Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann

Christian Textual Tradition

13. The Cunning of Judith in Late Medieval German Texts

Henrike Lähnemann

Texte intégral

  • 1 Weiberlisten as terminus technicus denotes a series of women tricking men by specifically feminine (...)

1In her song of triumph in the Book of Judith, Judith herself describes her beauty as a form of cunning; all versions are in agreement about this. Judith adorns herself with the express intention of deceiving Holofernes: ” είς άπάτην αύτοῦ (for his deceit, LXX Jdt 16:8), ”ad decipiendum illum” (to deceive him, Vulg. Jdt 16:10), ”jn zu betriegen” (to deceive him; Luther Bible 1534 Jdt 16:10) etc. While Judith’s cunning deeds and words are presented as an unquestionably positive and divinely endorsed device in the Book of Judith, the situation becomes more complex in the reception. As soon as the focus of attention shifts to her as an active heroine, she falls under the proverbial category of Weiberlist (cunning women) and is thus subjected to moral judgment.1

2These shifting contexts for Judith’s cunning can be clearly observed in short German texts of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Their striking portrayal of her as ”klug” (clever) and as full of ”list” (cunning) like other notorious women of history is a decisive stage in the development of the ”modern icon,” Judith. I will investigate this development by analyzing several anonymous Meistersinger stanzas which are representative of the opinio communis of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and then concentrate on a broadsheet of the sixteenth century which in its sensational presentation of a text-image version of Judith gives an insight into the popularization of the view of Judith as cunning woman and the way in which this view was disseminated by the media of early modern times.

Example 1: Judith Brings about the Fall of Princes

  • 2 Spruchdichtung as a technical term refers to a specific form of German poetry, often didactic, com (...)

3Stanzas in the form of a Spruch make up a large proportion of the exponentially expanding German literary production in the fourteenth and fifteenth century.2 Sprüche that are highly complex metrically and in their rhyme scheme by some of the most highly esteemed poets of the thirteenth century like Walther von der Vogelweide and Frauenlob are used as a means of presenting a wide range of knowledge. In the late fifteenth century, this was formalized in the ”schools” of the Meistersinger, but even before that there was a clearly defined pool of material from which the subject matter of these texts was drawn: biblical themes, moral advice, and formalized popular knowledge. The form favors enumeration and standardization; for example, when drawing up a list of typological figures Judith proves a versatile example for several of these recurring discourses, being grouped, among others, with types of Mary, cunning women from antiquity, and tyrannicides. A specific angle for commenting on her cunning is the practice of seeing her actions from the perspective of Holofernes, and his fate becomes the core message rather than the salvation of Israel which was stressed in the Marian connection.

  • 3 RSM, 1Frau 9 / 511 (Repertorium der Sangsprüche und Meisterlieder des 12. bis 18. Jahrhunderts, ed (...)

4In the Fürstenspiegelstrophen (verses in the tradition of the Mirror of Princes), the story of Judith is used for didactic purposes to highlight the perils of government and the fall of the mighty through pride – and the cunning of women. Two unconnected stanzas in the ”Goldene Ton” by Frauenlob from the fifteenth century show this disastrous mixture of female cunning and male pride.3

Aber iij in dissem ton straft welt weltlichen gewalt

Again three verses following this form. They reproach the world and worldly power

1 Slug Judith Olofernen,
klug waz ir sin der frauwen.
sie wug daz volck behalten,
trug sie daheim daz haubet,
5 ja get der welt es so.
Da als sin volck des fürsten
nicht im gehelfen künde
icht wider gottes willen,
schier sollent ir bedencken,
10 waz gottes crafft vermag;
Dag unde nacht dez walten,
sit ir begirde begünde,
daz er sie dez wolt erne.
ir herren, ob üch krencken
15 des übermuotes türsten,
daz solt ir selber stillen.
wie mag uch trost beschouwen,
lat ir in wahsen ho?
wem ubermut beraubet,
20 dem wirt der gottes slag.

When Judith slew Holofernes,
her womanly sense was clever.
She dared it to save the people,
she carried home the head,
indeed, these are the ways of the world.
Since all the prince’s people
could not help him
against God’s will at all,
you should consider now
what God’s power can bring about;
they should take care day and night,
ever since their sinful desire first began
that He will make them suffer for it.
My Lords, if you are weakened by
the boldness of your pride
you should overcome it yourselves.
How can you achieve divine help
if you allow it to grow to great height?
He who is weakened by pride,
will be struck down by God

5The example of Holofernes’s fate is used to address the herren directly with a dire warning. The didactic purpose is to caution men by talking about the vicissitudes of the world and emphasizing that no worldly power can with-stand God’s might. Judith is not criticized at all; she is seen as acting in the name of the noble cause of saving her people and later on in the stanza it is made absolutely clear that it is God who ordains that pride comes before a fall. Nevertheless, Judith is tainted by association since she brings about the downfall through her own female cunning. The very first information we receive about her is not her piety but her cunning. She is not shown as the faithful instrument of a divine plan but rather as working alongside God in taking the active role of Fortune, turning her wheel.

  • 4 RSM (fn. 3), 1Frau/9/100 following the edition GA-S XII, 204 ([= Göttinger Ausgabe – Supplement] S (...)

