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The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann

Christian Textual Tradition

11. The Example of Judith in Early Modern French Literature

Kathleen M. Llewellyn

Texte intégral

  • 1 Christine de Pizan, for example, writes in Le Livre des trois vertus (1405): ”ce fut dit de la sai (...)
  • 2 Jacques Poirier traces the representation of Judith in French literature in Judith: Echos d’un myt (...)
  • 3 Ann Rosalind Jones, ”Surprising Fame: Renaissance Gender Ideologies and Women’s Lyric,” in Lorna H (...)
  • 4 Ibid., p. 317.
  • 5 Recent scholarship has demonstrated that many early modern women did not obey these strictures of (...)

1Judith, the biblical heroine who seduced and then beheaded an Assyrian general, clearly seized the imagination of early modern France. Her inclusion in manuals of comportment1 and her frequent appearance in other forms of literature, as well as her depiction in visual arts, made this widow an important figure in the religious discourse of the era.2 Yet in certain ways, Judith clearly acts against accepted codes of conduct for women in Renaissance France. Ann Rosalind Jones describes the Renaissance womanas ”disempowered.”3 Jones explains: ”In the discourses of humanism and bourgeois family theory, the proper woman is an absence: legally, she vanishes under the name and authority of her father and her husband; as daughter and wife, she is enclosed in the private household. She is silent and invisible: she does not speak, and she is not spoken about.”4 Judith, though, is decidedly present. Neither silent nor invisible, she is the very conspicuous center of the struggle to save her people, the subject of her own story.5

  • 6 It seems clear that the authors considered in this essay were influenced not only by the Vulgate, (...)
  • 7 Jean Molinet, Le Mystère de Judith et Holofernés, ed. Graham A. Runnalls (Geneva: Droz, 1995). Unl (...)
  • 8 For a convincing argument as to why Jean Molinet should be considered the author of this play, see (...)
  • 9 Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, La Judit, ed. André Baïche (Toulouse: Association des publication (...)
  • 10 Gabrielle de Coignard, Œuvres chrétiennes, ed. Colette H. Winn (Geneva: Droz, 1995). Unless otherw (...)

2This essay examines the ”Judith” texts of three early modern French writers, Jean Molinet, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, and Gabrielle de Coignard, keeping in mind the ambiguity of this biblical heroine, an example who does not seem entirely exemplary. I also explore the similarities and differences among the figures of Judith depicted by these authors, including their departures from the Latin Vulgate,6 and I consider the ways in which each author represents this powerful and sometimes problematic figure as an ideal to the early modern reader. Le Mystère de Judith et Holofernés,7 a theatrical drama, appeared around the year 1500. Although the author of this play is not definitively known, it is widely believed to have been Jean Molinet.8 Both Du Bartas and Coignard transformed the biblical material into epic verse. La Judit9 of Du Bartas appeared in 1579, and Coignard’s Imitation de la victoire de Judich10 was published by her daughters in 1594, after the author’s death.

  • 11 Molinet, l. 1766. My translation.

3The central theme of Molinet’s Mystère de Judith et Holofernés is the infinite power of God. Molinet’s Judith, like the heroine as she is depicted in the Vulgate, communicates more effectively than any of the other personages in the play the omnipotence of God (and, simultaneously, her faith in him). When she tells the elders of her city Bethulia that she will restore peace, she says she will do so with the Lord’s help. Before leaving for the Assyrian camp, Judith prays to God, asking him to give her strength and to guide her. As she approaches the enemy camp and is about to encounter Assyrian soldiers, she pleads again for God’s help: ”Mon Dieu, ton aide!” (My God, Your help!).11 Finally, just before assassinating the enemy general, Judith prays to God once again, asking him to give her strength and courage and to guide her in this horrific and heroic deed.

  • 12 Ibid., l. 1914. My translation.

