About Orm

What we know about the author of the Ormulum is what he himself states in his text: at one place he gives his name as Orrm (Þiss boc iss nemmnedd. orrmulum; / Forr þi þatt orrm itt wrohhte.), at another he states that at the place where he was baptized, he was given the name Orrmin (see Envoi). Orm (< ON ormr ‘worm’, ‘serpent’, ‘dragon’) was a common enough name in the parts of England which had been settled by Scandinavians; Orrmin is generally held to be a modification of the name on the model of Awwstin (‘Augustine’).

At the beginning of the ‘Dedication’ Orm addresses his brother Walter, who is said to have commissioned the work (Icc hafe don swa summ þu badd; / & forþedd te þi wille.). Both brothers were Augustinian canons (witt hafenn takenn ba. / An re3hell boc to foll3henn. / Unnderr kanunnkess had. & lif. / Swa summ sannt awwstin sette.). That is the end of the information that Orm himself gives us; for the rest, we have to rely on what deductions can be made from the text.

As far as the localization of the text is concerned, the dialect has long been recognized as East Midland. In an ingenious discussion of the table of contents in the manuscript, Parkes (1983) points out that a group of homilies towards the end of the collection stand out from the vast majority (which deal with the life of Christ), in that they deal with the lives and works of Peter and Paul. This would make sense only if Orm belonged to a monastery dedicated to these saints. The only Augustinian house in the East Midland area with that dedication was the abbey of Bourne, in southern Lincolnshire, founded in 1138. It does not follow, of course, that Orm himself came from Bourne; his comments about his baptism seem to indicate that he was baptized, at any rate, at some other place.

In the same article, Parkes analysed the writing of the collaborator of Orm’s (traditionally referred to as Hand C) who put in the Latin pericopes (the beginning of the Gospel text for each homily) in the manuscript and concluded that those entries could not have been written later than c. 1180. But the pericopes were the last entries to be made in the manuscript, and were made only after a long process of composition of the homilies, copying the text from earlier drafts, revision of the content of the text, and finally a long sequence of passes through the text during which Orm corrected various little formal details. Orm may well have started work on his homilies in the 1150’s.

Brother Walter must clearly have been an authority figure, since he could commission a work on this scale, which in all likelihood kept his brother occupied for a couple of decades. The name of the abbot of Bourne is known, but Walter may well have been the prior. The reason why a fair copy of the manuscript was apparently never produced may have been that Walter died and official support for Orm’s project was withdrawn. That may well have been the point at which Orm went from making large-scale revisions of the content of his text to concentrating on minor details of spelling and morphology. Eventually, old age seems to have taken its toll: what are apparently late changes are clumsily executed, no doubt due to weak eyes and stiff fingers. (For further comments on the manuscript, see Overwriting, erasure and deletion.)

To visualize Orm at work, you are referred to a magnificent picture (40x28 cm) from about 1150 in the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R. 17.1, f. 283v.), showing an English monk (Eadwine of Canterbury) working in his scriptorium. The picture is reproduced in Drogin 1989:11, but cannot be shown here for copyright reasons. A series of miniatures from 1100-1150 showing monks involved in the various stages of book production (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Msc. Patr. 5 (B.II.5)) can be seen here; for a study of details, the reproduction in either Drogin 1989:10 or Harris 1995:9 (in color) is recommended.


Drogin, Marc. 1989. Medieval Calligraphy. Its History and Techniques. New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications.

Harris, David. 1995. The Art of Calligraphy: A Practical Guide to the Skills and Techniques. London: Dorling Kindersley.