6In a second verse in the same ”Ton,” the focus is again on male rulers.4

1 Do Olofern mit grimme
so krefftigleich erwelte
zit, hohes künigreiche
jo er bezwang mit streite,
5 das sie im zinses pflagen.
Was halff sein preite menge?
ein weip in doch erquelte,
kein helt kam im zu troste.
das kam von gotes state,
10 do in Judit betrog.
Och was ir mut geleiche,
den ir got selb erwelte.
fro da mit linder stimme
kam sie zu irem rate
15 und liept in rechter lenge,
Betulia erloste
pas: vletzet auf dem velde
mit grosem schall da lagen,
die sie von freuden leite,
20 wie sich der arge zoch.

  • 5 Stackmann took the rat to be the counsel to kill Holofernes and the phrase ”liebt in rechter lenge (...)

When Holofernes with great wrath
and so mightily, at such a well chosen
time, did indeed conquer
a great kingdom in battle
so that they paid tribute to him.
What did his mighty host avail him?
A woman tortured him to death after all,
no hero came to his relief.
God offered the opportunity to bring this about
when Judith deceived him.
Further she acted with great equanimity,
Which God himself chose for her.
Joyfully and with a gentle voice,
she came to her council
and made a proper delay attractive to them,5
liberated Bethulia
all the better: wounded upon the field of battle
amidst mighty noise, there they lay,
all those whom she deprived of joy,
in spite of the evil man’s endeavors.

  • 6 Jacob Grimm, er, in Deutsches Wörterbuch, vol. III3 (1859), col. 693.

7Judith’s actions are presented in terms of a divine strategy; an alternative translation of line 9f would be: ”this was actioned by God when Judith betrayed him” – God approves not only of the act of murdering the tyrant but also of her cunning as a means to an end. But this license is only mentioned after the ignominy of a man being tortured to death by a woman has been exposed. The word erqueln (l. 7), a neologism derived from queln (inflicting pain; the prefix er- denotes an action taking place from the inside out),6 serves to suggest that Judith’s behavior before she delivers the fatal stroke of the sword is also part of the torture process: the torture of seduction leads to the killing. Female cunning action is thus established as the main characteristic of Judith.

8This form of Spruch narrative inevitably foreshortens the perspective on Judith since the confined form of a single stanza with the additional challenge of a highly complex metrical structure calls for condensed characterization. ”Judith” here stands as shorthand for ”Pride goes before a fall”; and this fall is as often as not brought about by women. After Judith has made this transition from a narrative to a gnomic context, and from a figure as part of a wider divine strategy to one who herself performs momentous acts, the way is open for different accentuations of this ”cipher Judith,” and the most prominent of these for early modern times is the ”cunning woman” topos.

Example 2: Judith among Cunning Women

  • 7 Washington, Rosenwald Collection, ms. 4, fol. 8r, Bavarian, start of the fifteenth century RSM (fn (...)

9A particularly good example of Judith’s growing association with this complex of cunning as a precursor to cutting can be found in a stanza in the form of Frauenlob’s ”Langer Ton.” Its popularity is evident from the wide range of versions and contexts in which it exists: as part of longer poems, in the form of a caption for a mural in the Haus zur Kunkel in Constance and as the basis for a text-image composition in a late-medieval compilation of mnemotechnical drawings.7 In the Rosenwald manuscript (Fig. 13.1), the stanza is written in the top right-hand corner and is given visual expression in a series of boxed drawings on the left-hand side and in a summary illustration of Love’s fools at the bottom of the page.

Adam, den ersten menschen, den betrog ein wip.
Sampsones lip
wart durch ein wip geblendet.
David der wart geschendet.
5 von einem wib kunig Salomon von gottes rich gepfendet.
Absolons schone nit verfieng in het ein wip betöret.
Gewaltig Alexander was, geschach alsus.
trog man mit falschen siten,
10 Olfernus wart verschnitten.
so wart auch Aristotileß von einem wib geritten.
Troya die stat und alles lant wart durch ein wip zerstoret.
Achilles, dem beschach alsam.
der schnelle Asahel wart zam.
15 Artuses scham
von wibe kam,
und Parcifal mang sorge nam.
sit diss bezwang der minne stam,
was schat dann, ob ein reines wip mich brennet unde fröret?

Adam, the first man, was deceived by a woman;
Samson himself
was blinded by a woman,
David was put to shame.
By a woman, king Solomon
was deprived of God’s kingdom.
Absalom’s beauty did not succeed,
a woman had him dazzled.
Mighty as Alexander was
– no different.
was deceived by false means.
Holofernes was chopped up,
same as Aristotle was ridden by a woman.
Troy, city and country alike,
were destroyed by a woman.
Achilles suffered the same.
The fast Asahel became tame.
The shaming of Arthur
originated from women,
and Perceval had many troubles.
Since love conquered them all
what does it matter if a pure woman
burns and chills me?

13.1. German Miscellany, early 15th century. Washington, Library of Congress, Rosenwald Collection MS 4, fol. 8r. Photo credit: The Library of Congress.
(top left) Judith and Holofernes: ”Pecula die Stat. Judich Oliuernis”;
(top right) The singer and his Lady: ”der minnen stral hat mich gar ser verbunt So hat ir fewr mich enczunt”;
(middle left) Charlemagne and Gisela: ”Rex Carolus”;
(middle right) Secundus and his mother: ”Secundus philosophus, mater eius”;
(bottom) Absalom, Samson, Vergil, Aristotle, Alexander, Salomon queuing for
Venus: ”Allexander vnd Salomon Sampson vnd absolon aristoles vnd vergilius sprechent all sampt alsus. Das chain maister nie so weis ward, dicz weiz an der toren vart. Ich hoffe mir geling von der liebsten.” (Alexander, Salomon, Samson and Absalom, Aristotle and Virgil all together say thus: No master ever became so wise not to join the train of fools. I hope I will be successful with my beloved!)