4Molinet’s Judith prays a great deal, as would any good early modern French widow. Her unshakable faith in God, accompanied by frequent prayer, illustrate Judith’s piety, an important characteristic of an ideal early modern French widow. Furthermore, Judith declares that God is her only true spouse, thereby following in this matter, too, the advice commonly given to widows of the era, particularly wealthy widows, not to remarry and instead to devote themselves, and their inheritance, to the Church. The heroine of this mystère exemplifies an ideal widow in other ways as well. She is thoroughly virtuous; she has an immaculate reputation. Just as early modern French widows were expected to withdraw from the greater world and isolate themselves, Judith returns directly to her home after talking to the elders. There is no dialogue in Molinet’s play that suggests any socializing on Judith’s part. The heroine is noble; even the Assyrian soldiers perceive her nobility and remark upon it. Finally, Molinet assures his audience that Judith is modest: even though she is elegantly dressed for her meeting with Holofernes, one of the Assyrian soldiers observes that her clothes are not deshonnestes (indecent).12

5Molinet’s Judith, though, does not entirely conform to the ideal of his day. She must dress attractively in order to tempt and trap Holofernes, and in the stage directions of the mystère the author indicates that Judith is to adorn herself sumptuously, as does the biblical Judith, in clothing highly inappropriate for a widow. Furthermore, Molinet’s Judith is intentionally captivating in ways other than her alluring attire. In the biblical version of her story, Judith was simply left alone with an already profoundly intoxicated Holofernes. However, the Judith depicted by Molinet invites the general to go to his bed with her, then suggests that he get into bed and assures him that she will follow. She even kisses him onstage!

  • 13 Ibid., l. 2381. My translation.

6There are other aspects of Molinet’s Judith that deviate from the early modern ideal. Perhaps most importantly, Molinet depicts a Judith who is very strong. She is physically strong, of course; she proves herself capable, at least for one critical moment, of decapitating a grown man, a powerful soldier at that. And Judith’s strength far surpasses the physical. She conducts herself as a forcible leader before the Hebrew people and their leaders. Before setting out on her mission, Judith gives a series of orders to the elders, telling them to take their courage from God, to open the gates, and to let her carry out her plan. Finally she commands the elders to pray for the success of her endeavor. When she returns from the Assyrian camp with Holofernes’s severed head in a box, Judith gives the order to attack the enemy: ”Saillez sur eulx!” (Attack them!)13 she cries out to the Jewish army. Judith’s most potent weapon, however, is her sexuality. She gains admittance into the enemy camp, convinces Holofernes to over-imbibe, and manages to be alone in his tent with the general because she is intentionally seductive. Holofernes’s desire to make love to the beautiful widow will enable Judith to assassinate him.

  • 14 Ibid., l. 2230.
  • 15 Ibid., l. 2308.

7In a final break from the early modern depiction of the ideal woman, Molinet’s Judith is not modest and retiring about her achievement. After decapitating her victim, Judith announces to herself and to the audience that she has accomplished ”un chef d’oeuvre de femme” (a woman’s master-stroke)14 with no mention, for the moment, of God’s help. Upon her return to Bethulia, Judith announces to the Jews that she has secured a great victory for them, proclaiming that she performed the mighty deed alone, and that she had thereby executed divine justice. This is a departure from the Latin Vulgate, where Judith’s first words, upon reentering the city of Bethulia, are: ”Laudate Dominum Deum nostrum qui non deseruit sperantes in se” (13:17) (Praise ye the Lord our God, who hath not forsaken them that hope in him [Douay]). Only after Ozias, a Jewish elder, proclaims that God always intervenes on behalf of those he loves, does Molinet’s Judith affirm to her people that ”A Dieu seul en est deu la gloire” (All the praise must be given to God).15

  • 16 Du Bartas, p. 58, l. 384. All translations of this text are my own.

8Like Molinet’s Judith, the heroine depicted by Du Bartas in La Judit is an extraordinarily powerful woman, made to seem even more so in comparison with the Jewish men in this story, men who are almost pitifully weak. When the elders of Bethulia, weakened by a siege on the city, decide to capitulate to Holofernes and his army, Judith’s ringing speech about God’s infinite power and her promise to take action persuade them not to surrender immediately, instead to allow her the opportunity to carry out her secret plan. Judith accomplishes her goal through great courage and physical strength, of course, but also through the use of thoroughly feminine weapons, weapons of seduction and deceit. She lies, successfully and confidently, to Holofernes and his attendants. She flatters the general, calling him ”le plus chery du ciel, le plus fort, le plus sage” (the most beloved by heaven, the strongest, the wisest).16 Judith’s ability to seduce is crucial to this story; Judith is able to gain access to Holofernes, convince him to dismiss his attendants, and subsequently kill him, because she is beautiful and alluring.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 57, ll. 339–63.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 57, l. 339.
  • 19 John Nassichuk examines Du Bartas’s portrait of Judith in his essay ”The Prayer of Judith in Two L (...)

