Version classiqueVersion mobile

The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann

Christian Textual Tradition

9. Judith in Late Anglo-Saxon England

Tracey-Anne Cooper

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Nowell Codex, named for its mid-sixteenth-century owner Laurence Nowell, who wrote his name on (...)
  • 2 The base manuscript for Ælfric’s homily on Judith is preserved at Cambridge, Corpus Christi Colleg (...)

1Judith makes two spectacular appearances in the Old English corpus: she is the brave heroine of a poem which is included in one of the most famous manuscripts of the late Anglo-Saxon period, the Nowell Codex, which also contains the heroic epic, Beowulf.1 Judith is the subject also of a homily by Ælfric, the most prolific and highly-regarded homilist of the age, who rendered her as an appropriate subject for the contemplation of clænnysse (chastity) for the benefit of nuns.2 Thus, even at our first approach to the perception of Judith in late Anglo-Saxon England, we are presented with ambivalence; is she a courageous military heroine to be heralded at the ”mead-bench,” or is she a pious example of chastity to be meditated upon in the cloister? In actuality, the Anglo-Saxon interpretations of Judith are more complex than even this dichotomy between genres suggests. While the Judith poem is most certainly an heroic epic in the manner of Beowulf, particularly in the second half when the Israelite army takes on the Assyrians, Judith’s own martial role, though described in gory detail, is actually diminished as she is presented as an allegorical type in a contest between good and evil and she is portrayed very much as the instrument of God. The Judith of Ælfric’s homily, on the other hand, is much more the mistress of her own will and actions.

  • 3 Margarita Stocker, Judith: Sexual Warrior. Women and Power in Western Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale (...)

2Margarita Stocker referred to Judith as ”the Good Bad woman,” encapsulating her fundamental ambiguity.3 It is this very ambiguity that has made her fascinating to many writers throughout the ages. In the process of explicating Judith’s shocking act and addressing the ambiguity between her roles as both murdering seductress and virtuous instrument of God, individual authors can transmit their own messages to their audience. The Anglo-Saxons imbued Judith with both the qualities of military hero and chaste widow, and used her narrative both as tropological message and allegorical type. These seeming ambiguities begin to make sense when we understand that these divergent attitudes were produced from an amalgam of the Anglo-Saxons’ past and their present. The patristic scholarship which the Anglo-Saxons inherited had many differing interpretations of Judith; to some she was a tropological model of chastity and faith, while to others she was an allegorical type for the Church, coming to represent all Christians in their struggles. The Judith narrative had also taken on a new urgency and poignancy in the late Anglo-Saxon period, as they confronted their very own ”Assyrian” aggressors in the form of renewed Viking assaults beginning in the 990s. Judith, as she was imagined at the turn of the first millennium in Anglo-Saxon England, therefore, needs to be thought of within the context of both the patristic background and the contemporary calamity.

  • 4 David Chamberlain, ”Judith: A Fragmentary and Political Poem,” in Lewis E. Nicholson and Delores W (...)

3Ælfric’s homily was written ca. 1000 and the Nowell Codex was produced at around the same time. There is some contention over the date of the composition of the poems in the Nowell Codex, including Judith. David Chamberlain suggests the date 990–1010, a date contemporaneous with the production of the manuscript.4 The Old English poem and homily were not written to commemorate a woman named Judith in the manner of Rabanus Maurus of Fulda (780–856), a pupil of the great Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin, who wrote the first full commentary of the Book of Judith, which he dedicated to Queen Judith, wife of Louis the Pious. We can, therefore, look to the contemporary historical context of the composition of the homily and poem to explain the urgency with which the Anglo-Saxons seem to have embraced the Judith narrative at around the turn of the millennium. When the Viking raids on Britain began again in earnest in the 990s, just three generations after Alfred’s victory over them, it must have been a profound shock for a people who had been enjoying what art historians have called a ”golden age.” Mistakes were made in encounters with the Vikings. King Athelred the Unred (Bad Counsel) may have too rashly paid Viking extortions; meanwhile some earls, like Byrhtnoth, whose heroic defeat is celebrated in the poem The Battle of Maldon, may have too hastily engaged them in combat, even letting the raiders assume advantageous positions before entering into the fray. Many noble husbands were slaughtered at Maldon or were away fighting in similar battles, and we have to assume that there were many widows or married women who had to step in to provide temporary ”good lordship” on behalf of the dead or absent husbands. Good lordship meant many things – fairness, wisdom, constancy, leadership, but above all protection. These were qualities which lords were expected to embody at all times and which noble women had to adopt in difficult times. Thus, Judith is held as a shining example of good lordship for these tumultuous times, wise not rash, brave not foolhardy, faithful and pure of heart. If Judith, a weak woman, could prevail against the Assyrians, so too, contemporaries might extrapolate, could the Anglo-Saxons prevail against the Vikings.

  • 5 Ælfric, ”Letter to Sigeweard,” The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, ed. S. J. Crawford, Earl (...)
  • 6 eow mannum to bysne, þæt ge eowerne eard mid wæpnum bewerian wið on winnende here.” Crawford (1922 (...)
  • 7 Ann Astell, ” ‘Holofernes’ head’: Tacen and Teaching in the Old English Judith,” Anglo-Saxon Engla (...)

4Judith could be used as a call to all in Anglo-Saxon society to do their part in the battle against the Vikings. Ælfric wrote a book entitled On the Old and New Testament for his friend Sigeweard in which he includes a brief synopsis of the tale of Judith.5 In this book Ælfric refers Sigeweard to an English version of the Liber Judith, which he says has been written ”to be an example to you men, that you defend your country against the attacking army.”6 Ann Astel argues, along with many other scholars, that in this, Ælfric is referring to his own Old English homily on Judith, which she defines here as a moral lesson which is a ”timely call to men such as Sigeweard to resist the invading army of Danes.”7

  • 8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, records that in 722, Queen Æthelburg of Wessex led an army (...)

5Ælfric, however, was not advocating that women actually pick up the sword against the Vikings in direct emulation of Judith; indeed Anglo-Saxon culture valued women as peace-weavers not as warriors, and there are very few examples of women warriors in chronicles or in literature compared to the Viking culture.8

  • 9 ”hi wunode on clænnysse æfter hire were on hyre upflore.”

6The last part of the extant Ælfrician homily makes its intended audience apparent; this constitutes a didactic call to clænysse, ”chastity,” and it is addressed specifically tomyn swustor, ”my sister,” and it is an exhortation to nuns to protect their chastity. Judith is an admirable exemplar because ”she lived in chastity after her husband [died] on her upper floor” (Judith ll. 172–73).9 There may have been more than one version of Ælfric’s homily on Judith circulating. If the ending (the lines after l. 356) was changed and addressed to a secular male audience and not a female cloistered one, and the final contemplation was concerned with courage and fortitude, rather than with faith and chastity, then the rest of the homily could stand unchanged and not seem out of keeping with a new audience and new message.

7In the beginning of the homily, Ælfric has included a brief ”scene-setting” section that is not in the Vulgate. The Vulgate opens by placing the incident within its true historical setting, explaining who the protagonists in the conflict are and how it had come about in terms of chronological history; Ælfric, however, takes a much broader approach in his introduction. His opening is deceptively instructive: he appears to be sorting out any confusion between the two Nebuchadnezzars mentioned in the Bible, although what he is really doing is introducing one of the key messages of the homily – steadfast faith will be rewarded and wavering faith will be punished. The first Nebuchadnezzar, Ælfric says, was able to invade Judaea, destroy the Temple and put the Jewish people to the sword because they had insulted their God through idolatry and devil worship. Ælfric then reports how the Jews were held captive in Babylon until they were released by King Cyrus and returned to Judaea where they rebuilt the Temple. The other Nebuchadnezzar, Ælfric informs his audience, was King Cyrus’s son, and he is the one who is relevant to our story; he once more threatened the Jews, through his general, Holofernes. Ælfric does not bother with the minutiae of the chronology found in the Vulgate, but instead, by including the Babylonian captivity, sets the stage for Achior’s speech in which he tells of the Jews escaping from the Egyptians across the parted Red Sea and living in the desert by God’s munificence. Achior warns:

  • 10 ”ne mihte nan mann naht þisum folce, swa lange swa hi heoldon heora God on riht. Swa oft swa hi bu (...)

