Read the Ormulum, You Should

[NB: This is an abbreviated version of a paper I gave at Kalamazoo in 2014. If you would like to read the longer paper, please contact me directly at]

The first question I ask people when discussing my research is this: have you ever heard of the Ormulum? Most advanced medievalists will groan if they’ve heard of it, which means that they probably also haven’t actually spent much time with it (thank you, those few of you who get excited when I mention it). For you, dear reader, I will provide a brief introduction to the Ormulum, which, unlike most medieval texts, is not an editorial title.

Orm, the author, named it such because his name was Orm. In the twelfth-century, this regular canon wrote a collection of verse-homilies that follow the life of Christ (rather than the liturgical calendar) based on the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. He was likely writing in Bourne, Lincolnshire c.1160-1180. Interestingly, the work was commissioned by his brother Walter, whom he claims is both his religious brother and his biological brother. Only 20,000 short lines (or 10,000 long lines) of the work survive though Orm clearly meant for it to be much much longer (think 8x the size). Even though the name of the work is the Ormulum, it is not supposed to be considered one long poem like the speculum literature that was popular from the 12th to 16th centuries. Orm includes clear distinctions between his homilies with a capital letter indicating each new text. We also know this from his list of Latin pericopes. If you know anything about the Ormulum prior to reading this, you’re likely familiar with Orm’s standardized orthography (or, as Meg Worley has recently called it, his “Ormography”) in which he uses double consontants after short vowels to indicate vowel length. Worley and others have pointed out that this was likely to aid non-native English speakers  in reading the text aloud, like imported Norman clergy in Bourne.

For a couple images of the manuscript, click here.

The next question I usually pose is this: have you ever seen the OrmulumInvariably, most people will answer “no,” but the few in the know will likely make some guttural noise of dislike, if not disgust, because it’s just so ugly! Well, if you’ve followed the link above, then you will now have seen a couple images of the manuscript–Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 1. What do you think of it? Is it “freakish”? Is it “unexceptional”? Does it look “singularly ugly and untidy”? [Yes, these are all words used to describe it by modern scholars.] J. A. W. Bennett calls it the “ugliest of manuscripts.” Sometimes I’d like to shake these people because, obviously, it’s not a deluxe manuscript. It was Orm’s autographic working copy, and he clearly hoped to have it copied into a more presentable version. What these images suggest, other than Orm used whatever parchment made available to him, is that he was working on his manuscript for a long time. He continually labored over his work, scratching out whole sections or only some lines, but he seemed to know exactly what he wanted to write the majority of the time. My point is this: the manuscript is “singularly ugly and untidy” because everybody has shitty first drafts. However, the fact that it’s aesthetically displeasing to some people should not prevent us from engaging with it as an important literary and cultural artifact.

My final question is this: have you ever read the Ormulum? If you’ve read part of the Ormulum, I imagine you’re familiar with the Dedication. This means you may have also read the Preface, in which Orm likens Christ and the Gospels to Aminidab’s four-wheeled chariot (quadriga). You’ve probably also read the Introduction, which begins with the fall of man, mentions the coming of the Word/Son of God, and leads into Homily 1 on John the Baptist. You may have even read a homily, likely one of the early ones, or an excerpt of a homily taken out of context. What I love the most in Homily 2, which is super long and incredibly fragmented due to about 12 missing folios, is Orm’s explanation of Jewish sacrifice and how Christian supersession makes these sacrifices spiritual rather than physical. Typical, sure, but Orm adds his own touch. Each animal corresponds to “gode þæwess” (good habits) that are linked to one’s moral barometer. He essentially calls goats stinky lust beasts, and you sacrifice one to God spiritually if you’re full of lust. However, you spiritually sacrifice a lamb if you are meek, mild, gentle, obedient, and forsake all heathen gods. In fact, it’s so important that we acknowledge that the Christian God is the only god that Orm provides a longer analogy of the lamb: that is, the lamb knows its mother’s bleating [read “Word of God”] above all other bleating sheep [read “whatever all those heathen gods are saying”] even if it’s among 1,000 sheep. That seems like a ridiculously large amount of heathen god-sheep…

Another example of Orm’s innovation comes in Homily 3 when he uses the stella maris (star of the sea) epithet for the Virgin Mary. This is in his homily on the Annunciation where Mary is called the “sæsteorrne”:

