Since I was a student, I’ve had a policy whenever I hand in a piece of writing for the final time. That policy is to read the whole thing, out loud, to myself, all the way through, at least once. For journal articles, it’s usually five or six times as I find things I don’t like the sound of, or which could be confusing. I’m now at the stage with the critical edition of the Ormulum where it’s time to send it on, and I’m reading the whole thing through now. At such a time, one wonders if anyone else has ever done that before (or since Orrm). The critical edition text alone is over 120,000 words, and Orrm’s style is usually criticised by scholars as being dull, repetitive, naive and pedantic. However, when reading out loud, I’ve started to realise something about the verse. It’s not so much pedantic as it is pedagogic. We have to think a little about the intended audience.

A 12th-century church sermon is rather different from a 21st-century one, because the church environment was very different. First of all, we have to review our ideas of church as being a place for quiet contemplation. On Sunday morning in the early Middle Ages, the nave would be packed solid with the entire village. In the Lincolnshire parishes Orrm envisions as the audience for his homilies, the mass of people would be peasant farmers, probably illiterate and certainly uneducated, except for what they could glean about Christianity from church. We also have to think about the acoustics. Stone and wood reflect sound, cloth and bodies suck it up. All those bodies would deaden the priests’ voice – as would a thatched or raftered roof. Pews didn’t start being installed in churches until around 100 years after Orrm, so the congregation would be standing and milling around, shuffling their feet. Some people would be listening, and would presumably move closer to the preacher. Small children would be running around squealing, babies would be crying. There would probably be quite a lot of whispering and chatting. Maybe there’d be small deals going on, people returning borrowed objects, planning future meetings or exchanges, or managing secret rendezvous. In short, all of human life.

If the priest were lucky, he might have a pulpit. The pulpit in medieval churches was often just a raised platform in the middle of the nave, close to the congregation, with no sounding-board above to help with the projection of the voice. More likely, he’d be reading the sermon from a lectern on the chancel step or other raised point.

So there’d be whole families packed solid listening to an unamplified priest in terrible acoustic conditions. The pedantic repetition of important parts therefore serves a pedagogic function, considering the environment. The priest couldn’t make ordinary parishioners sit still and pay attention, or even expect them to, so he adapted his style. The rhythm reveals the structure of the sentences while the repetition nails home the main idea over and over again. If anyone gets lost or distracted, there’ll be another chance to catch on in a minute or so. The rhythm also makes the voice stand out from the susurrus of overlapping conversations. The lack of rhyme or artistic turns of phrase is similarly entirely suitable for the genre. Orrm was not trying to amuse 19th century philologists with his wit and inventiveness, he was trying to cram basic religious ideas into indolent rustics’ heads over and over again, in the hope that they would behave decently and get into heaven.

As I’m reading the text out to myself, it becomes very rhythmic and intoned, and the repeated expressions, especially “off ure sawle nede” (for the good of our souls) become slow and clear markers of the progress of the talk. There is no need for the reader to look ahead to the end of the sentence to plan its intonation, as the verse rhythm controls it, and the punctuation gives ideal places to pause.

The sermons therefore follow a pattern which modern teachers are encouraged to follow both in our training and regular practice. First, we tell people what we’re going to do. Then we do it. Then we tell them what we did, and why we did it. Orrm’s polished, expansive style fulfils this expectation admirably. Nobody who listened to the Ormulum being read through once a year for the whole of their lives could turn up at the pearly gates and complain that they had gone uninformed.