9As if to emphasize Judith’s ability to captivate Holofernes, Du Bartas emphasizes her physical attributes to a far greater degree than the biblical author of Judith’s story, who only tells us that ”cum audissent viri verba eius considerabant faciem eius et erat in oculis eorum stupor quoniam mirabantur pulchritudinem eius nimis” (10:14) (when the men had heard her words, they beheld her face, and their eyes were amazed, for they wondered exceedingly at her beauty [Douay]). In contrast to this compact description of the story’s heroine, Du Bartas writes 25 lines in praise of Judith’s beauty.17 Her body is ”tout-beau” (altogether beautiful),18 he tells us, and then proceeds to describe Judith’s features, in traditional fashion, starting with the top of her head and progressing downward.19 She wore her wavy hair in artful disarray. Her forehead was smoother than ice, her eyebrows were arcs of ebony and her eyes were black and as brilliant as stars. Her cheeks seemed to be painted with a blend of lilies and roses. Her lips were vermilion, her teeth a row of pearls. Her neck was ivory and her bosom alabaster. Her hands were flawless and her fingernails like mother-of-pearl. This lengthy description of Judith’s beauty serves to objectify her. Rather than an active, acting subject, this detailed portrait transforms the powerful biblical heroine into the object of the reader’s imagined gaze, an object of admiration, a thing of beauty.

  • 20 Ibid., p. 60, ll. 5–6.

10When Holofernes first encounters Judith, she is cast as the object of his lustful gaze: ”le pourtrait charmeur de l’estrangere dame / Estant le seul objet du louche oeil de son ame” (the charming portrait of the foreign lady / Being the only object of his soul’s ignoble eye).20 Later, when Holofernes enters his tent and finds Judith there, his actions immobilize and frame Judith so that he can admire her, as if she were but a painting:

Le coronnel arrive et d’un visage humain
Luy donne le salut, puis la prent par la main
Et, l’ayant faite seoir en une belle chaize,
Ses divines beautés il contemple à son aize.

  • 21 Ibid., p. 66, ll. 231–34.

The colonel arrives, and with a benevolent air
Greets her and takes her by the hand
And having seated her in a beautiful chair,
He contemplates her divine beauty at his leisure.21

11Du Bartas’s Judith does act upon her physical charms, however. She deliberately enhances her natural beauty by dressing for her encounter with Holofernes as attractively and seductively as possible. For in fact, if Judith’s plan is to succeed, she must exercise her seductive powers not only over Holofernes, but over all the Assyrian men whom she would encounter, over any man who might stand in her way as she prepares to execute the enemy of the Jews.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 50, l. 49.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 50, l. 53.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 50, l. 54.

12Just as Du Bartas gives his readers a more elaborate portrait of Judith’s beauty than did the biblical author, he also describes her preparations and her clothing in far greater detail, further objectifying the heroine, describing the heroine’s actions as she objectifies herself. The reader of the biblical Book of Judith learns only that she bathed and anointed herself with perfume, that she arranged her hair and dressed in her gayest clothes, and put on her earrings, bracelets, rings, and other ornaments. Du Bartas, on the other hand, is not content with the mere mention of perfume. He tells us that the musk with which Judith anointed herself left an aromatic trace behind her long after she had passed. Du Bartas further emphasizes Judith’s physical charms by his use of the descriptions of Judith’s clothing and jewels as another opportunity to emphasize the beauty of her body. A brilliant ruby rested on her ”front de cristal” (crystalline forehead),22 sapphires and rubies adorned her ”col blanc” (white neck),23 a silver veil covered her hair of gold, and a transparent cape half-covered her ”sein blanc et douillet” (soft, white bosom).24

13Du Bartas appears to have created an independent and invincible heroine, allowed, because of her valiant and sacred motive, to violate the rules of his society: a proper early modern French widow simply did not dress up in her most alluring and costly finery to pay a visit to a man she did not know and then promise to go to bed with him. In fact, no woman of that era would have been admired for her independence and her ability to wield a sword.