… no-one was able to own this people as long as they held their God rightly. But as soon as they bow down away from worshiping Him to the heathen gods, they become ravished and insulted through heathen people. As soon as they with true repentance cried afterwards to their God, he made them mighty and strong to withstand their enemies. Their God truly hates unrighteousness.10

8Thus, Ælfric, by including the Babylonian captivity, has enhanced the notion from the Vulgate that bad things happen to unfaithful people and good things happen to the righteous, by providing a counterexample to balance the story of God’s facilitation of the escape from Egypt. In Ælfric’s milieu, with the renewed Viking assaults, he is presenting a poignant argument: that it is the lack of righteousness that has brought the current calamities down on the Anglo-Saxons and that things will not improve until they mend their ways and are once more pleasing to God.

9After this altered introduction Ælfric then provides a paraphrase of the Vulgate in the middle (and largest) part of the homily. There are occasional additions for emphasis; for example, in l. 242 he adds for nanre galnysse, emphasizing Judith’s complete lack of immorality. Ælfric also omits or foreshortens some parts of the Vulgate version; most significantly Judith’s speeches have been cropped. This is not unusual, however, in the writing of homilies, where it is important to get on with the narrative and drive home the message. The indignant speech in which Judith challenges the decision by Ozias and the elders to wait five days for God to intervene and, if He does not, then surrender to Holofernes, has been reduced in Ælfric’s version to a plea for faith in God; this simplification once again emphasizes Ælfric’s main message in the homily – right faith will be rewarded. The prayer Judith offers up to God as she adorns herself before setting off for the Assyrian camp is completely omitted; this may be because in this prayer she reveals her plan to use her beauty to overcome Holofernes, and Ælfric as a good storyteller did not want to give too much away too soon in his tale. The initial conversations between Holofernes and Judith are also reduced in Ælfric’s version, but again this may simply be the product of his desire to tell the story well and to get to the main action in Holofernes’s tent.

10Compared to some older patristic versions and commentary on the Judith narrative, Ælfric nevertheless stays somewhat truer to the Vulgate version. Ælfric does not participate in the extreme polarizing of good and evil that we see in Jerome’s idea that ”chastity beheads lust” or that which was taken up in Prudentius’s highly allegorical poem Psychomachia; neither does Ælfric’s Judith conform to Jerome’s notion that she was ”a type for the Church which cuts off the head of the devil.”11Jerome skewed temporality in aligning Judith with Christianity:

In the Book of Judith – if any one is of opinion that it should be received as canonical – we read of a widow wasted with fasting and wearing the sombre garb of a mourner, whose outward squalor indicated not so much the regret which she felt for her dead husband as the temper in which she looked forward to the coming of the Bridegroom. I see her hand armed with the sword and stained with blood. I recognize the head of Holofernes which she has carried away from the camp of the enemy. Here a woman vanquishes men, and chastity beheads lust. Quickly changing her garb, she puts on once more, in the hour of victory, her own mean dress finer than all the splendours of the world. (Judith xiii)12

11Jerome replaces the Jewish cultural practices of Judith’s mourning with the notion that she is an archetype for the ”bride of Christ” – that is, a nun, waiting in chaste hope and expectation to be united with her ”bridegroom” – Christ. Jerome has, however, broken the constraints of temporality, and in the same way that he can reflect himself back into Holofernes’s tent, Judith can emanate forward into the Christian milieu, and thus spiritual symbolism can be given free rein. It is interesting, given Ælfric’s intended cloistered audience, that he does not make any attempt in the manner of Jerome to make his Judith into a ”bride of Christ,” but he is content to allow her to remain within her historical context. Indeed, Ælfric leaves a lot of the complexity of Judith’s character intact; she is still praised for her clænnysse (chastity), but she is by no means the innocent agent of God, who performs his will almost as an automaton.

  • 13 Lee, VIII, section 3c.
  • 14 ”heo awearp hire hæran & hire wudewan reaf, & hi sylfe geglængede mid golde, & mid purpuran, & mid (...)
  • 15 Lee, VIII, section 3c.

12Ælfric’s Judith is an ”Eve-like temptress,”13 who deliberately sets out to seduce and deceive, because ”she cast aside her sackcloth and her widow’s clothes and adorned herself with gold and with purple garments and with a splendid girdle.”14 Moreover, the explanation she gives in the homily to Holofernes for her presence in his camp is described by Lee as ”at best a prevarication, at worst a lie.”15 Unlike the highly allegorical patristic Judith and the Judith of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Ælfric’s Judith is present and active; she plans, seizes the opportunity and acts and Ælfric does not try to excuse Judith’s actions.

13Perhaps because he is writing for the edification of nuns he does not marvel like Ambrose of Milan (339–97) at the inappropriateness of someone of her gender undertaking these actions. Ambrose seems somewhat astounded that a woman could achieve what Judith had achieved:

  • 16 P. Schaff and H. Wace (eds.), St. Ambrose, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, (...)

How great must have been the power of her virtue, that she, a woman, should claim to give counsel on the chiefest matters and not leave it in the hands of the leaders of the people! How great, again, the power of her virtue to reckon for certain upon God to help her! How great her grace to find his help!16

  • 17 Lee, VII, section 3c.

14While Ambrose was shocked that Judith, a mere woman, could accomplish such great things, Ælfric is actively trying to encourage the emulation of Judith’s spirit, faith, and virtue (though, of course, not the actual act) in the women he is addressing. It is tempting to conclude that perhaps Ælfric, given his own dangerous times, has more sympathy for the idea that desperate times call for desperate measures; as Lee says, ”Ælfric, though, clearly full of admiration for her, recognizes her [Judith’s] human failings and does not attempt to cover them up.”17 In this way Ælfric perhaps follows some of the patristic authors in seeing Judith as a type for all Christians; for him, however, this is not at all the idealized sinless believer, but a more realistic and sympathetic Christian type, a sinner like the rest of us poor sinful wretches who will inevitably commit infractions but try their best to be righteous.

  • 18 ”Nimað eow bysne be þyssere Judith, hu clænlice heo leofode ær Cristes accennednysse.”
  • 19 Lee, VIII, section 3d.

15Ælfric’s Judith, though not the idealized type for the Church of the patristics, nevertheless commits only minor infractions, and the theme of clænnysse (chastity) is still emphasized throughout, and this makes the homily appropriate for its audience of nuns. Ælfric seems to be saying that if this Jewish woman was able to live in such honorable chastity that she and her people were rewarded by God, then how much easier must it be for his nuns who have had the benefit of Christianity: ”You should take an example from this Judith, how cleanly [chastely] she lived before Christ was born.”18 The manuscript preserves at the end of Judith the opening few lines of Ælfric’s Life of Malchus, which, as Lee points out, is thematically similar – Malchus manages to preserve ”his chastity despite extreme pressure.” The two texts are thus related by the themes of chastity and faith. Ælfric truly believed that calamities occurred to a people when these two principles were corrupted. As in the incident of God punishing the Jews in the Babylonian captivity, which Ælfric added to the beginning of the homily, he believed that God was similarly punishing the Anglo-Saxons for their lack of faith. He was particularly disturbed by the ”widespread disregard for moral teaching and practices of Christianity, especially among the monastic orders,” to which he attributed the onslaught of the Vikings:19

Wel me magon geðencan hu wel hit ferde mid us
þa ða þis igland wæs wunigende on sibbe
and munuclif wæron mid wurðscipe gehealdene
and ða woruldmenn wæron wære wið heora fynd
swa þæt ure word sprang wide geond þas eorðan.
Hu wæs hit ða siððan ða þa man towearp munuclif
and godes biggengas to bysmore hæfde
buton þæt us com to cwealm and hunger
and siððan hæfðen here us hæfde to bysmre.

  • 20 W. W. Skeat, Ælfric‘s Lives of Saints: A Supplementary Collection, EETS, OS 76, 82, 94, 114, 4 vol (...)