10It is again Holofernes who is the central focus here: the name of Judith does not appear in the stanza at all. In the top left hand illustration she is the living stand on which his head is mounted; the misspelled captions (”Pecula die Stat.” for the city of Bethulia, ”Judich” for Judith, and ”Oliuernis”for Holofernes), reduce the story to its most recognizable moment and make it probable that the illustrator took the full set from a preexisting cycle showing famous couples rather than working from a written source. The bottom scene, taking its cue from the rhymed caption that mentions figures from the Old Testament and antiquity as part of the train of fools, literally reveals who is causing all this mess: it is the obscenely uncovered Lady Love, for whose favors peers of Holofernes are queuing. In the imagery of this album leaf, Judith becomes a prop of Venus, one of many historical hooks cast out to entrap and bring about the fall not only of princes like Holofernes but also of wise men like Aristotle, medieval knights like Perceval, and whole countries like Troy.

  • 8 Bertolt Brecht, ”Solomon Song.” The form of the stanza and punch line are taken from Francois Vill (...)

11The stanza, with its punch line that puts the singer on an equal footing with the greats of literary tradition and ranks his lady above the dangerous women of antiquity, presents the cunning of women as a threat common to all the members of this comic mix of great men and contemporary figures. This tradition stretches right into modern times and even cabaret. When Brecht writes in his ”Solomon Song” about the agonies suffered by famous people from Solomon to Macheath, he taps into the tradition of cunning women running through late medieval literature.8

Example 3: Judith’s Cunning in Broadsheet Format

  • 9 Oxford, Bodleian Harding B 39(203): The overthrow of proud Holofernes, and the triumph of virtuous (...)
  • 10 Rochus von Liliencron, Die historischen Volkslieder der Deutschen, III (1867), nr. 369, pp. 422–4, (...)

12Late-medieval stanzas from the Meistersinger tradition form the basis of several early modern popular forms of knowledge transfer and entertainment. The Lutheran Reformation in Germany brought with it a huge increase in the use of the printing press for broadsheets that could be used to disseminate sermons as well as sensational news. These broadsheets found a wide audience especially in the cities where the cheap prints would circulate widely and be read and sung aloud. The Judith song ”to the tune of Pavia” (Fig. 13.2 and appendix) from around 1560 is a striking example of this popular genre, combining biblical instruction and salacious sensationalism. In this ballad-style song, religious instruction and theological argument, mostly reduced to idiomatic phrases, are blended with elements of oral narration and popular subject matter. In fact, the song brings new life to the medieval tradition of biblical paraphrase in a form that remained vibrant through the centuries; there is, for example, an eighteenth-century broadside ballad, ”The Overthrow of Proud Holofernes.”9 The fact that our broadsheet belongs to this tradition of popular storytelling is indicated from the start by the specification ”Wie das Lied von Pouey” ([to be sung to the same tune] as the song of Pavia). The popular song about the battle of Pavia in 1525 was frequently used as a melody for other poems.10

  • 11 For information on printers in the German-speaking area in the sixteenth century, cf. http://www.v (...)

13The visual presentation of the material stands in sharp contrast to the way the subject matter is presented in the stanzas of the song itself. The text is treated as a product to be marketed; this is obvious even in the external aspect of the song. The sheet, folded into a single quire of eight pages, is printed so as to make best use of the space. As we might expect, there is a clear drop in quality between the personalized manuscripts that the Meistersinger produced and an anonymous broadsheet; the printer Christian Müller the Younger, who worked in Strasbourg in the 1560s, probably produced small jobs such as this between larger projects. The broken edgesof the woodcut, which might be recycled from a Bible edition, and the smudged letters indicate a high print run and the popularity of the genre.11 The broadsheet’s ”marketing strategy” is certainly well conceived, with the first page standing as an advertisement for the rest of the booklet. This first page consists of a woodcut and an introductory stanza, and another single stanza concludes the song on the back of the booklet. These two framing stanzas effectively focus the narration toward the figure of Judith; the first stanza can stand on its own and is obviously designed to complement the woodcut and catch the reader’s eye.

13.2. Judith-song ”In the tune of the song about the battle at Pavia,” ca. 1560. Cover. Strasbourg: Christian Müller. Photo credit: Bibliotheca Palatina, Micro-Fiche F5290.

14Judith presents herself to an imagined audience to which she describes her deeds (Stanza I, line 1, full text in appendix):

Judith heyß ich ein Jüdin frey
Mir liebt noch nye keyn bůlerey…

Judith is my name, a free Jewess;
I never did love any dalliance…

15By the very act of denying any ”bulerey,” she slyly hints at it and its potentials for the story.

16The short stanza on the cover, with its typographically stressed rhyme pattern aab ccb, serves as an effective tasting for the prospective buyer. In this short first-person summary, a maximum of effect is achieved. The stanza becomes a speech bubble for the woodcut on the title page. Judith is shown simultaneously singing, turning elegantly to display her courtly garments to best effect, presenting the sword, handing over the head, and addressing the audience. Her song identifies the head she is handing to the woman with her back to the viewer as that of Holofernes, the sack as the one she cleverly took with her for her food provisions, and the setting with the grand tent and the banner on her left as the place from which she makes the swift exit she describes in the last line (”Kundt ich von dannen weichen”: and I managed to escape). On a bookseller’s table, the last page would have been visible next to the first page (Fig. 13.2). Thus, the initial and the final stanza are connected by their similar layout and their function as a framework for the narration. The final stanza works as a postlude that presents the moral of the story, underlined by the ornamental border.