  • 25 Ibid., p. 13, l. 7.

14However, Du Bartas, in his version of Judith’s story, rescues her from excessively heroic behavior, even rehabilitates her according to the standards of early modern French society. He describes Judith as ”foible,”25 or weak, and makes clear that her strength and courage are only a temporary gift from God. Du Bartas seems deeply anxious about Judith’s sexuality, and attempts to portray a woman who is at once chaste and seductive. Unlike the biblical heroine, the Judith of Du Bartas is physically caressed by the enemy general, and in fact he holds her in his arms until she convinces him to wait for her in his bed. However, despite this apparent nod to the early modern stereotype of the sexually available widow, Du Bartas goes to great lengths to avoid tainting his heroine’s virtuous reputation. He begins his long description of her beauty by reassuring the readers that Judith is chaste, and as soon as he finishes describing the enticing perfume, clothing, and jewels with which Judith adorns herself in preparation for her encounter with Holofernes, the poet assures his readers that she is modest.

15Moreover, Du Bartas makes it clear that Judith finds Holofernes repulsive. The general is drunk and clumsy; every minute that she spends with him seems longer than a year, and she fights to protect her chastity. Judith spends hour after hour with Holofernes, warding off his amorous advances. He finally slips so deeply into a drunken stupor that she not only escapes his ardor, but slays him and flees the Assyrian camp with his head in a sack and her virtue intact.

  • 26 Ibid., p. 46, l. 437.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 47, l. 467.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 48, l. 504.

16As Du Bartas depicts her, Judith is far less self-assured than the heroine of Molinet’s mystère. He reveals to his readers the uncertainty that Judith experiences before she goes to the magistrates: ”Judit avec Judit debat” (Judith debates with herself).26 She speaks respectfully to the high priests, addressing them as ”Mes peres” (my fathers),27 and this Judith not only reveals to the elders more of her plan than Molinet’s heroine did, telling them that she intends to go to the enemy camp, she even requests their permission to do so: ”Permettés-moy d’aller au camp des infidelles” (Permit me to go to the camp of the infidels).28

  • 29 Ibid., p. 13, l. 7.

17Despite her seductive behavior, her deceit, her temporary ”masle vigueur” (masculine vigor),29 and finally the bloody assassination she commits, the Judith that Du Bartas depicts is very nearly an ideal woman and widow, according to the standards of early modern French society. Like the biblical heroine, Du Bartas’s Judith is beautiful and chaste and has a reputation for prayer and piety. Judith is respectful of masculine authority, and up until the moment when she embarked on her mission to save her people, she never strayed from her mourning rituals, never shed her widow’s weeds.

  • 30 Coignard, l. 630.
  • 31 Ibid., l. 1284.
  • 32 Ibid., l. 1386.

18The Judith of Gabrielle de Coignard’s Imitation is even more chaste than the others we have encountered. This reflects, perhaps, Coignard’s own uneasiness with her perilous and ambiguous position as a widow, that is, a sexually initiated woman who is now expected to be chaste. Among all of Judith’s virtues, ”Sa chasteté sur tout fut hautement louée” (Her chastity was the most highly praised).30 Before describing Judith’s dress, Coignard informs her readers that it covers her to her feet, and she assures us that the only impressions a viewer will have, upon the sight of Judith in this attire, is one of holiness and purity. Furthermore, Coignard’s Holofernes gets drunk and falls asleep so that her Judith is not required to actively seduce him. Coignard’s Judith, like the biblical personage, is never touched by Holofernes. In contrast, as we saw, Molinet’s Judith is kissed by Holofernes, and Du Bartas’s heroine is caressed and held by the enemy general until she promises to join him in bed, at which point he undresses in front of her. Even so, like an ideal early modern Frenchwoman, Coignard’s Judith is concerned about her reputation. Just before beheading Holofernes, she prays to God: ”Et sauve mon honneur du danger perilleux” (And preserve my honor from perilous danger).31 Coignard’s Judith is unambiguously virtuous. She is ”Remplie de vertus, de toute saincteté” (Filled with virtue and holiness; l. 627), and not only does Coignard inform her readers that Judith is still chaste when she returns from the enemy camp after having executed the general, she also has Ozias assure the Jews of the same thing, speaking to them of Judith’s ”chaste pensée” (chaste thought).32

  • 33 Ibid., l. 843.
  • 34 Ibid., l. 22.