Good it is to me to be able to think of how easily it went with us
when this island was inhabited in peace and monastics were regarded as worthy
and secular men were watchful of their enemies,
so that our word sprang widely throughout this land.
How was it that since then certain ones have cast down monastics
and God’s worshippers have been brought to shame,
in addition to that, pestilence and hunger have come upon us,
and since then the heathen army has shamed us.20

16Ælfric’s homily on Judith, therefore, has a particular sense of urgency which was born out of tumultuous times. It is, in a sense, a call to arms, although it is not directed at military men but at religious women; they are called upon to arm themselves spiritually through diligent chastity and eager faith. The role of the monastic in the fight against the Vikings is as vital as the role of men at arms. In the same way, as we hear in Ælfric’s homily, that the Jews were punished by God with the Babylonian exile because of their lack of correct faith, and were rewarded with escape from Egypt and deliverance from the Assyrians by Judith, because they returned to their correct faith, so too are the Anglo-Saxons being punished for lack of correct faith, and, like the Jews, they will be delivered when they return to correct chastity and faith. Ælfric envisions the nuns of Barking assuming the vanguard position in this spiritual battle.

17While Ælfric’s homily stays fairly close to the Vulgate version and includes little patristic influence, the poem Judith has taken many more liberties with the Vulgate text and it displays much more patristic influence. Some changes have been made to suit the poetic format; the Bethulians, for example, are portrayed as a militaristic rather than a religious society, and over half the poem concerns the battle against the Assyrians once Judith has vanquished Holofernes. This would obviously stimulate interest in a martial secular audience, but the concentration on violence also throws into sharper contrast the disparity between Judith’s purity and her murder of Holofernes. In many ways Judith is a poem of contrasts: between Judith’s murderous act and her piety; between the eadig (blessed) Judith and hæðen hund (heathen dog) Holofernes; between the watchful Bethulians and the drunken Assyrians; between the private sphere of Holofernes’s tent and the public sphere of Judith’s stirring speech before the battle.

  • 21 Schaff and Wace, pp. 397–98.

18In the Vulgate, Judith tells of her actions upon her return to Bethulia to the Assyrian convert, Achior, but in the poem she just enigmatically shows the head of Holofernes and states simply, ic him ealdor oðþrong (I took his life). In the Vulgate, Judith prophesies the outcome of the battle, but in the poem she actually formulates a battle plan which succeeds because of her gleaw lar (wise counsel). Yet, in the poem, Judith keeps her participation in hands-on violence to herself; she does not boast in the manner of Beowulf nor does she rashly enter into combat like a male hero; rather, she is much more emphatically God’s agent than in Ælfric’s homily or in the Vulgate, and she is, therefore, much more in keeping with the Judith of Jerome or Ambrose. Ambrose in his book Concerning Women regards Judith’s victory over Holofernes as a victory for chastity, her ”bridal ornaments” are not beguiling allurements, but in Ambrose’s mind are interpreted as ”the arms of chastity,” and, rather than any bloody beheading, she simply ”put forth her hand” and the deed was done. The murderous deed was ”not so much the work of her hands, as much more a trophy of her wisdom.”21 In this, Ambrose reflects the attitude adopted early on by the Church Fathers that Judith was a passive agent of God. Clement of Rome (d. 101), for example, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, says of Judith:

  • 22 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. (Buffalo, NY: Chris (...)

The blessed Judith, when her city was besieged, asked of the elders permission to go forth into the camp of strangers; and, exposing herself to danger, she went out for the love which she bore her country and people then besieged; and the Lord delivered Holofernes into the hands of a woman.22

19As one might expect, given the genre, Holofernes’s death in the Anglo-Saxon poem is more dramatic and bloody than this simple statement by Clement that Holofernes was delivered by God; in the poem, however, the essential element of God’s guidance of Judith’s actions is still very much present. Judith prays to God immediately before the murder for His support, ”Forgif me, swegles ealdor, sigor ond soðne geleafan” (Grant me, Heavenly King, triumph and true faith). God answers her prayer immediately, filling her with courage:

Hi ða se hehsta dema
ædre mid elne onbryde, swa he deð
anra gehwylcne herbuenda
þe hyne him to helpe seceð

mid ræde ond mid rihte geleafan.
þa wearð hyre rume on mode
haligre hyht geniwod;

genam ða þone hæðenan
mannan bysmerlice,
ond þone bealofullan
listum alede,

laðne mannan swa heo ðæs
unlædan eaðost mihte
wel gewealdan. Sloh ða wundenlocc
þone feondsceaðan
fagum mece heteþonecolne,
þæt he healfne forcearf þone sweoran him,
þæt he on swiman læg drunken ond dohlwund.
Næs ða dead þa gyt, ealles orsawle;
sloh ða eornoste ides ellenrof
oðre siðe þone hæðenan hund,

þæt him þæt heafod wand forð on ða flore…

Hæfde ða gefohten foremærne blæd
Iudith æt guðe, swa hyre god uðe

swegles ealdor, þe hyre sigores onleah.

Then the Highest Judge
at once inspired her with courage, as
He does with everyone whosoever,
dwellers on this earth, who seek for his help
with wisdom and right belief.
Then her spirit became free from obstructions to the holy one hope was renewed;
she seized then the heathen man firmly by his hair,
and with her hands dragged him towards her disdainfully the baleful one,
skillfully laid down the loathsome man, as she the wretch most easily might control well. The curly-haired one
struck down the fiend-foe
with shining sword, the hostile one
so that she half cut off then his neck,
and he lay in a swoon drunk and wounded.
He was not yet dead,
entirely lifeless;
she struck again earnestly
the courageous virgin on the other side of the heathen hound,
so that his head rolled forth on the floor…
[Holofernes’s soul goes to hell]
She gained then by fighting renowned fame
Judith in battle, as her God bestowed
Heaven’s King, who granted her victory.

20While in this secular heroic poem Judith is the expected secular hero, she is not really the Valkyrie-like protagonist that one might expect, but rather she is more of a pious and passive instrument empowered and directed by God. The poet has made much of the single word bis in the Vulgate and the fact that Judith had to strike Holofernes twice, and by drawing out the murder in this way Judith appears not so much as a competent warrior-maiden but as someone struggling with a heavier inert body and unfamiliar weaponry as would be appropriate for a woman. Judith’s bloody deed is all the more courageous precisely because it is physically difficult and emotionally harrowing for a woman unused to combat.

21This murderous moment is also Judith’s only contact with Holofernes in the poem (as we have it), and he has already passed out drunk. Any suggestion of inappropriateness in Judith’s behavior, dress, and seductiveness is, therefore, avoided. The poem, as it exists, is only a fragment, however, and it opens at a point when Judith is already in Holofernes’s camp and he is preparing to feast. There are many varied arguments concerning how much of the poem is lost,23 but it seems unlikely that it was ever meant to have a long preamble like the Vulgate or Ælfric’s homily. Instead, the poem reflects much more closely Prudentius’s poem Psychomachia in that it is a polarized allegory, stripped of any ”unnecessary” narrative detail. Judith’s chastity is central to Prudentius’s portrayal of her in Psychomachia; and like Jerome, he treats her as a type for the Church and an example of chastity and, like St. Ambrose of Milan, he also ruminates on her weakness as a woman. For Prudentius, her womanly weakness was a type for the weakness of humanity in general, which only God through the Incarnation can make powerful.24

Assyrium postquam thalamum cervix Olofernis
caesa cupidineo madefactum sanguine lavit,
gemmantemque torum moechi ducis aspera Iudith
sprevit et incestos conpescuit ense furores,
famosum mulier referens ex hoste tropaeum
non trepidante manu vindex mea caelitus audax!
at fortasse parum fortis matrona sub umbra
legis adhuc pugnans, dum tempora nostra figurat,
vera quibus virtus terrena in corpora fluxit
grande per infirmos caput excisura ministros.

After the Assyrian Holofernes’s neck was chopped in the bedroom;
and the drunk’s desire washed out in his blood,
Sharp Judith scorns the jewels and pillows of the wife-betraying warlord
and quenches sinful frenzies with a sword.

The woman is carrying back from the foe, a notorious trophy.
Go with unshaking hand, bold heavensent defender!
Maybe the strong matron’s companions up till now were fighting under the shadow of the Law, still, our times she shapes.
In truth, strength flows into earthly bodies; the head of the great is cut off by the weak, powerless servants.25

22Prudentius thus reflects Jerome’s dramatic line, ”chastity decapitates lust!” and Judith is equated with the classical virtues: fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice, whereas Holofernes represents the four classical vices: folly, venality, cowardice and lust. Prudentius compresses the Judith narrative into allegory: Judith, typifying virtue, is set against Holofernes’s vice, as a polar opposite, in a manner which was to be emulated by the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet of Judith.