17The first-person digest that forms the first stanza transposes the song of Judith from the Vulgate, chapter 16, into a ”trailer,” providing in the heading the credentials, the mode of performance, a full spotlight on the heroine, and the subtitle for the illustration. There is even a hint of scholarly information when the etymology of the name Judith, echoing Luther’s poignant reminder in his introduction to the translation of the Book of Judith, is evoked by the equation of Judith with a free Jewess.

18The second stanza goes back to the beginning and starts the story again, even giving the traditional initial, the A for Arfaxat, with which all Latin versions of the story begin (and which in manuscripts is frequently used as the shape for the tent in which Holofernes is beheaded, thus anticipating the action highlight of the story in the same way as the title wood-cut does for the Judith song). All stanzas are treated as separate narrative blocks through which the story is told in a quick succession of images, direct speech, and factual information. Each of stanzas II to V presents one hero in a characteristic situation, summing up whole chapters in six lines: Arfaxat builds his city (II); Nebuchadnezzar wants to be considered as God (III); Holofernes wins victory (IV); Eliakim, the priest, counsels trust in God (V). This last action is the first that is commented upon by the narrator who states: ”daran thet er gar weiße” (in this he acted wisely).

19This form of presenting the story is necessarily elliptic in content as well as style and does in fact require some previous knowledge on the part of the audience. For example, Achior’s speech in front of Holofernes starts without any explanation of who he is and why he is ”answering” Holofernes; the later events of Achior’s surrender and conversion can only be understood if the audience knows that he had been one of Holofernes’s captains. The principles of Israeli history explained by him are condensed to form stanza VIII and its relation to the rest of the story has to be surmised by those in the know. It might well have been intended that this information should be provided by a performer who could not only supply the missing links in the story but also mark different speakers by gestures and different registers of speech or song, especially since a typical feature of the bit-size narration in the stanzas is the sudden plunge into direct speech without naming the speaker.

20The story line follows the biblical account but uses the biblical motifs more freely; for example, the phrase in stanza XXIV about the mice emerging from their holes is taken from Jdt 14:12 when the chiefs of the Assyrian army joke about the Jews who have swarmed like mice from the cavern to provoke a battle, but here it is used as a positive characterization. In places the text seems to reflect a written source, as if following an existing translation in its phrasing, but a precise identification of this is impossible. Those coined phrases that seem to be literal quotations (for example: ”wolt er mit seinem scharpfen schwert Sein bluot vergiessen auff die erdt” [He wanted to shed his blood with his sharp sword], IX 4f, or ”Die red was jm gleich als ein traum” [He regarded the speech as a mere dream], IX 1) cannot be found in any version of the Book of Judith, neither in the Vulgate nor in the translations of the Luther or Zurich Bible. The parallel between the priests’ request to Judith as a ”God-fearing woman” to intercede for them (XIII 1f: ”Gottsförchtig bist du, heyliges weib. Bitt Gott für vns”) and the Luther Bible version (Jdt 8:24: ”Darumb bitte fur vns zum Herrn, Denn du bist ein heilig Gottfürchtig weib”) seems to point not to a direct dependence but rather to the influence of the Vulgate on both of the versions (Vulg. Jdt 8:29: ”nunc ergo ora pro nobis quoniam mulier sancta es et timens Dominum”) or perhaps a vernacular paraphrase of the Vulgate since the name forms are not congruent: in the Judith song, the High Priest is called Eliachim (Luther: Joachim), and the king is called Nabuchodonosor (Luther: NebukadNezar). The text takes as much inspiration from oral traditions of ballad-style narration as it does from the biblical text; in this it still follows in the tradition of Bible paraphrase, using the vernacular style of contemporary prose.

21Judith’s entrance into the story, which in the biblical book comes without warning after the lament of the Israelites, is prepared in the Judith song through her self-introduction in the first stanza and also through the ongoing structure of the poem, since new characters are introduced at the beginning of each new stanza. The action gradually narrows in on Judith: in stanza 10 the Jews come into focus, in stanza 11 the city of Bethulia, and finally in stanza 12 Judith herself, who immediately takes over the action, chiding the priests for being ”depraved” (verruchet) because of their readiness to hand over the town. When Judith unfolds her plan of courting the enemy (”hofieren,”), the enhancement of her beauty by God (XIV 6: ”Gott gab auch jrer schoene zu”) implies the divine approval explicitly noted in the Vulgate. Up to the point when Judith enters the camp, the story line is close to the source despite the intense condensing, but from then on Judith dominates the stage and the love and seduction imagery of the Book of Judith forms the basis for most of the amplification. The metaphor of catching Holofernes in the ”snare of his own eyes” (Jdt 9:13: ”capiatur laqueo oculorum suorum in me”) is the cue for a hunting scene, fleshed out with proverbial phrases that come readily to mind when talking about the pursuit of the beloved. The decapitation of Holofernes is staged as the felling of game: Judith starts by setting the trap (stanza XIX 1), hunts for three days (XVII 6), and when Holofernes approaches the banquet like an animal attracted to the bait, she fells him and takes his head as a trophy, hiding it in the bag so that nobody can ”get her scent” (XX 6). This is commented upon with the saying that ”a good meal is worth hanging for,” taking up the tradition of a ”Henkermahlzeit,” a good last meal given to a person condemned to die by being hanged. A further saying is used in connection with the hunting imagery: ”a bearskin should not be sold before the bear is captured” (XXII 4f). The rest of the story presents an anticlimax, tying up the loose ends of the story line: Achior’s life is saved, the Assyrians flee, the Israelites bring home great wealth – a happy if somewhat abrupt ending.

