman godfather. The ending "-in" was frequently appended to names in Old French, e.g. in Johannin for Johan, John. The title Ormulum for the book which Orm made was probably an imitation of Speculum, a common medieval name for books of devotion or religious edification.
The Ormulum is written in lines alternately of eight and seven syllables, without either rhyme or alliteration. The rhythm may be seen from the opening couplet: "Nu, brotherr Wallter, brotherr min / Affterr the flaeshess kinde." The extant portion of the work, not including the dedication and introduction, consists of about 20,000 lines. But the table of contents refers to 242 homilies, of which only 31 are preserved; and as the dedication implies that the book had been completed, and that it included homilies on the gospels for nearly all the year, it would seem that the huge fragment which we possess is not much more than one-eighth of this extraordinary monument of pious industry.
The Ormulum is entirely destitute of poetic merit, though the author's visible enjoyment of his task renders it not uninteresting reading. To the history of biblical interpretation and of theological ideas it probably contributes little or nothing that is not well known from other sources. For the philologist, however, the work is of immense value, partly as a unique specimen of the north-midland dialect of the period, and partly because the author had invented an original system of phonetic spelling, which throws great light on the contemporary pronunciation of English. In closed syllables the shortness of a vowel is indicated by the doubling of the following consonant. In open syllables this method would have been misleading, as it would have suggested a phonetic doubling of the consonant. In such cases Orm had recourse to the device of placing a crescent over the vowel. Frequently, but apparently not according to any discoverable rule, he distinguishes long vowels by one, two or three accents over the letter. Like some earlier writers, he retained the Old English form of the letter "g" where it expressed a spirant sound (not, however, distinguishing between the guttural and the palatal spirant), and used the continental "g" for the guttural stop and the sound dzh. He was, however, original in distinguishing the two latter sounds by using slightly different forms of the letter. This fact was unfortunately not perceived by the editors, so that the printed text confounds the two symbols throughout. The discovery was made by Professor A. S. Napier in 1890. It must be confessed that Orm often forgets his own rules of spelling, and although hundreds of oversights are corrected by interlineation, many inconsistencies still remain. Nevertheless, the orthography of the Ormulum is the most valuable existing source of information on the development of sounds in Middle English.
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