  • 26 Jackson J. Campbell, ”Schematic Technique in Judith,” ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, (...)

23In the poem, when Judith gets back to Bethulia, no mention is made of any other characters, such as Ozias and Achior, and so it is unlikely that they had been introduced in the missing opening of the poem. There are thus only two named characters, Judith and Holofernes, who are pitted against each other as allegories of good versus evil, in the manner of Jerome’s idea that ”chastity beheads lust.” Jackson Campbell remarks that ”In his poem, only two massive, opposing characters remain, archetypal in their simplicity and in their incompatibility.”26 To highlight the roles played by Judith and Holofernes in the poem, and its conception as a polarized allegory, it is useful to look at how the various characters in the story are referenced.

  • 27 The pronoun is always used for Judith at this point, with two exceptions, whereshe is referred to (...)

24As well as a consideration of our two protagonists I want to consider also references to God, because the presence of God in the poem, or rather instances when he is invoked by name, dramatically affect the way that Judith is described. The table in the appendix demonstrates that at three key moments when God’s presence is emphasized by the poet – at the beginning in ll. 1–7a, when Judith’s faith is discussed, when Judith prays and then commits the actual murder in ll. 82b–108a, and when the poem explains that Judith’s success is attributable to God, in ll. 121a–124b – Judith is depersonalized, and she is referred to, with a single exception, only by the pronoun.27 This has the effect of removing agency as well as personality from Judith: God is the active named participant in the slaying of Holofernes, and Judith is merely his depersonalized tool. When Judith is summoned to Holofernes’s tent she is described as physically beautiful and ornamented, but the poet is not effusive on the point. She is referred to as a ”bright virgin” (l. 44, torhtan mægð), though it is unclear whether this refers to the light of beauty or of virtue. She is also referred to as being ”ring-adorned” (l. 37, hringum) and ”bracelet laden” (l. 36, beagum), but, unlike in Ælfric’s homily, she is not explicitly portrayed as being decked out for seduction because the phrases ring-adorned and bracelet-laden are merely stock descriptions of noble women. Just before her murderous deed, the references to Judith change to indicate that she is becoming God’s instrument: she is ”the Savior’s handmaiden” (nergendes þeowen), and ”the Creator’s maiden” (scyppendes mægð), and, thereafter, throughout the actual deed she is simply referred to by the pronoun.

25References to Holofernes also change throughout the poem, becoming progressively more critical the more drunk he becomes. At the beginning of the poem, the poet refers to Holofernes in flattering heroic terms: he is ”the bold hero” (l. 9, gumena baldor) and ”the gold-giving lord” (l. 22, goldwine gumena). The poet is creating irony here in his heroic references because the auditor of the poem would already know that Holofernes is not what he seems and the wine will eventually reveal his true nature. As he starts to get drunk, the positive heroic references continue, but the poet starts to slip in negative references as well, and he is described as ”the evil one” (l. 26, se inwidda).

26When Holofernes is extremely drunk he compounds his vice by becoming lustful for Judith, and when he summons her, the references start to alternate between good and bad. By the time Holofernes has passed out, the poet has very few positive things to say about him: he is ”the devilish one” (l. 62, se deofulcunda), ”the wanton man” (l. 63, galferhð gumena), ”the troth-breaker” (l. 71, wærlogan), and ”the hateful tyrant” (l. 72, laðne leodhaten). By the time of the actual beheading, Holofernes, like Judith, is most often referred to only by the pronoun, and when he is given a more descriptive reference the heroic epithets have vanished and he is reduced to being only the sinful, heathen enemy. Thus Judith, who is not at this point portrayed as acting under her own agency in any way, is completely justified in her murder. At the actual point of death in ll. 109–11, both Judith and Holofernes are temporarily given back more elaborate references, ”the courageous virgin” (l. 109, ides ellenrof) and ”heathen hound” (l. 110, hæðenan hund), to underscore at this crux that they are truly polar opposites. Immediately after the beheading Judith is referred to by name, and this can be seen as signifying her return to her own control and the relinquishing of the agency God had assumed during her murder of Holofernes. Hereafter, until the point when Judith is returning to Bethulia, both Judith and Holofernes once more adopt the anonymity of pronouns; at this point in the poem Holofernes is consigned to Hell and God is credited with Judith’s triumph. As Judith journeys once more back to her city, the poet’s references begin again to bristle with elaborate praise. Judith is ”the prudent maid” (l. 125, se snotere mægðe), ”heroically brave” (l. 133, ellenþriste). As she gets closer to her city she becomes ”dear to her people” (l. 147, leof to leodum) and the poet prefigures her speech and its clever military advice to the Bethulians, by calling her ”the shrewd maid” (l. 145, searoðoncol mægð) and ”the wise woman” (l. 148, gleawhydig wif).

27The poem, therefore, while being written in stirring heroic style, actually owes more of a debt to patristic ideas about Judith than does Ælfric’s homily. Whereas Ælfric conceptualized a very human and sympathetic Judith as a tropological message endorsing faith and chastity as a remedy for the island’s current calamities, the poet has trimmed down the narrative to present a struggle between two allegorical types – chastity and lust. Therefore, while the poet’s medium is reflective of the secular world, with heavy Germanic and militaristic influences, his message and his interpretation of Judith are borrowed from patristic thought. The ambivalence of Judith in the Anglo-Saxon period is, therefore, a product in many ways of our expectations being flouted. In the heroic poem, which in the second half revels in the Israelites’ military prowess, Judith is more of a passive agent of God and not a brave warrior herself: she has been reduced to a depersonalized allegory. Likewise in the homily, where one might expect a more passive Judith she is instead much more of an active participant. Her chastity and faith are emphasized, but she has not become, in the manner of patristic interpretations of Judith, subsumed by her virtues, and she is not subservient to allegory.

  • 28 ”On hire wæs gefylled þæs hælendes cwyde: Ælc þe hine ahefð sceal beon ge-eadmet, & se ðe hine gee (...)

28The Judith narrative was utilized in this tumultuous period of Anglo-Saxon history, by both poet and homilist, precisely because she embodied ambivalence – she is a good woman who does a bad deed, or rather a deed that would normally be considered a bad thing under any other circumstances. The narrative lends itself to interpretation because her murderous act is so shocking, and it is in the process of explaining her act that individual authors can write their message, whether it be allegorical or tropological. As the Viking invasions turned the world upside down, a heroine was needed who, in similar circumstances, had succeeded against all odds. When others despaired, Judith prevailed. All sections of Anglo-Saxon society had to galvanize to defeat their ”Assyrians,” the Vikings. The heroic poem used Judith to inspire greater acts of military resistance, while the homily used her to encourage greater acts of spiritual resistance. Judith, an unassuming woman, was called upon by God to assume leadership in a time of crisis, and thus, as Ælfric points out, she was able to fulfill Christ’s words in Mark 23:12, which epitomize the beauty of her ambivalence: ”In her was fulfilled the Lord’s words: Everyone who is exalted shall be humbled and he who is humbled shall be exalted.”28

Judith in the Winchester Bible

  • 29 Claire Donovan, The Winchester Bible (Toronto, Canada, and Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Pres (...)
  • 30 Walter Oakshott, The Artists of the Winchester Bible (London: Faber & Faber, 1945), p. 1.
  • 31 Donovan (1993), p. 23.
  • 32 Donovan (1993), p. 28.
  • 33 Donovan (1993), pp. 23–4.