19Coignard’s Judith is weaker than the others we have encountered. She is ”gresle” (frail),33 and the author uses a diminutive of the French word for woman when describing her; Judith is nothing but ”une femmelette”34 with a delicate arm. Coignard’s Judith is also more humble. Like the biblical heroine, she acknowledges that she cannot do the awesome deed on her own, and asks God to give her the necessary strength. Immediately after slaying Holofernes, Judith praises God; the glory and honor of this deed belong to Him. The first thing that the heroine says to the Jews upon her return to Bethulia is that they must glorify God, for He has delivered them from their enemy.

  • 35 Ibid., l. 641.
  • 36 Ibid., ll. 651–52.

20Judith is also exceedingly polite and respectful in Coignard’s Imitation. The author calls attention to Judith’s courtesy before allowing her to speak: ”Entendez comment elle parle aux plus sages” (But hear how she speaks to the most wise),35 Coignard exhorts us. Her wise words are thoroughly sweet. Although Judith opposes the decision to surrender to the enemy, she calls the high priests her very dear brothers. When she chastises the elders, she includes herself among them, asking: ”Helas! Que sommes nous pecheurs audacieux, / De tenter le haut Dieu, le Monarque des Cieux?” (Alas, who are we, impudent sinners, / To tempt the high God, Monarch of the Heavens?).36 Like the heroine of the Vulgate, Judith then warns the high priests that if we follow along the path you have chosen we will incite God’s wrath. Judith’s chastity, humility, and respectfulness combine to make her less vigorous and independent than her counterparts in the other early modern versions of her story, closer to the ideal of her day.

  • 37 Coignard, l. 859.
  • 38 Ibid., l. 844. My translation.
  • 39 Ibid., ll. 849–51.
  • 40 Paula Sommers observes that while lavish clothing is meant to attract attention to the wearer, it (...)
  • 41 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University P (...)
  • 42 Coignard, l. 871.

21Coignard, like Du Bartas, adds a description of Judith’s physical beauty to her text. Her description is notably shorter than that of Du Bartas, however, and there are other significant differences between the two portraits of the heroine. Whereas a group of enemy soldiers first relish the sight of Du Bartas’s enchanting heroine, it is God himself, le Tout Puissant (the All-Powerful),37 who sees and admires his own handiwork in Coignard’s exquisite Judith. A significant portion of Coignard’s portrayal of Judith’s beauty is a description not of her body, but of her dress (which, as we observed, covers Judith entirely). Coignard describes the quality of the fabric, the silk and the gold, its ”plis ondoyant” (undulating folds),38 and its hundred colors that bring to mind the sky, the sea, the earth, all of God’s creation: ”Comme le Tout Puissant fit de rien toutes choses, / … / Le ciel fut esclairé de ses luisans flambeaux” (As the All-Powerful created all out of nothing / … / The heavens were brightened by her radiance).39 This description of Judith’s clothing as a reminder of ”the All-Powerful” reduces the sexual aspect of this radiant widow about to seduce a man to his death.40 It also further objectifies Judith: not only is she a thing of beauty herself, just as is the Judith portrayed by Du Bartas, she is also enveloped by, hidden by, another thing of beauty. Judith’s clothing covers her, it closes her off, reminding us of Mikhail Bakhtin’s description of the classical (as opposed to medieval) body: it is private, lodged within ”palaces, churches, institutions, and private homes.”41 Finally, Judith’s beauty, according to Coignard, is divine,42 lifting her above mere mortal women, distancing her from the terrestrial, the corporeal.

22Coignard further objectifies Judith by reducing the need for action on her part. Like the biblical Judith, but unlike the heroine as she is depicted by Molinet and Du Bartas, Coignard’s Judith has no need to actively seduce Holofernes; he is overcome by her beauty and falls drunkenly asleep without her having to promise to join him in bed. Making Judith less seductive and more dependent upon her physical attractiveness for the success of her plan makes her more objectified than even the Judith of Du Bartas.

