Monday, January 7, 2019

Orm and the Ormulum

MS Junias 1 at the
Bodleian Library.

            Orm!  You may recognize the name of Aquaman’s half-brother who, in a recent movie, aspires to lead the undersea realm of Atlantis in a war against us surface-dwellers.  In the history of the English Bible, the name Orm has an entirely different significance, as the name of the author of the Ormulum, a Middle English text from the 1100s that is among the earliest substantial attempts to translate the Gospels into English.   Orm (whose name means “dragon” or “serpent”) produced the Ormulum (meaning, basically, “The Book written by Orm”) in Bourne, England, about 100 miles north of London.  Each chapter in the Ormulum begins with an extract from the Gospels in Middle English – the “Godspelless” – followed by its exposition (often based on comments by earlier authors, such as Bede), also in Middle English. 
            Only two copies of the Ormulum are known to exist:  MS Junius 1, at the Bodleian Library.  This is the autograph of the composition.  The other copy – a copy of MS Junius 1 – was made in the 1600s when MS Junius 1 had 27 more leaves than it has today; this is MS 783 at the Lambeth Palace Library.
            The Table of Contents in MS Julius 1 leads readers to expect 242 sections, consisting of portions of the Gospels and expositions of them – but only 32 sections still exist.  The Table of Contents, however, supplies the opening phrase of each section that was to be presented and interpreted, and thus we can discern the contours of all texts which Orm included (or intended to include) and commented upon.  The series began with (1)  Luke 1:5-17, (2)  Luke 1:18-25, (3)  Luke 1:26-38, (4)  Luke 1:39-56, (5)  Luke 1:57-80, (6)  Matthew 1:18-24, (7) Luke 2:1-15a, (8)  Luke 2:15b-20, (9)  Luke 2:21, (10)  Matthew 2:1-12, (11)  Luke 2:22-32, (12) Luke 2:33-40, (13)  Matthew 2:13-18, (14) Matthew 2:19-20, (15) Luke 2:41-52, (16)  Luke 3:1-6, (17) Matthew 3:4-10 and Luke 3:10-14, (18) John 1:19-27 and Luke 3:16-17 and John 1:28, (19)  Matthew 3:13-17, and (20) Matthew 4:1-11; the next eight sections consisted of John 1:29-3:36, and the 29th section covered John 1:1-14 (and John 1:16-18).  A fuller presentation of the list of sections of Scripture that were covered (or planned to be covered) in the Ormulum can be viewed at the Orrmulum Project website. 
The other Orm.
          Professor Nils-Lennart Johannesson of Stockholm University is presently preparing a new edition of the text of the Ormulum, with detailed analysis of the Latin sources used by Orm in the composition of his sermon-like commentaries.  A transcript of the Ormulum was made in 1852 by Robert Meadows White, and can be accessed in two volumes; Volume One and Volume 2.  Fans of The Lord of the Rings may be interested to know that J. R. R. Tolkien gave the Ormulum some attention in the course of his philological research.
            One of the interesting things about the Ormulum is that Orm treated vowels in a peculiar way, so as to facilitate uniform pronunciation.  Probably this was done so that the text could be read aloud in a congregational setting.  The Gospel-excerpts in the Ormulum constitute one of the most substantial attempts, before Tyndale and before Wycliffe, to translate the Gospels into English so that a common English person could understand it.
            More information about the Ormulum can be found in K. Dekker’s article The Ormulum in the Seventeenth Century:  The Manuscript and its Early Readers (published in April 2018 in Neophilologus). 

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