7 ure deore laffdi3 wass         þurrh Drihhtin nemmnedd Mar3e,
Forr þatt tatt name shollde wel         bitacnenn hire seollþe;
Forr hire name tacneþþ uss         sæsterrne onn Ennglissh spæche,
7 3ho beoþ æfre, 7 was, 7 iss         sæsterrne inn hali3 bisne;
Forr all swa summ þe steressmann         a33 lokeþþ till an sterrne,
Þatt stannt a33 still upp o þe lifft         7 swiþe brihhte shineþþ,
Forr þatt he wile foll3henn a33         þatt illke sterrness lade,
Swa þatt he mu3he lenden rihht         to lande wiþþ hiss wille,
All swa birrþ all Crisstene follc         till Sannte Mar3e lokenn,
Þatt stannt wiþþ hire sune i stall         þær he3hesst iss inn heoffne. (2131-46; I put them into long lines instead of Holt’s short lines)

And my translation, for your convenience:

And our dear lady was called Mary by the Lord because that name should well signify her blessing, for her name signifies for us the sea-star in the English language, and she ever will be, and was, and is the sea-star in holy example. Just as the steersman always looks to a star, which always stands still up in the sky and shines so brightly, because he wishes to follow always that same star’s way so that he is able to proceed correctly to land by his will, so it behooves all Christian folk to look to Saint Mary, who stands with her son in place where it is highest in heaven.

This is only the second instance of the English use of the epithet, as opposed to its Latin stella maris. I could bore you to tears with the details on the origins and transmission of the epithet from St. Jerome to Fulbert of Chartres. But I won’t since you could just look up my forthcoming article on it in SELIM (volume 20 available soon on their website). I will say that the first instance of the epithet in the English vernacular occurs in the post-Conquest Old English translations of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which is an apocryphal story of Mary’s nativity and childhood. The Old English translation adds a preface to its translation of the Latin, and it’s in this preface that we find the star of the sea passage for the first time in English, which is decidedly different from Orm’s use:

She [Mary] is called star of the sea because the star of the sea where east and west, where south and north are to seafaring people at night. In the same way, therefore, the right way to eternal life was shown by the holy virgin Saint Mary to those who sat in darkness for a long time and in the shadow of death and upon the restless waves of the sea of this middle-earth.

Orm’s use of the star of the sea epithet, therefore, is different from this earliest English use of it, which likely means he derived it from more than one of the sources I mentioned above. The sea-star epithet may travel mostly with the apocryphal Marian material, but Orm makes no use of the apocrypha itself. He just really likes Mary (read my SELIM article when it comes out for more Orm on Mary action).

So, I wonder: how is this work completely without literary merity? Ultimately, to hold Orm’s verse-homilies to the same literary standards as “classical” Old English poetry or the popular Middle English lyrics—as I think nay-sayers often do—is unfair. Greater access to the manuscript and its text would likely help convince people that the Ormulum is worth reading and thinking about. We need to demystify the “ugliness” of the manuscript by showing it to more people, and we need a new critical edition since the only one comes from 1878 and has problems, to put it mildly. We also need a full translation of the texts so that people–novices and advanced medievalists alike–can skim it quickly to get a feel for Orm’s literature to a fuller extent before turning to his original Early Middle English language. Because that’s what it is. Literature. Luckily, there is some progress to this end: Nils Lennart-Johannesson has the Ormulum Project, as well as a new EETS edition that’s almost complete, and the Early Middle English Society is working on an free, open-access digital edition for the Archive of Early Middle English. For my own part, I’ve been tweeting (search #ormulum and #OrmLOVE) and blogging my ongoing translation of the Ormulum (currently halfway through Homily 8).

To wrap up, allow me to reiterate. First, we as readers, students, and researchers need to get over the “ugliness” of the Ormulum manuscript. That sort of reaction is unproductive and reductive. Second, we need to embrace the spelling and repetition of these verse-homilies (not poem) as something that is useful in our attempt to understand what Orm was actually trying to communicate to us. And, finally, we desperately need a new edition and translation of the work. I like to think that the more people I thrust the Ormulum upon, the more likely people will begin reading it for Orm’s moments of ingenuity—and sometimes utter weirdness—instead of automatically denegrating its structure and packaging.


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