23Though Coignard’s Judith is the most thoroughly objectified of the three heroines we are studying here, she is not consigned to being the object of Holofernes’s gaze; she is not reduced to a scopophilic metonym. For Coignard’sJudith resists the general’s amorous gaze. Instead she returns his gaze, in a scene where Holofernes is framed by his tent, as if he were a painting, a scene where he is surrounded by beautiful objects, as if he were dressed in finery, a scene where it is he who is objectified:

Mais la belle Judith pleine de sang rassis,
Voyant Holofernes dedans sa tente assis,
Tissue richement d’or, d’escarlate et soye,
Couverte des presens que l’Orient envoye.

  • 43 Ibid., ll. 959–62.

But the fair Judith, calm and serene,
Seeing Holofernes seated in his tent,
Richly woven of gold, scarlet, and silk,
Filled with gifts from the Orient.43

  • 44 Ibid., l. 972.

24And though Holofernes continues to admire Judith’s beauty, to regard her, that regard is dangerous, deadly: ”Il humoit par les yeux cest amoureux venin” (He inhaled through his eyes this amorous poison).44

25In all of these versions of Judith’s story, Holofernes’s gaze is obscured when he slips into his drunken stupor, obliterated when he falls into drunken sleep. Now it is Judith’s turn to gaze upon this disarmed soldier, this impotent man, this harmless object, and to render it harmless forever. For once Holofernes’s gaze is extinguished, Judith is no longer the object of that gaze, she is the acting subject, the savior of her people. All three of these authors refuse to still Judith’s righteous arm. And they refuse to silence her. The heroine is endowed with a persuasive and powerful voice. In each of these versions of her story, Judith speaks with authority to the Jewish elders before leaving Bethulia, with cunning and wisdom in the enemy camp, and in triumph when she returns to her city with Holofernes’s severed head.

  • 45 Molinet, ll. 2401–02.

26However, Judith’s powerful voice is only temporary, for when she returns to Bethulia, she resumes her role as submissive woman, as ideal widow. In Molinet’s Mystère, Judith slips back into her community upon her return, identifying once more with the others, becoming once more part of the nous: ”Suppedité avons totallement / Qui nous faisoit icy gemir et plaìndre” (We have completely and utterly vanquished / Those who sought to crush us underfoot).45 Judith’s submissive dialogue at the end of the play, signaling her rediscovered humility, emphasizes her return to her normal state.

Dont je conclus, pour verité attaindre,
Qu’a resister a mortelles pointures
Droicture aymer, et Dieu et honte craindre,
Faict aux bon cueurs trouver telz avantures.

  • 46 Ibid., ll. 2405–06.

From this I conclude, to speakthe truth,
That, in the struggle against evil aggression,
Righteousness and fearing great God’s powers
Will bring believers fortune such as ours.46

  • 47 Du Bartas, p. 83, l. 331.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 83, l. 332.

27In the biblical version of her story: ”omnes populi gaudebant cum mulieribus et virginibus et iuvenibus in organis et citharis” (15:15) (all the people rejoiced, with the women, and virgins, and young men, playing on instruments and harps [Douay]). Du Bartas, however, limits her celebrating followers to ”des dames et pucelles” (women and girls)47 and insists that they are pure: ”sainctes, chastes et belles” (holy, chaste, and beautiful).48 Judith sings a canticle to the Lord in the Vulgate, but in Coignard’s Imitation Judith is silent, once again but an object to be observed, a saint perhaps, or a statue:

Et tous les Sacerdos de l’humble peuple Hebrieu,
S’estoient ja assemblés à fin de recognoistre
Les divines faveurs et bienfaits de leur maistre,
Desirant veoir Judich …

  • 49 Coignard, ll. 1540–43.

And all the priests of the humble Hebrew people,
Had already assembled to acknowledge
The divine favors and good deeds of their Master,
Wishing to see Judith.49

  • 50 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity & Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and N (...)

28For, as Catherine Belsey reminds us, ”To speak is to possess meaning, to have access to the language which defines, delimits and locates power. To speak is to become a subject. But for women to speak is to threaten the system of differences which gives meaning to patriarchy.”50 In order to serve as a model, in order to represent the feminine ideal, Judith’s voice must finally be still.