29Sometime between ca. 1160 and ca. 1175 in the cathedral scriptorium at Winchester, a Bible was produced, originally in two massive volumes, measuring 583 x 396 mm. The text of the Winchester Bible is complete, the estimated four-year-long labor of a single scribe.29 Such large Bibles were designed for ceremonial use and display, and ”their designers accordingly planned for the decoration on a lavish scale.”30 The illuminations of the Winchester Bible are, however, unfinished. There are ”46 complete and fully illuminated initials in gold and colours, most of them historiated. Eighteen further initials are substantially drawn, some of them also gilded. And eight huge holes show where once were yet more illuminations.”31 What is of interest to scholars of Judith, however, are the full-page miniatures, of which four survive. One leaf has been extracted from the Bible and is now preserved in the Pierpont Library as MS 619. Both sides of this extracted leaf are fully colored: the recto ”includes the capitulate of the first Book of Kings and depicts episodes of the life of Samuel and the anointing of Saul,”32 and the verso depicts episodes in the life of David, including his defeat and beheading of Goliath. The other two extant miniatures are unfinished; one at fol. 331v stands as the preface to the Book of Judith and the other at fol. 350v faces the opening of the Book of Maccabees. It is very likely that at one time the program of miniature painting was more extensive, including at least a ”full-page miniature facing the opening of psalms, now cut out, and three pages of canon tables preceding the gospels.”33

30When Walter Oakshott made his extensive study of the Winchester Bible, he identified four different artists at work, and gave each of them names. The designs of all four extant miniatures are thus the work of the Master of the Apocrypha Drawings, and the Morgan Leaf miniatures were colored by the Master of the Morgan Leaf. It is probable that the Judith miniature was also intended to have been colored and simplified by the Master of the Morgan Leaf, though this was never carried out. There is also a space left on the facing folio for a text initial of the Book of Judith, which was never begun.

31The Judith miniature has three registers: in the upper register, Achior is shown on the left side telling Holofernes and his warriors about the Israelites and their powerful God, and on the right side Achior is shown being taken from the Assyrian camp and bound to a tree outside Bethulia. The second register shows Holofernes and his men feasting, with Judith presenting a drink to Holofernes. Judith is shown in twelfth-century secular dress, with notably voluminous sleeves and uncovered hair. On the right-hand side of the second register, Judith is shown decapitating Holofernes with his own sword (the empty scabbard hangs at his side), while her handmaiden looks on, holding back one side of the canopy. On the left side of the third register Judith, back within the walls of Bethulia, displays Holofernes’s head to her countrymen, and points to it with a finger, suggesting that she is, at this moment, making the speech in which she rouses the courage of the Israelites to join in the battle that is shown on the right-hand side of this lower register.

32The episodes of the Judith narrative that the Master of the Apocrypha has chosen to highlight in this twelfth-century English miniature reflect the Vulgate, as one would expect. In addition, it can be argued, however, that they are also the episodes emphasized by the early-eleventh-century homilist, Ælfric. Ælfric’s work retained significance even after the Norman Conquest, and the sole complete copy of his homily on Judith survives in a twelfth-century manuscript from Rochester (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 303), which, at this time, was part of the same cultural milieu as Winchester.

Appendix to Chapter 9. Ælfric’s Homily on Judith

Incipit de iudith quomodo interfecit olofernem
We secgað nu ærest on þisum gewritum þæt twegen cyningas wæron gecweden on Leden Nabochodonosor, swiðe namcuðe begen. An wæs se Chaldeisca þe acwealde Godes folc on Iudea lande for heora geleafleaste, þa þa hi wurðodon wolice hæþengyld & deofolgyld beeodon heora drihtne on teonan. Ða towænde se cyning heora winsuman burh, Hierusalem gehaten, & þæt halige templ.ðe Salomon geworhte mid wundorlicum cræfte.& towearp hi grundlunga, & þæt Godes folc ofsloh, & þa herelafe to his lande adraf to Babiloniam, heora micclan byrig; & hi þær wunedon on his wælhreowan þeowte, gecnæwe heora synna wið þone soþan God. Hundseofontig geara hi wunedon þær on þeowte, oðþæt Cyrus cyning hi asænde eft ongean to Iudea lande, þanon þe hi alædde wæron, & het hi eft aræran þæt ænlice templ: swa swa se ælmihtiga God on his mod asænde, þæt he his folce mildsode æfter swa micelre yrmþe.
Here begins the story how Judith killed Holofernes
We say now first in our writing that two kings were called in Latin Nebuchadnezzar, both very well-known. One was the Chaldesian who killed God’s people in the land of Judaea because of their lack of belief, when they offered evil idolatry and devil worship, and insulted their Lord. Then the king destroyed the pleasant city, called Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple, which Solomon had built with wonderful skill, and he cast it down to the foundations, and slayed God’s people. The remnant he exiled to Babylon, their great city, and there they lived in cruel servitude, acknowledging their sins against the true God. One hundred and seventy years they dwelt in their slavery, until King Cyrus sent them afterwards once more into the land of Judea, to that place from which they had been led, and they vowed afterwards to raise up that unique Temple: just as the Almighty God in his power sent them away, he was merciful to his people after their great misery.

33The other Nebuchadnezzar, from Syria, thought that all peoples should bow down to him, but when they refused, he sent his general Holofernes to make them submit. The Jewish people prepared for war in their mountain fortress and Holofernes inquires who they are. Achior speaks up, telling Holofernes about their escape from captivity in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. Achior continues…

”Ðæt Godes folc þa eode upp be þam grunde, herigende heora drihten þe hi swa ahredde. & hi wunedon swa on westenum feowertig wintra, þær þær nan man ær eardian ne mihte, & him dæghwamlice com, þurh heora drihtnes sande, mete of heofenum eallum þam mancynne, & þa biteran wyllspringas him wurdon geswette , & eac of heardum stane hi hæfdon yrnende wæter. Hi gewunnon syððan mid sige ðysne eard, & heora God him fylste & feaht for hi; & ne mihte nan mann naht þisum folce, swa lange swa hi heoldon heora God on riht. Swa oft swa hi bugon fram his biggengum to þam hæðenum godum, hi wurdon gehergode & to hospe gewordene þurh hæðene leoda.
Swa oft swa hi gecyrdon mid soðre dædbote eft to heora Gode, he gedyde hi sona mihtige & strange to wiðstandenne heora feondum. Heora God soþlice hatað unrihtwisnysse!
Nu, for manegum gearum, þa þa misheoldon þone heofonlican God, hi wurdon gehergode, & sume ofslagene, & sume gelædde to fyrlenum landum, on hæftnede wunigende, oððæt hi wendon eft to þam heofonlican Gode þe hi on gelyfað; & hi habbað nu eft heora eard gebogod & þa burh Hierusalem, þær bið heora haligdom.
Ic bidde þe nu, hlaford, þæt þu læte ofaxian gif ðis folc nu hæbbe ænige unrihtwisnysse oððe gylt geworhtne ongean heora God, & hi beoð underþeodde þonne þinum anwealde. Gif hi þonne nab-bað nane unrihtwisnesse ne heora Gode abolgen, þonne beo we ealle to hospe gedone þurh heora drihten, þe hi bewerað, swa swa his gewuna is.”

”That people of God then went up by the ground and took with them their Lord, who had set them free, and they wandered then in the west for forty years, there where no man had previously been able to live, and daily there came to them, sent by their Lord, food from heaven to all that people, and the bitter well-springs became sweet for them, and from each hard stone they had flowing water. They dwelt afterwards with success in this region and their God helped them, and no one was able to own this people, as long as they held their God rightly. But as soon as they bow down and worship the heathen gods, then they become ravished and insulted through heathen people.
As soon as they with true repentance cried afterwards to their God, he made them mighty and strong to withstand their enemies. Their God truly hates unrighteousness.
Now for many years, when they did not properly hold to the heavenly God, they were ravished, and some died and some he led into the distant land and they lived in captivity, until they went afterwards to the heavenly God in whom they believe and they have now afterwards have boast of their region and the city of Jerusalem, where the holy place is.
I now ask you, lord, that you be informed about whether this people currently have unrighteousness, and they can then be subjected to your will. If, however, they do not have any righteousness and have not angered their God, then are we all to give insult to their God, who protects them just as is his custom.”

34Holofernes orders Achior to be bound and left for the Jews to find, who on doing so fulfill his desire for conversion. Holofernes besieges the city for twenty days and the Jews grow thirsty. Ozias declares they will wait just five more days for God’s intervention and then they will submit.