22In a legacy of the Spruch poetry, the last two stanzas function as self-contained entities. The last but one stanza sums up the moral of the story in terms of a mirror of princes by pointing to the fall of Arfaxat and Holofernes which was brought about by their lack of ”Demütigkeit” (humility). Interestingly, Nebuchadnezzar as the link between Arfaxat and Holofernes is not included here, either because of his complex persona or rather personae in several other books of the Bible or because Arfaxat (who had to be included to make clear that the story has now come full circle since his initial forms the very beginning of the whole book) could then be presented as an example of God’s success rather than Nebuchadnezzar’s. The stanza with its aab ccb scheme is constructed so as to fall into two parts with a distinct caesura in the middle, which makes here for a clear distinction between the instruments of their respective downfalls: Arfaxat is punished for his pride (hoffart) by God, who commanded humility; Holofernes’s boasting (bochen) is quenched by Judith, in accordance with God’s plan for Israel. In this stanza Judith’s role is characterized as that of Humility personified, following the tradition set out, for example, in the Speculum Virginum. Her actions are wholly divine, part of a preordained pattern. The final verse paints a quite different picture, however.

23The very last stanza, printed separately on the last page, works as a counterpart to the independent first stanza and echoes the initial assertive presentation of Judith as the free Jewess, acting as an independent agent. Taken in isolation, the stanza could apply to nearly every song that involves a cunning woman. It presents the facts from a completely different perspective: it is not God’s command that sets the events in motion and it is not pride that is instrumental in the downfall, but instead suddenly the whole responsibility for the outcome rests with the ”freulein” (young women) and their ”kluoge list” (clever cunning). No names are given, no particulars mentioned; rather disconcertingly, the power of women is presented as universal. It might, like the woodcut, be a product of recycling since the assertion that even holy men fall for women flies in the face of the traditional story line, which stresses that only through pride and sin are men exposed to God’s wrath personified in a murderous woman.

24The broadsheet literally presents a double-sided Judith. In the innerstory, as told from page two of the booklet onwards, all her actions are judged as being beyond reproach – by the other figures (such as the priests and Achior), by the narrator, and by God himself. On the outer cover of the booklet, Judith is presented as a dangerous seductress – not openly, but the proximity of the first and the last leaf invites the identification of the cunning young women mentioned in the last stanza with the self-portrayal of the cunning heroine in the first one. The different levels of representation of Judith mean that she becomes an ambiguous figure for the reader, who realizes with a shudder of anticipation where the casual sex mentioned in the opening lines might lead: to decapitation.

  • 12 Cf. the catalogue by Adelheid Straten, Das Judith-Thema in Deutschland im 16. Jahrhundert. Studien (...)

25The broadsheet thus presents us with a snapshot of how the popular conception of Judith had developed into a permanent state of ambiguity by the sixteenth century, shaped by the divergent focuses of the short texts of the previous centuries. From now on, Judith is one of the cunning women, whether a specific text foregrounds this or not. Proof of this can be found in the irony with which Sixt Birck – who is a staunch defender of Judith’s virtue – plays with the topos when he has the herald sing a serenade as entertainment during Holofernes’s banquet; the third stanza begins: ”O Frawen list / wol gschwind du bist” (O women’s cunning: you are a quick one). The stage direction tells the actor to perform it to the tune of ”According to God’s Will” or alternatively ”Mad world”; here, as with the broadsheet, the tune indicates the turn events are taking, but Holofernes is too deeply ensnared to listen to common sense let alone to analyze songs. Ambiguous examples like these prepare the ground for images of Judith of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries that are concerned with notions of temptation and threat and that construct a Judith-seductress figure.12 Hans Baldung Grien’s illustration gives his own take on the Weiberlisten topic when he, like the Rosenwald leaf, pairs Judith, who is holding Holofernes’s head and is a monumental naked figure, together with Venus and opposite Adam and Eve. While this runs against the grain of the original text, for contemporaries it must have been a more than impressive demonstration of the fall of men in the face of cunning women. When Judith is portrayed as cunning, she may be a praiseworthy divine instrument or a condemnably dangerous seductress, depending on the context and the specific construction of femininity. Undeniably, the ambiguity of early modern German popular representations of Judith releases a dramatic potential that keeps Judith alive and fascinating through the ensuing centuries.

Appendix to Chapter 13. Judith-Song

26The edition follows the anonymous print in the copy of the Bibliotheca Palatina F5290, Straßburg: Christian Müller, ca. 1560.

27The accidentals (u etc) and i/j- and u/v-forms have been normalized to their presumed phonetic value, abbreviations have been resolved, punctuation introduced.

Im thon wie das Lied von Pouey.

I Judith heyß ich, ein jüdin frey;
Mir liebt noch nye keyn buolerey,
Noch thet ich des geleichen,
Biß ich dem Holophernes kluog

5 Sein haubt im schlaffen abgeschluog
– Kundt ich von dannen weichen.
II Arphaxat daucht sich mechtig reich,

Als fünd man nirgend sein geleich.
Ein stat hat er gebawen
Mit türnen hoch im Meder landt,
5 Egbathanis ist sie genant.
Darein het er vertrawen.

II Es gschach seins reich im zwelfften ior:
Kriegt in Nabuchodonosor,
Behielt den syg im felde.
Mit seinen Fürsten hielt er rhot;
5 Geachtet wolt er sein als Gott,
Alleyn inn dißer welte.