29The choice of such a powerful woman as an example for early modern woman may seem surprising. This, after all, is an era during which women saw their economic, political, social, and sexual power reduced from that which they possessed during the Middle Ages, an era during which their revalorization as mère de famille meant they were limited to that role. However, these renditions of Judith’s story ultimately describe the power of God, not of one of his subjects. Judith’s very inferiority proves God’s strength, his ability to triumph over his enemies by means of the weakest of adversaries. These authors were not in any way obliged to prove or insist upon Judith’s innate inferiority as a woman because it was simply assumed, recognized, ”known.” Judith speaks forcefully, but she is ultimately silenced.

30Most importantly, for all her strength, for all the power she wields, Judith does not play a disruptive role in her society. She obeys its rules and laws and upholds its traditions, and in fact Judith is the force that preserves her society, and can therefore be forgiven her momentary strength, her temporary seizure of power. The readers of Judith’s story see her becoming progressively weaker and more limited through the accounts of her story written during the early modern period, beginning with Molinet’s vigorous and exuberant heroine who is transformed into a more feminine heroine by Du Bartas, then further transfigured by Coignard. This model widow becomes progressively more chaste, more pious, more deferential and dutiful. Finally, Judith is largely objectified by Du Bartas through his physical descriptions of the heroine, and even more so by Coignard as she reduces Judith’s actions to a minimum and increases the effect of her appearance to the point where little else is necessary. The authors of these works successively reconstruct the beautiful subject of the Book of Judith into a beautiful object, La Judit.


1 Christine de Pizan, for example, writes in Le Livre des trois vertus (1405): ”ce fut dit de la saincte dame Judith, louee de tout son peuple: Tu es la gloire de Jherusalem, tu es la leece d’Israel, tu es l’onneur de nostre peuple, a qui Dieux a donné force d’homme, de laquelle tu as ouvré pour ce que tu as amé chasteté” (it was said of the saintly Judith, praised by all her people: ”You are the glory of Jerusalem; you are the joy of Israel. You are the honor of your people. God gave you the strength of a man, with which you have labored because you have loved chastity”). Christine de Pizan, Le Livre des trois vertus, ed. Charity Cannon Willard (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1989), p. 169. Translation from Christine de Pizan, A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies, ed. Madeleine Pelner Cosman, trans. Charity Cannon Willard (Tenafly, NJ: Bard Hall Press; New York: Persea Books, 1989), p. 182. Erasmus includes Judith among his examples for widows in a treatise published in 1529: ”egregiam illam viraginem Judith, quae mulier geminum ex invicto viris hofte triumphum reportavit, victoriae, videlicet, & pudicitiae, quarum alteram peperit defperanti patriae, alteram fibi fervavit illibatam. Nam & occidit fortiffimum, & fefellit libidinofiffimum” (Judith, for example, that illustrious female of manly strength who as a woman brought back a triumph over a foe unbeaten by men. Double was the triumph of Judith: a military victory, to be sure, which she produced for her country when it had lost hope, but also a victory for her chastity, which she preserved for herself unimpaired, for she killed a very brave man and made a mockery of a lewd one). Desiderius Erasmus, ”Vidua Christiana,” Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1969), vol. 5, p. 735. Translation is from Desiderius Erasmus, ”On the Christian Widow,” Collected Works of Erasmus, ed. John W. O’Malley, trans. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), vol. 66, p. 204.

2 Jacques Poirier traces the representation of Judith in French literature in Judith: Echos d’un mythe biblique dans la littérature française (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004). For a discussion of the ”Christianization” of this Jewish heroine, see particularly chapter 2, ”Judith la sainte” (pp. 51–77). The iconography of Judith is described at length in Margarita Stocker, Judith: Sexual Warrior. Women and Power in Western Culture (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1998), and in Elena Ciletti, ”Patriarchal Ideology in the Renaissance Iconography of Judith,” in Marilyn Migiel and Juliana Sciesari (eds.), Refiguring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 35–70.

3 Ann Rosalind Jones, ”Surprising Fame: Renaissance Gender Ideologies and Women’s Lyric,” in Lorna Hutson (ed.), Feminism and Renaissance Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 317–36 (334), note 1.

4 Ibid., p. 317.

5 Recent scholarship has demonstrated that many early modern women did not obey these strictures of silence. Indeed, Merry E. Weisner asserts that ”Sixteenth-century French humanist women were more willing to show their learning in public than their English or Italian counterparts.” Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 129.