Ða wæs on þære byrig, on þam ylcan timan, an ænlic wimman on wudewanhade Iudith gehaten, þæra heahfædera cynnes, swiðe gelefed mann on þone lyfigendan God, hlisfull on þeawum, rihtlice lybbende æfter Moyses æ, Manases laf. Se wæs hire wer, ac he wearð ofslagen þurh þære sunnan hætan on hærfestlicre tide, ute mid his rifterum þe ripon his corn. He læfdeþære wudewan unlytel on feo & on oðrum æhtum, æfter his gebyrdum mycele welan on manegum begeatum; & hi wunode on clænnysse æfter hire were on hyre upflore mid hire þinenum. Heo wæs swiðe wlitig, & wenlices hiwes, & heo fæste symle buton on freolsdagum, mid hæran gescryd to hire lice æfre, on Godes ege butan unhlisan.
Ðeos Iudith ofaxode hu Ozias gespræc, & cwæð þæt hit wære witodlice unræd þæt mann sceolde settan swylcne andagan Gode, þæt he binnan fif dagum þam folce gehulpe oððe hi woldon gesecan þone Syriscan here & þone ealdorman to his anwealde: ”Ne gladiað þas word God us to miltsunge, ac hi hine gremiað to gramlicre yrsunge. We sceolon beon gemyndige his mildheortnesse, forþan ðe we nyton nænne oðerne God buton hine ænne. Uton andbidian mid eadmodnesse his anes frofres. Abraham & Isaac & ure heahfæderas wurdon afandode on heora frecednessum & onear-foðnessum. Hi wæron getrywe þam ælmihtigan Gode, þe hi æfre ahredde. Hine we sceolon biddan, þæt he us geblissige, & of þyssere earfoðnysse us generige.”
Æfter þisum wordum, & oðrum gebedum, heo awearp hire hæran & hire wudewan reaf, & hi sylfe geglængede mid golde, & mid purpuran, & mid ænlicum gyrlum, & eode hire syððan, mid anre þinene, ut of þære byrig. & be-bead þam folce & þam foresædan Oziam þæt hi na ne hogodon embe hire fær, ac wunodon on gebedum & gebædon for hi; & hi ealle wun-drodon hire wlites swiðe.
Heo ða, on ærne mergen, to þam weardum becom, sæde þæt heo wolde gesecan þone ealdormann & hine gewissian to his agenum willan hu he eaðelice mihte þæt manncynn berædan, butan frecednesse his agenes folces, þæt an man ne wurde of his werode amyrred. Hi ða wundrodon hire wlites swiðe, & hire wislicra worda, & mid wurðmynte hi gelæddon to heora ealdormen into his getelde. Sona swa he beseah on hire scinendan nebbwlite, swa wearð he gegripen mid ðære galnesse his unstæððigan heortan; & heo aleat to his fotum, sæde þæt heo wiste to gewissan þinge, þæt þæt Israhela folc swa yfle wæs gehæfd mid scearpum hungre, & swiðlicum þurste, for heora synnum wið þone soðan God, þæt hi moston ealle endemes forwurðan buton hi ðe hraðor to his ræde gebugon.
Heo cwæð eft oðrum worde: ”Ic wurðige minne God eac swilce mid þe, & on asettum timan ic sceal me gebiddan gebigedum cneowum to him & æt him ofaxian hwænne þu eaðelicost miht to þam folce becuman, mid ealre þinre fare, tomiddes Hierusalem, be minre wissunge, & þu hæfst hi ealle swa swa hyrdelease sceap. Forþi ic com to þe, þæt ic cydde þe þis.”
He gelyfde þa hire wordum & hire wel behet, & his þegenas sædon þæt swylc wimman nære on ealre eorðan swa fægeres wlites, & swa wis on spræce; & se ealdorman hi het gan into his maðmcleo-fan & þær wunian oðþæt he hyre word sende, & he het his hired-men hire þenian of his agenum þe-nungum & his estmetum. Ac heo nolde swaþeah his sanda brucan for his hæðenscipe, ac heo hæfde gebroht on hire þinene fætelse hire fercunge, oðþæt heo hire modes smeagunge mid weorcum gefylde.
Iudith þa abæd æt þam ealdor-men þæt heo moste be leafe, on ðam langum nihtum, gan on hyre gebedum to gebiddenne hire drihten ut of þam maðmcleofan on hire cneowgebedum, & he sealde hire leafe þæt heo swa don moste; & heo swa dyde symle on nihtum. Bæd þone ælmihtigan God þæt he hire gewissode his folce toahred-dinge on þære frecednysse.
Ða, on þam feorðan dæge, feor-mode se ealdorman his heahþegnas on his getelde on micelre blisse, & bebead his burðegne þæt he gebringan sceolde into his gebeorscipe þa foresædan Iudith, & he swa dyde. Heo com þa geglenged for nanre galnysse, & stod him ætforan swiðe fægres hiwes, & his mod sona swiðe wearð ontend on hire gewilnunge to his galnesse; & het hi beon bliðe on his gebeorscipe, & heo him behet þæt heo swa wolde.

Ða wearð Holofernis wundorlice bliðe ealne þone dæg, & fordræncte hine sylfne mid þam strangum wine ofer his gewunan, & ealle his þegnas eac wæron fordræncte; & hi efston on æfnunge to heora mane swiðe, & þa burþegnas gebrohton þone ealdormann on anum bedde mid þære Iudith, & na swiðe ne gymdon syððan heora hlafordes. Iudith geseah þa, þa þa he on slæpe wæs, þæt hire wæs gerymed to hire ræde wel forð; & het hire þinene healdan þa duru, & gelæhte his agen swurd & sloh to his hneccan, & mid twam slegum forsloh him þone swuran, & bewand þæt bodig mid ðam bed-dclaðum.

Heo nam ða þæt heafod, & his hopscytan, & eode hire ut mid hire þinene swylce on gebedum, swa swa hyre gewuna wæs, oþþæt hi buta becomon to þam burh-geate. Iudith þa clypode & cwæð to þam weardmannum: ”Undoð þas burhgatu! God sylf is mid us, se þe mihte gefremode on Israhela þeode.” & hi þa ardlice undydon þa gatu, & comon endemes mid leohte hire to, forþan þe hi wendon þæt heo ne com na ongean. Heo astah þa up to anum steapum beorge, & ætywde þæt heafod him eallum, cweðende: ”Heriað, ic bidde, mid blisse urne drihten, se þe ne forlæt on hine gelefende & þa þe hihtað on his micclum truwan, & on me gefylde his mildheortnesse þa þe he behet Israheles hirede; & he ofsloh nu to niht on minum handum his folces feond!”& heo unforht cwæð: ”Godes engel soðlice me gescylde wið hine, þæt ic unwemme eft becom to eow; & God self ne geþafode þæt ic gescynd wurde, ac butan besmitennysse he asende me ongean, on his sige blissigende & on eowre alysednesse. Hi sceawodon þa þæt heafod mid swiðlicre wafunge, & Ozias heora ealdor, & hi ealle samod, bletsodon Iudith mid þissere bletsunge: Drihten þe gebletsode on his drihtenlican mihte, se ðe þurh þe gehwyrfde ure fynd to nahte, & se ðe nu todæg þinne naman gemærsode, swa þæt of manna muðum þin mærð ne ateorað.”