IV Sein hauptman Holophernes hieß,
Thet manchem man groß widertrieß,
Brach vil der starcken feste,
Bracht etlich Land inn solche forcht,
5 Das man im lebendt gern gehorcht;

Das daucht sye das aller beste.

V Die jüdischeyt hofft in Gottes güt,

Jerusalem muost sein behüt,
Versahen sich mit speise.
Eliachim gab in den rhot,
5 Umb hulff solten sye bitten Gott;
Daran thet er gar weiße.

VI Umbgieng?? [print damaged] bürg??,
„Ob Holofernes uns erwürg,
Noch wöllen wir mit im streitten. ”
Verhägten allenthalb ir weg,
5 Wann all sein Ritterschafft da leg,

Küntens hynauff nit reiten.

VII Es wundert Holofernes seer,
Was dißes volck hett für gewer,
Wie fest ir Stett auch were.
Achior antwort im getürst:
5 „Zuo schanden du noch werden würst
Mit allem deinem here.

VIII Gott gab von hymmel inen speiß,
Den ehren sye mit glaubens preiß,

Der kann sye wol beschirmen.
Als lang sye seind inn seiner huld,
5 Nit gfallen inn der sünden schuld,

Schreckst du sye nit mit stürmen. ”

IX Die red was im gleich als ein traum,

Band Achior an einen baum.
Wann er das Land gewinne,
Wolt er mit seinem scharpfen schwert
5 Sein bluot vergiessen auff die erdt,

Wo er in fünd darinne.

X Die juden waren auff der wacht,
Der ding namen sye eben acht,
Achior gert der stangen.
Entbunden ward er und gefragt;

5 All ding er in von anfang sagt,

Wie es im was ergangen.

XI Bethulia groß klag erhuob,

Da man ir brunnen in abgruob,
Verwegten sich irs leben.
Ozias gab in bald den rhot,
5 Hulff in nit inn fünff tagen Gott,
Ir Statt woltens auffgeben.

XII Da Judith diße red entpfieng,
Eylendts sye zuo den Priestern gieng:
„Wie seind ir so verruochet!
Schetz ir den schirm auß Gottes güt

5 Nach eurem willen und gemüt,
Das heyßt Gott wol versuchet. ”

XIII „Gottsförchtig bist du, heyliges weib.
Bitt Gott für uns, dein rhat auch gib,
Wie wir zuo Gotts huld kemen. ”
„So geht diß nacht hyn an die pfort
5 Hynauß will ich still an ein ort
Ein Megdlin mit mir nemen. ”

XIV Als sye volbracht het ir gebett
Die witwe kleyder sye auß thett
Irn leib begund sye zieren
Ir haubt, arm, oren, händ und füß,
5 Keyn zierd sye underwegen ließ:
Dem feind solt sye hofieren.

XV Gantz frü sy zuo der pforten kam,
Ir megdlin, das sye mit ir nam,

Truog auff ir tranck und speiße.
Zuor pforten ward sye auß gelon,
5 Von feinden bald entpfangen schon;
Der schöne hat sye preiße.

XVI Für silber und für rotes goldt
Ward Holofernes ir so holdt,
Das er ir bitt geweret
Zuom bätt gieng sye nachts auß und yn,
5 Nyemandts sye fragt: „wo gehst du hyn? ”
Biß sie ihr speiß verzeret.

XVII Gott gab auch irer schöne zuo
Des Fürsten hertz mocht han keyn rhuo,
Thet stetigs nach ir sinnen.

”Diß land hat freylich schöne kind,

5 Darin so hübsche freulin sind –
Wir wöllen es gewinnen.

XVII Der abendt bracht die vierde nacht,
Groß wirtschafft Holofernes macht.
Judith was unverzaget.
Geladen kam sye auch dahyn.
5 Das wildt wolt ye gefangen sein;
Drey tag hat sy es gejaget.

XIV Das freulin hat ir garn gestellt;
Ob sye das wildt bald nider felt
Mit seiner seitten waffen?
Ein köstlich mal ist henckes wert!
5 Sye hat acht auff sein eygen schwert,
Als sye beyd giengen schlaffen.
XX Die diener waren gleich so wol
Als Holofernes alle vol.

Ir megdlin hielt die thüren.
Sein haupt schnit sye im schlaffend ab,
5 Der magt sye es inn ir säcklin gab;
Nyemandts kund es da spüren.

XXI Sye gieng vß wie sye vormals thet,
Als wolt sye gen an ir guot bätt,
Durch all gezelt ins tale.

5 Bethulia ward ir auff gethon,
Von allem volck entpfangen schon,

Gepreißet überalle.

XXII Seins lebens was frey Achior,

Da man das haupt steckt hoch empor,
Der alle landt wolt zwingen.

Keins Beren haut nyemands verkauff,
5 Ee das er in vorhin erlauff:
Man muoß vor mit im ringen.

XXIII Ein lermam macht der jüdisch bundt;
Dem Fürsten wolt man es thuon kundt;
Nyemant dorfft in bald wecken.

5 Biß sye darzuo zwang grosse nodt.

Im bluot lag er, on haubt, was todt;
Bracht in fast grossen schrecken.

XXIV Die meng der Aßyrier floch;
Zuo lauffen was in also goch,
Das sye irs guots nit achten.
Die flucht kam den Hebrern wol;
5 Lieffendt als mäuß auß irer hol;
Groß reichtumb sye heym brachten.

XXV Demütigkeyt uns Gott gebeüt:
Arphaxat kam umb Land und leüt,
Sein hoffart ward gerochen.
Dem Holofernes ward auch wor,
5 Das im gesagt hatt Achior:
Judith stillt im sein bochen.

