Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Early Transition English > Ormulum
  Literary Revolt of the 13th Century Genesis and Exodus  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XI. Early Transition English.

§ 4. Ormulum.


Of the several attempts at scriptural exposition the Ormulum is the most considerable. The power of literary appeal displayed in this work is, intrinsically, of the smallest. Its matter is not attractive, its movement is prodigiously monotonous, its very correctness is tiresome; and yet it has an interest of its own, for, in its way, it helps to fill in the details of the literary picture of the time. It was probably written in the first decade of the thirteenth century in the north-east midlands. Its author, Orm, was a member of an Augustine monastery in that district, and, in response to the wishes of his “br[char]err Wallterr,” he undertook to turn into English paraphrases all the gospels for the ecclesiastical year as arranged in the mass-book, and to add to each paraphrase an exposition for English readers. The work, as projected, entailed a treatment of 243 passages of Scripture: the result, as extant, embodies only one-eighth of the plan\s-\thirty paraphrases with the corresponding homilies. In his translation of the scriptural text Orm faithfully followed his original; for the matter of the homiletic sections he drew mainly on the Commentaries and Homilies of Bede, though, occasionally, he appears to have consulted the homiletic work of Gregory as well as the writings of Josephus and Isidore. It has been usual to point to the works of Augustine and Aelfric as among the sources; but definite reasons have been advanced for discountenancing this view. 10  Traces of originality on the part of Orm are few and far between. Encouraged by the spirit of his originals, he occasionally essays short flights of fancy; and instances of such ventures possibly occur in 11. 3710, 8019, 9390. In a work so entirely dependent on earlier material it is not strange to find that the theology was already out of date. Orm is orthodox; but it is the orthodoxy of Bede. Of later developments, such as the thirteenth century mysticism, he has not a sign. He combats heresies such as the Ebionite. (1. 18,577) and Sabellian (1. 18,625), which had disturbed the days of Bede but had since been laid to rest. In his introduction appear Augustinian ideas concerning original sin; but of the propitiation theory as set forth by Anselm there is no mention. His dogma and his erudition are alike pre-Conquest; and in this sense Orm may be said to stand outside his age and to represent merely a continuation of Old English thought. Again, he is only following the methods of the earlier schools in his allegorical interpretation. He is amazingly subtle and frequently puerile in the vast significance which he gives to individual words, even to individual letters. Personal names and placenames furnish him with texts for small semons, and the frequently indulged desire to extract hidden meanings from the most unpromising material leads to such an accumulation of strained conceits as would have made the work a veritable gold mine for seventeenth century intellect. Most illuminating as to this fanciful treatment is his handling of the name of Jesus (1.4302). Of the human and personal element the work contains but little. The simple modesty of the author’s nature is revealed when he fears his limitations and his inadequacy for the task. Otherwise the passionless temperament of the monk is felt in every line as the work ambles along innocent of all poetic exaltation, and given over completely to pious moralisings. He shows a great regard for scholarly exactitudel but this, in excess, becomes mere pedantry, and, indeed, his scruples often cause him to linger needlessly over trifles in the text and to indulge in aimless repetitions which prove exhausting. As a monument of industry the work is beyond all praise. Its peculiar orthography, carefully sustained through 10,000 long lines, is the joy of the philogist, though aesthetically it is open to grave objection. By his method of doubling every consonant immediately following a short vowel, Orm furnishes most valuable evidence regarding vowel-length at a critical period of the language. It is doubtful whether he was well advised in choosing verse of any kind as the form of his ponderous work; but it must, at least, be conceded that the verse which he did adopt\s-\the iambic septenarius\s-\was not the least suitable for the purpose he had in view. It was the simplest of Latin metres, and Orm’s mechanical handling certainly involves no great complexities. He allows himself no licenses. The line invariably consists of fifteen syllables and is devoid of either timing or alliterative ornament. The former might possibly, in the author’s opinion, have tended to detract from the severity of the theme; the latter must have appeared too vigorous for the tone desired. Except for his versification, Orm, as compared with Old English writers, appears to have forgotten nothing, to have learnt nothing. Equally blind to the uses of Romance vocabulary and conservative in thought, Orm is but a relic of the past in an age fast hurrying on to new forms and new ideas.   11

Note 10. G. Sarrazin, Englische Stud. VI 1–27. [ back ]

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  Literary Revolt of the 13th Century Genesis and Exodus  
 
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