6 It seems clear that the authors considered in this essay were influenced not only by the Vulgate, but also, at least indirectly, by the tradition dating back to the patristic fathers who held up Judith as a model of piety comportment for widows. See for example Ambrose’s ”Concerning Widows” (ca. 377) and Jerome’s letter to Furia (ca. 394).

7 Jean Molinet, Le Mystère de Judith et Holofernés, ed. Graham A. Runnalls (Geneva: Droz, 1995). Unless otherwise noted, English translations are from Jean Molinet, Judith and Holofernes: A Late-Fifteenth-Century French Mystery Play, ed. and trans. Graham A. Runnalls (Fairview, NC: Pegasus Press, 2002).

8 For a convincing argument as to why Jean Molinet should be considered the author of this play, see Graham A. Runnalls’s introduction to Le Mystère de Judith et Holofernés, particularly section 9: ”L’auteur: Jean Molinet?” (pp. 59–61).

9 Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, La Judit, ed. André Baïche (Toulouse: Association des publications de la faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de Toulouse, 1971).

10 Gabrielle de Coignard, Œuvres chrétiennes, ed. Colette H. Winn (Geneva: Droz, 1995). Unless otherwise noted, English translations are from ”Gabrielle de Coignard, Imitation de la victoire de Judich (1594),” trans. Colette H. Winn and Robert H. McDowell, in Anne R. Larsen and Colette H. Winn (eds.), Writings by Pre-Revolutionary French Women (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2000), pp. 171–211.

11 Molinet, l. 1766. My translation.

12 Ibid., l. 1914. My translation.

13 Ibid., l. 2381. My translation.

14 Ibid., l. 2230.

15 Ibid., l. 2308.

16 Du Bartas, p. 58, l. 384. All translations of this text are my own.

17 Ibid., p. 57, ll. 339–63.

18 Ibid., p. 57, l. 339.

19 John Nassichuk examines Du Bartas’s portrait of Judith in his essay ”The Prayer of Judith in Two Late-Fifteenth-Century French Mystery Plays,” (Chap. 10).

20 Ibid., p. 60, ll. 5–6.

21 Ibid., p. 66, ll. 231–34.

22 Ibid., p. 50, l. 49.

23 Ibid., p. 50, l. 53.

24 Ibid., p. 50, l. 54.

25 Ibid., p. 13, l. 7.

26 Ibid., p. 46, l. 437.

27 Ibid., p. 47, l. 467.

28 Ibid., p. 48, l. 504.

29 Ibid., p. 13, l. 7.

30 Coignard, l. 630.

31 Ibid., l. 1284.

32 Ibid., l. 1386.

33 Ibid., l. 843.

34 Ibid., l. 22.

35 Ibid., l. 641.

36 Ibid., ll. 651–52.

37 Coignard, l. 859.

38 Ibid., l. 844. My translation.

39 Ibid., ll. 849–51.

40 Paula Sommers observes that while lavish clothing is meant to attract attention to the wearer, it can, in fact, protect the body beneath: ”The site of gender, the object of social regulation, it is intimately associated with adornment, yet adornment draws attention in its own right and reflects upon itself, while shielding the body of the wearer.” Paula Sommers, ”Louise Labé: The Mysterious Case of the Body in the Text,” in Anne Larsen and Colette H. Winn (eds.), Renaissance Women Writers: French Texts / American Contexts (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1994), pp. 85–98, here 88.

41 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 154.

42 Coignard, l. 871.

43 Ibid., ll. 959–62.

44 Ibid., l. 972.

45 Molinet, ll. 2401–02.

46 Ibid., ll. 2405–06.

47 Du Bartas, p. 83, l. 331.

48 Ibid., p. 83, l. 332.

49 Coignard, ll. 1540–43.

50 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity & Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 191.


Kathleen M. Llewellyn is Associate Professor of French and International Studies at Saint Louis University. She has published articles on L’Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre, the poetry of Madeleine des Roches and Gabrielle de Coignard, conduct literature for widows in early modern France, and the widow in early modern French literature. She is currently working on a book exploring representations of the figure of Judith in French Renaissance literature.


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