XXVI Die Freulin hand so kluogen list:

Keyn mann so starck, so weiß auch ist,
So heylig auch auff erden:
Winckt im ein fraw mit einem blick,

5 Bald hat sye in an irem strick;
Mag im doch offt nit werden.

Getruckt zuo Straßburg bey Christian Müller
Judith is my name, a free Jewess;

To the tune of the song about Pavia.
I never did love any dalliance
nor did I ever do it,
until I cleverly hacked off Holofernes’s head
while he was asleep
– off I went safely.

Arfaxat thought himself mighty powerful,
like no other king of the castle.
He built a town with turrets high,
in the land of the Medes it did lie;
Ecbatana was its name.
In it he put his trust.

It happened in the 12th year of his reign:
Nebuchadnezar was attacking him,
retained the victory in the battle.
He held council with his princes;
he wanted to be revered as God,
as the only one in this world.

His captain was called Holofernes,
many a men did he offend,
breached many a strong castle,
set several countries in such fright
that men served him gladly their lives to save;
this seemd the best course.

The Jewish people hoped for God’s mercy;
Jerusalem had to be protected;
they laid in a stock of food.
Eliachim advised them
to ask God for help;
in this he was wise indeed.
(The citizens say)...

even if Holofernes strangles us,
we will still fight him.”
Everywhere they fortified their roads.
Even were all his knights assembled on that spot,
up there they could not venture.

Holofernes was sore amazed
at what guarantees this people had,
however mighty the city walls.
Achior answered him boldly:
”Your pride will soon be laid low,

as well as all your army.

God gave them food from heaven;
Him they worship with faithful praise,
He can well protect them,
as long as they earn his favour,
and have not fallen into the mire of sin,
your attacks will not daunt them.”
These words as mere fantasy him did strike,
he tied Achior to a tree.
When he captured the country,
he would take his sword so sharp

and cause his blood to flow to the earth
if he chanced upon him in there.
The Jews were on the watch,
Nothing escaped their sharp eyes.
Achior gave himself up to them.
He was delivered from his bonds and questioned;
he told them everything right from the start,
how he had fared.
Betulia raised wailing voices to the sky
when their fountains were blocked,
they gave their lives up as lost.
Ozias counselled the following course:
if God did not help within five days,
they should surrender the city.
When Judith heard these words,
to the priests she hurried:

”How can you be so corrupt!
If you place a price on God’s mercy shield,
measured by your mere mortal will
and mind, God will be sore empted.”

”God-fearing you are, holy woman;
pray to God for us; council us
how we might come to God’s mercy.”
”Then go tonight to the gate.
I will slip out steathily to certain place,

taking a servant-girl with me.”
When her prayers she had ended,
she put away her widow’s garb;
her body she did adorn,
her head, arms, ears, hands and feet
– no ornament did she omit:
to court the enemy was her intent.

Full early she came to the gate,
the servant-girl she was taking with her
carried her meat and drink.
She was let out of the gate,
by the enemies soon received courteously;
she reaped the praise for her beauty.

Above silver and red gold,
Holofernes loved her so sweetly
that he granted her request.
For prayer, she went nightly in and out,
nobody asked her: ”Whither?”

until she had finished her food.

God her beauty did enhance:
the prince’s heart could find no rest,

his thoughts on her did constant dwell:
”Indeed, this country’s daughters dazzle,
such pretty lasses, one and all
– we want to win it!”

Evening brought the 4th night nearer,
Holofernes a splendid banquet did stage.
Judith was undaunted.
Invited, she came to the feast:
the wild game must be netted;
three days the hunt had lasted.

The lass had set her trap;
will she soon fell the game
with its own side-weapon?
A tasty meal is worth the hanging!
She noted where his own sword was,
when they both went to bed.

Like their master Holofernes,
the servants were completely sloshed.
Her servant-girl did guard the doors.
His head she cut off him, sound asleep,
she gave it to her servant for her sack;
there, nobody could guess it.

She went out as had been her wont,
as if for her prayer so good,
through all the tents down into the valley.
Bethulia opened its gates for her,
she was well received by all the people,
praised universally.

Achior’s life was spared when the head
was raised high on a stake of him
who wanted to bend all countries to his will.
No bear skin should be sold
before the struggle is successful:
first comes the fight.

A racket the Jewish covenant did make;
they wanted to tell the captain;

nobody was allowed to wake him suddenly
until dire necessity pressed them to it.
In his blood he lay, headless, dead
– plunged them into fear and trembling.

The Assyrian crowd fled;
so quick to run were they
that they forgot their worldly goods.
The flight went down well with the Hebrews;
they ran like mice out of their hole;
great wealth they brought back home.

Humility is God’s command to us:
Arfaxat lost his country and his men,
his pride was punished.
For Holofernes,
Achior’s words came true:
Judith quenched his boasting
Young women have such clever cunning:
no earthly man so strong, so wise,
so holy he may be:
if a woman beckons him with a glance,
soon will she have him in her coils;
but seldom he will get her

Printed in Strasburg by Christian Müller


1 Weiberlisten as terminus technicus denotes a series of women tricking men by specifically feminine strategies (”listen” is the plural form of ”die List” = ”cunning” and of ”die Liste” = ”catalogue”). It is used as a proverb in the form Es ist keine list vber Frawen list (Luther Bible 1535, Sir 25:18), cf. the article sub voce ”Weiberlist” in Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, vol. 14,1,1 (= Lfg. 28,3, 1914) and the preface by Christopher Irenäus (1565) to a fifteenth-century play about Pope Joan: Weiberlist, so sagt man, übertrifft alle List (Women’s cunning, as the saying goes, is beyond all cunning), Dietrich Schernberg, Ein schön Spiel von Frau Jutten, ed. Manfred Lemmer (Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1971), p. 98, l. 1f.

