“A book you can be single-mindedly obsessed with”
A repetitive and fairly boring book, written on scrap bits of poor quality parchment. Still, the ‘Ormulum’ has fascinated linguists for hundreds of years. After 30 years of work at the English Department at Stockholm University, a new critical edition of the book is now being released, the first one since 1878.
“The ‘Ormulum’ is a book you can be single-mindedly obsessed with and work with for decades,” says Andrew Cooper, Department of English, Stockholm University. He took over the Ormulum research project after professor Nils-Lennart Johannesson’s death in 2019, who in turn had worked alone on the project from 1993.
“Nils-Lennart tried to solve every mystery in the ‘Ormulum’, so he was constantly distracted and got sidetracked. He produced an astonishing amount of work and my role has been to carry on his legacy and publish the result,” Andrew Cooper says.
First written use of “they” and “them”
The ‘Ormulum’ is a collection of sermons and Bible explanations from the late 12th century, mainly written in early Middle English. After the Norman invasion in 1066 the English state apparatus was French speaking, while the language of the rural population in the Midlands was an English with a huge influence of Old Norse. The author of the ‘Ormulum’ was a monk with the Nordic sounding name Orm, hence the name ‘Ormulum’. There exists only one copy of the book, kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and it is the only preserved text written in this dialect from south Lincolnshire.
“The text is written in a semi-phonetic way so that priests, even if they weren’t that good at English, could read it out loud for ordinary people,” Andrew Cooper says. “The ‘Ormulum’ is a didactic piece of work, not designed to entertain 20th century theologians. It was simply designed to help medieval peasants into heaven.”
Today’s researchers do not read the book to be entertained by its content. However it is very interesting from a language history point of view. Lincolnshire had a huge Dane settlement during the Viking Age and a large part of the vocabulary in the book is of Old Norse origin. You can also find the first written use of the pronouns “they” and “them”, even if Orm writes the Old English “hem” sometimes.
Despite the fact that only around a fifth of the manuscript remains today, it is still a substantial work. Just under 200 000 words distributed over 31 sermons written, according to Andrew Cooper, in repetitive verse giving simple explanations on how to be a good Christian. And Orm worked on his manuscript for a long time, roughly 30 years. Long enough for the linguistic development during that period to be visible in the text.
Long process to write – and publish – the book
“It is interesting to follow his editorial process. Orm scrapes away and inserts words, he also adds the systematic sound change in the pronunciation of ‘e’ that took place during his lifetime,” Andrew Cooper says. “It is also possible to see changes in his handwriting over the years”.
The publishing of a modern edition of the book has been a long and sometimes difficult process, especially the special letters needed for reproducing the text have created problems. Many of the characters simply do not exist in the fonts we have today.
“In the 1850s you could ask someone to carve out a type with a specific look or cast your own fonts. These special letters don’t exist in Unicode and have to be coded by experts,” Andrew Cooper says.
Nils-Lennart Johannesson’s vision for the book has also been fulfilled. This critical edition of the ‘Ormulum’ is now part of the Early English Text Society’s publication series. This means that it never will be out of print, every book in their series since 1864 is still available in print.
“If your book is a part of the Early English Text Society’s series you are immortal,” Andrew Cooper says. “At least among a limited number of scholars and students.”
You can find out more about the ‘Ormulum’ and the project on
Last updated: April 3, 2023
Source: Communications Office