There was in that city, in those days, a single woman in widow-hood called Judith, the God’s kind, who was very much beloved of the loving God, of good repute among the people, Manasseh’s wife living rightly by Moses’ law. He was her husband but he was killed due to the sun’s heat at harvest time, while out with his sickle harvesting corn. He left his widow not a little in cattle and other goods, and afterwards his wife had great prosperity in many properties; and she lived in chastity after her husband in the upper chamber with her maidservant. She was very beautiful and comely and she fasted except for on feast days, with sackcloth clothing to her body, with our dishonor in God’s eyes.
This Judith found out how Ozias spoke, and said that it was truly foolish that a man should set an ultimatum to God, that within five days he should help his people or they should seek out the Syrian army and submit to the general’s will: ”These words do not gladden God so that he will have mercy on us, but they irritate him to wrathful anger. We must be mindful of the mild-heartedness, because we do not know any other God but him alone. Let us wait for his help at any time with inner peace. Abraham and Isaac and our patriarchs were tested in danger and in hardship. They were true to the Almighty God, who set them free. We must pray to Him, so that he will bless us and liberate us from this hardship.”
After these words and other prayers, she cast aside her sack-cloth and her widow’s clothes and she adorned herself with gold and with purple garments and with a splendid girdle and went afterwards with one maidservant out of that city. And she bid the people and the aforementioned Ozias that they must not concern themselves about her journey, but they should concern themselves with religious services and prayer for her and themselves, and they marveled at her beauty.
She then, in the early morning, came to the guards, and said that she desired to seek out the general and instruct him in how to have his own will, how he might easily take that people by treachery, with no danger to his own men, so that not one man in his own army would be killed. They then marveled at her great beauty, and her wise words, and they led her with honor to the tent of their general. As soon as he beheld her shining countenance, he became gripped with lust in his wanton heart; and she lay at his feet, and said that she knew a special thing, that the Israelites had such a wickedly sharp hunger and greater thirst, on account of their sins against the true God, and that they must all die together immediately unless they bow down to his army.
She said afterwards other words: ”I honor my God and likewise you, and at set times I shall make my case known to him in my prayers and be informed by him when you might most easily overcome that people with your army in the midst of Jerusalem, by my instruction, and you will have them all just as sheep to a shepherd. Therefore I have come to you, so that I can acquaint you with this!”
He then believed her words and her good promises, and his thegns said that no woman on earth was ever as fair in countenance or as wise in speech, and the general ordered her to go into his treasure-chamber and wait there until he sent her word, and he ordered his retainers to serve her food from his own table and his delicacies. But she would not however partake of his food because of his heathenness, but she had brought her maid’s bag with her own provisions, as far as her spirit’s reflection was satisfied with the deed.
Judith then asked the ruler if she could leave, to go out of the treasure-chamber so that she might pray to her Lord on her knees, and he entrusted her to leave to perform what she must, and she did the same every night. She beseeched Almighty God that he through her guide his people to deliverance from their danger.
Then on the fourth day, the general entertained his highthegns at his table with great joyfulness and he instructed his chamberlain that he must bring into his feast the aforesaid Judith, and this he did. She came there adorned, but not because of wantonness, and she stood before him with a very beautiful appearance, and his heart forthwith quickly became inflamed in desiring her in accordance with his lust; he commanded her to be merry at his feast and she promised that she would do so.
Then Holofernes became wonderfully merry all that day, and he made himself drunk with strong wine beyond his customary amount, and all his thegns were also drunk; and the evening closed in quickly, and the chamberlains brought then the general into a certain bedchamber with Judith, and not all the way and carefully since it was their lord’s. Judith saw then that he was asleep, and that the way was open for her plan to move forward well; and she ordered her maid-servant to watch the door, and grasped his own sword and struck a blow to his neck, and with two blows she cut through his neck, and wrapped the body with the bedclothes.
She then took the head, and his counterpane, and she quickly went out with her maidservant to pray as was her custom, until they came outside of the city-gate. Judith then called out and said to the watchman: ”Undo this city-gate! God Himself is with us, He who makes manifest His might in respect to the Jewish people.” And they quickly undid the gate, and came in procession with lights to her, because they thought that she would never come back again. She stood up then on a certain high hill and revealed the head to them all saying: ”Give Praise, I bid you, with bliss to our Lord, he who does not abandon those believing and who rejoice in his great covenant, and in me fulfilled, with His great mercy, that which he promised to the brotherhood of Israel, and he cut down now tonight by my hand his people’s enemy!” And she fearlessly said: ”God’s angel truly shielded me against him, so that I unstained afterwards came to you, and God himself would not permit that I become disreputable, but without blemish he sent me on again, in His glorious triumph and in our liberation.”

35Ozias blesses Judith. She tells Achior what happened. Judith tells them to put the head on the city walls and the Israelites prepare for battle. The Assyrians find the decapitated Holofernes and lament: ”A woman has now shamed us and our king!”

36The Israelites win their battle and Ælfric reports that Judith sings ”just as it says in the Latin,” but he does not repeat it here. Ælfric concludes by exhorting the sisters to chastity.

The Judith Poem


38gifena in ðys ginnan grunde. Heo

39ðar ða gearwe funde

40mundbyrd æt ðam mæran þeodne,

41þa heo ahte mæste þearfe,

42hyldo þæs hehstan deman, þæt he

43hie wið þæs hehstan brogan

44[5] gefriðode, frymða waldend.

45Hyre ðæs fæder on roderum

46torhtmod tiðe gefremede, þe heo

47ahte trumne geleafan

48a to ðam ælmihtigan. Gefrægen ic

49ða Holofernus

50winhatan wyrcean georne ond

51eallum wundrum þrymlic

52girwan up swæsendo. To ðam het se

53gumena baldor

54[10] ealle ða yldestan ðegnas; hie

55ðæt ofstum miclum

56ræfndon, rondwiggende, comon to

57ðam rican þeodne

58feran, folces ræswan. þæt wæs þy

59feorðan dogore

60þæs ðe Iudith hyne, gleaw on


62ides ælfscinu, ærest gesohte.

63[15] Hie ða to ðam symle sittaneodon,

64wlance to wingedrince, ealle his


66bealde byrnwiggende. þær wæron

67bollan steape

68boren æfter bencum gelome, swylce

69eac bunan ond orcas

70fulle fletsittendum; hie þæt fæge


72[20] rofe rondwiggende, þeah ðæs

73se rica ne wende,

74egesful eorla dryhten. ða wearð


76goldwine gumena, on


78hloh ond hlydde, hlynede ond


80þæt mihten fira bearn feorran


82[25] hu se stiðmoda styrmde ond


84modig ond medugal, manode


86bencsittende þæt hi gebærdon


88Swa se inwidda ofer ealne dæg

89dryhtguman sine drencte mid wine,

90[30] swiðmod sinces brytta, oðþæt

91hie on swiman lagon,

92oferdrencte his duguðe ealle, swylce

93hie wæron deaðe geslegene,

94agotene goda gehwylces. Swa het se

95gumena aldor

96fylgan fletsittendum, oðþæt fira


98nealæhte niht seo þystre. Het ða

99niða geblonden

100[35] þa eadigan mægð ofstum


102to his bedreste beagum gehlæste,

103hringum gehrodene. Hie hraðe


105anbyhtscealcas, swa him heora

106ealdor bebead,

107byrnwigena brego, bearhtme


109[40] to ðam gysterne, þær hie


111fundon ferhðgleawe, ond ða fromlice

112lindwiggende lædan ongunnon

113þa torhtan mægð to træfe þam hean,

114þær se rica hyne reste on symbel

115[45] nihtes inne, nergende lað,

116Holofernus. þær wæs eallgylden

117fleohnet fæger ymbe þæs


119bed ahongen, þæt se bealofulla

120mihte wlitan þurh, wigena baldor,

121[50] on æghwylcne þe ðær inne com

122hæleða bearna, ond on hyne


124monna cynnes, nymðe se modiga


126niðe rofra him þe near hete

127rinca to rune gegangan

128she doubted not

129His gifts in this wide earth. She

130found there readily

131patronage from the excellent Prince

132when she had the most need,

133of grace from the highest Judge so

134that she against the highest terror

135[5] was protected, the foremost

136King. To her the Father in Heaven,

137the Glorious One, advanced this

138favor that she might have a

139steadfast belief

140forever in the Almighty. Holofernes,

141as I have heard say,

142wrought eagerly an invitation to wine

143and with every magnificent wonder

144prepared a banquet. To this the bold

145hero summoned

146[10] all his chief thegns; they with

147great speed

148did that, the shield-warriors, came to

149the great lord

150to set forth, to the people’s leader.

151That was the fourth day

152since Judith was there, wise in


154the elf-bright virgin, first sought him.

155[15] They then to that feast went to


157the proud to the wine-drinking all

158his companions in trouble

159bold corsleted warriors. There were

160deep flagons

161carried frequently along the benches, in

162such a manner each beaker and cup

163of the sitters in the hall was full; the

164doomed ones who drank it,

165[20] the vigorous shield-warriors,

166though their king did not expect it

167the awe-inspiring chief lord. The

168Holofernes became,

169the gold-giving lord, became joyful

170at the wine pouring,

171he laughed and was loud, he made

172a noise and a din,

173so that might hear him at a distance

174from the mirth

175[25] How the stout-hearted one

176roared and shouted

177spirited and drunk, he exhorted


179the bench-sitters that they conduct

180themselves well.

181As the evil-one over the entire day

182his warriors drenched with wine,

183[30] the stout-hearted treasure-giver,

184until they all lay in a stupor.

185his body of noble retainers had all over-

186drunk as if they were slain by death,

187glutted with every good thing. The

188prince of men gave the order

189to fill for the sitters in the hall until

190the day faded,

191the gloomy night drew near to them.