2 Spruchdichtung as a technical term refers to a specific form of German poetry, often didactic, composed in specific stanza forms; cf. Nigel Harris, ”Didactic poetry,” in Will Hasty (ed.), German Literature of the High Middle Ages (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), pp. 123f.

3 RSM, 1Frau 9 / 511 (Repertorium der Sangsprüche und Meisterlieder des 12. bis 18. Jahrhunderts, ed. by Horst Brunner and Burghart Wachinger, 16 vols. (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1986ff.). The stanzas are quoted following my own transcriptions. The rhyming patterns are complex, often requiring ”Schlagreim”, i.e. a series of internal rhymes; the ”Goldene Ton” would ideally require for the first two syllables of the first line to rhyme (Slug / Judith, cf. the first line of the following stanza as example: Do / Olofern).

4 RSM (fn. 3), 1Frau/9/100 following the edition GA-S XII, 204 ([= Göttinger Ausgabe – Supplement] Sangsprüche in Tönen Frauenlobs. Supplement zur Göttinger Frauenlob-Ausgabe, ed. by Karl Stackmann and Jens Haustein, I: Einleitungen, Texte (Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Phil.-hist. Klasse III 232) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000).

5 Stackmann took the rat to be the counsel to kill Holofernes and the phrase ”liebt in rechter lenge” to mean ”love up to the right point” (taking ”in” as preposition). Since the account is in historical order, I take the line to refer to Judith’s counsel with the city elders after her return to town, i.e., ”in” as dative plural of the personal noun (”to them”) and ”lieben” as a factitive verb ”to make lovable.”

6 Jacob Grimm, er, in Deutsches Wörterbuch, vol. III3 (1859), col. 693.

7 Washington, Rosenwald Collection, ms. 4, fol. 8r, Bavarian, start of the fifteenth century RSM (fn. 3), 1Frau 2/ 514a (3) = 537a (1). My text follows Marcus Castelberg, Leibeswohl und Seelenheil (diss. masch. Fribourg University, 2005), who generously allowed me to use his chapter on Frauenlob. For the manuscript, see also Karl-August Wirth, ”Lateinische und deutsche Texte in einer Bilderhandschrift aus der Frühzeit des 15. Jahrhunderts,” in Latein und Volkssprache im deutschen Mittelalter 1100–1500 (Regensburger Kolloquium, 1988), ed. Nikolaus Henkel and Nigel F. Palmer (Tübingen, 1992), pp. 256–95.

8 Bertolt Brecht, ”Solomon Song.” The form of the stanza and punch line are taken from Francois Villon’s ”Double Ballad” in the Grande Testament.

9 Oxford, Bodleian Harding B 39(203): The overthrow of proud Holofernes, and the triumph of virtuous queen Judith (”When king Nebuchadnezzar / was puffed up with pride ...”); a facsimile of the text is electronically available as part of the broadsheet project of the Bodleian Library, cf.

10 Rochus von Liliencron, Die historischen Volkslieder der Deutschen, III (1867), nr. 369, pp. 422–4, Ein hübsch new lied von der stat Pavia, wie sie vom künig auß Frankreich belegert vnd zum sturm geschoßen ward (A delightful new song about the town Pavia, how it was besieged by the king of France and bombarded to be attacked). The song in turn is a contrafactum of a popular mercenary song, ”Start battle and attack.”

11 For information on printers in the German-speaking area in the sixteenth century, cf.

12 Cf. the catalogue by Adelheid Straten, Das Judith-Thema in Deutschland im 16. Jahrhundert. Studien zur Ikonographie. Materialien und Beiträge (Munich: Minerva-Fachserie Kunst, 1983).

Table des illustrations

Légende 13.1. German Miscellany, early 15th century. Washington, Library of Congress, Rosenwald Collection MS 4, fol. 8r. Photo credit: The Library of Congress.(top left) Judith and Holofernes: ”Pecula die Stat. Judich Oliuernis”;(top right) The singer and his Lady: ”der minnen stral hat mich gar ser verbunt So hat ir fewr mich enczunt”;(middle left) Charlemagne and Gisela: ”Rex Carolus”;(middle right) Secundus and his mother: ”Secundus philosophus, mater eius”;(bottom) Absalom, Samson, Vergil, Aristotle, Alexander, Salomon queuing for Venus: ”Allexander vnd Salomon Sampson vnd absolon aristoles vnd vergilius sprechent all sampt alsus. Das chain maister nie so weis ward, dicz weiz an der toren vart. Ich hoffe mir geling von der liebsten.” (Alexander, Salomon, Samson and Absalom, Aristotle and Virgil all together say thus: No master ever became so wise not to join the train of fools. I hope I will be successful with my beloved!)
Fichier image/, 948k
Légende 13.2. Judith-song ”In the tune of the song about the battle at Pavia,” ca. 1560. Cover. Strasbourg: Christian Müller. Photo credit: Bibliotheca Palatina, Micro-Fiche F5290.
Fichier image/, 732k


Henrike Lähnemann holds the Chair of German Studies at Newcastle University. Her main areas of research are medieval German literature in the Latin context, manuscript studies and the interface of text and image. In 2006, she published a monograph on medieval German versions of the Book of Judith (”Hystoria Judith. Deutsche Judithdichtungen vom 11. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert”).