192The evil corrupt one ordered

193[35] the blessed maid be brought


195to his bedchamber, the bracelet laden,

196the ring-adorned. They quickly


198the retainers, as their lord had

199ordered them,

200the armored warriors’ ruler,

201marched quickly

202[40] to the guest hall, where they


204found prudent, and promptly then

205the shield-warriors began to lead

206the bright virgin to the high tent

207where the ruler himself always rested

208[45] inside each night, hated by the Savior,

209Holofernes. There was a pure gold

210finely-made fly-net around that


212bed hanging, so that the baleful one

213might look through, the leader of men

214[50] on everyone who came in there

215the children of heroes, and on him

216not any

217of mankind, unless the proud one

218the evil noble summoned him hear

219a warrior to come to counsel.


1 The Nowell Codex, named for its mid-sixteenth-century owner Laurence Nowell, who wrote his name on the first page, is now preserved in the British Library as London, British Library, MS. Cotton Vitellius A. xv. In its current state it is a composite of at least two manuscripts, the first part being of the twelfth century and the second part, which contains Judith, most commonly dated to the turn of the millennium. Neil Ripley Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), art.216, p. 281, dates the manuscript as s. x/xi. Roy Michael Liuzza, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2000), p. 11, argues for a date of manuscript production in the decade after 1000. The second codex contains five texts: a fragment of the Life of Saint Christopher, more complete texts of Letters of Aristotle and Wonders of the East, Beowulf, and Judith. The poem Judith did not, however, originally follow on from Beowulf, because worm-holes do not match up and there is great wear on the back of the last folio of Beowulf, which indicates that, at one time, it came at the end. The first four texts are inseparable, so Judith may have originally come before them or have been part of another manuscript. The latter part of Beowulf and Judith, however, appear to be the work of the same scribe. Currently, there is much debate about the theme of the ”monstrous” tying these works together, following Andy Orchard’s book Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). For the date of composition of the poem see n. 4. The most recent edition of the Old English poem is Mark Griffith (ed.), Judith. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997). For a prose translation of the poem see S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1995). A translation that keeps much of the poetic style of the original (with the occasional loss of precision in the translation) is in Albert S. Cook (ed.), Judith, An Old English Epic Fragment (Boston: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1904), pp. 3–27, which can be found at The translations used here are my own and preserve the sense and format of the poem, but not the poetic structure.

2 The base manuscript for Ælfric’s homily on Judith is preserved at Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 303, pp. 341–62. This is an early-twelfth-century collection of a selection from both series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies and some other texts. See Ker (1957) art. 57, pp. 99–105. Fragments from the homily are also contained in the badly damaged manuscript London, British Library, MS. Cotton Otho B.x., fols. 29 and 30. The homily’s first modern editor, Bruno Assman, ”Abt. Ælfric‘s angelsächsische Homilie über das Buch Judith,” Anglia 10 (1888), pp. 76–104, suggested a date of 997–1005; whereas Peter Clemoes dated Ælfric’s homily on Judith ca. 1002–1005, ”The Chronology of Ælfric‘s Works,” in Peter Clemoes (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins (London: Bowes, 1959), pp. 212–47. Most recently the homily has been edited, with extensive commentary, by S. D. Lee in an electronic book along with Ælfric’s homilies on Esther and Maccabees at The Old English text in this chapter is after his edition, but as yet no full translation is available, and the translations here are my own.

3 Margarita Stocker, Judith: Sexual Warrior. Women and Power in Western Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 24.

4 David Chamberlain, ”Judith: A Fragmentary and Political Poem,” in Lewis E. Nicholson and Delores W. Frese (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), p. 158. This date is also endorsed by Ian Pringle, ”’Judith’: The Homily and Poem,” Traditio, 31 (1975), p. 91. More recently Mark Griffith has proposed a date of ca. 900, Mark Griffith (ed.), Judith (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), p. 47.

5 Ælfric, ”Letter to Sigeweard,” The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, ed. S. J. Crawford, Early English Texts Society, old series 160 (1922), p. 48.

6 eow mannum to bysne, þæt ge eowerne eard mid wæpnum bewerian wið on winnende here.” Crawford (1922), p. 48.

7 Ann Astell, ” ‘Holofernes’ head’: Tacen and Teaching in the Old English Judith,” Anglo-Saxon England 18 (1989), pp. 117–133, at 117.

8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, records that in 722, Queen Æthelburg of Wessex led an army to destroy Taunton, which had formerly belonged to her husband, but this is a solitary incidence in a chronicle that records centuries of Anglo-Saxon history. See entry for a.d. 722 at accessed on 8/29/08

9 ”hi wunode on clænnysse æfter hire were on hyre upflore.”

10 ”ne mihte nan mann naht þisum folce, swa lange swa hi heoldon heora God on riht. Swa oft swa hi bugon fram his biggengum to þam hæðenum godum, hi wurdon gehergode & to hospe gewordene þurh hæðene leoda. Swa oft swa hi gecyrdon mid soðre dædbote eft to heora Gode, he gedyde hi sona mihtige & strange to wiðstandenne heora feondum. Heora God soþlice hatað unrihtwisnysse!”

11 Jerome, Letter to Salvina, no. 79. on 3/13/08.

12 Jerome, Letter to Furia, no. 54. accessed on 3/11/08.

13 Lee, VIII, section 3c.

14 ”heo awearp hire hæran & hire wudewan reaf, & hi sylfe geglængede mid golde, & mid purpuran, & mid ænlicum gyrlum.”

15 Lee, VIII, section 3c.

16 P. Schaff and H. Wace (eds.), St. Ambrose, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, second series, vol. 10 (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 81.

17 Lee, VII, section 3c.

18 ”Nimað eow bysne be þyssere Judith, hu clænlice heo leofode ær Cristes accennednysse.”

19 Lee, VIII, section 3d.

20 W. W. Skeat, Ælfric‘s Lives of Saints: A Supplementary Collection, EETS, OS 76, 82, 94, 114, 4 vols. (London: N. Trübner & Co., 1881–1900) repr. in 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), XIII, ll. 147–55.

21 Schaff and Wace, pp. 397–98.

22 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1886), p. 20.

23 In the London, BL, MS. Cotton hundred and fifty lines of the poem open on a half-line and then fifteen lines later the number ”X” appears, this ”tenth chapter” (ll. 15–124) is complete, as is the ”eleventh chapter” marked XI (ll. 125–135) and the ”twelfth chapter” marked XII, of which lines 236–350 remain. See Rosemary Woolf, ”The Lost Opening of Judith,” Modern Language Review, 50 (1995), pp. 168–72.

24 For more on different patristic interpretations of Judith see accessed on 3/13/08.

25 For translation see accessed on 3/2/08. Prudentius, Psychomachia, 63.

26 Jackson J. Campbell, ”Schematic Technique in Judith,” ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, 38 (1971), pp. 155–72, at 156.

27 The pronoun is always used for Judith at this point, with two exceptions, whereshe is referred to as curly-haired, which most likely denotes that she is a Jew because the Israelites at a later point in the poem are referred to collectively as the curly-haired ones (l. 325).

28 ”On hire wæs gefylled þæs hælendes cwyde: Ælc þe hine ahefð sceal beon ge-eadmet, & se ðe hine geeadmet sceal beon ahafen.”

29 Claire Donovan, The Winchester Bible (Toronto, Canada, and Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 17.

30 Walter Oakshott, The Artists of the Winchester Bible (London: Faber & Faber, 1945), p. 1.

31 Donovan (1993), p. 23.

32 Donovan (1993), p. 28.

33 Donovan (1993), pp. 23–4.


Tracey-Anne Cooper is Assistant Professor at the Department of History, St. John’s University, Queens. Her publications include ”Basan and Bata: The Occupational Surnames of Two Pre-Conquest Monks of Canterbury” (2004); ”Two Previously Unrecorded Marginal Illustrations in Cotton Tiberius A. iii” (2005); ”Tovi the Proud’s Irregular Use of the Good Friday Liturgy” (2005); ”The Homilies of a Pragmatic Archbishop’s Handbook in Context: Cotton Tiberius A. iii” (2006); ”Lay Piety, Pastoral Care and the Compiler’s Method in Late Anglo-Saxon England” (2006); ”Why is St. Margaret’s the Only Saint’s Life in London BL, Cotton Tiberius A. iii?” (forthcoming) and ”Inculcating the Inner Heart of the Laity in Pre-Conquest England” (2008).


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search