Judith

Judith
(ca. 950)
   Judith is an OLD ENGLISH poem retelling the story of the apocryphal Old Testament book of Judith as written in the Vulgate Bible. The anonymous poet applies the heroic style and attitudes of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry to the story of the Jewish heroine Judith, who saves her people from the Assyrian army through her own courage and faith in God. The actively heroic female protagonist is unusual in Old English literature.
   Judith immediately follows the text of BEOWULF in the famous COTTON VITELLIUS A.XV manuscript. The text as it survives is fragmentary. It begins with an incomplete line and runs another 349 lines. The numerals X, XI, and XII appear in the margins, suggesting that the original poem consisted of 12 divisions of “fits,” and that we have only the last three and a small portion of fit IX. Scholars have suggested that the complete poem must have consisted of some 1,200 or 1,300 lines, with each fit containing 100 lines or so.But other scholars believe that we have very nearly the entire poem: The opening that we have is echoed in the closing lines of the poem, focusing on Judith’s confidence in God’s grace. Further, the poet’s adaptation of the book of Judith focuses freely on episodes that conform easily to Old English poetic conventions, like battle scenes and scenes in the Assyrian general Holofernes’s banquet, portrayed as in a Germanic mead hall. The parts of the source that detract from the pure narrative—the long exposition and background to the war with Assyria, and Judith’s long hymn of thanksgiving to God that ends the book—are the parts that are missing from the extant poem. It is quite possible that the poet never included them.
   The poem as we have it begins as Judith is invited to a feast in the Assyrian camp. After much carousing the Assyrian soldiers bring the beautiful virgin Judith to the tent of their general Holofernes, who, drunk with wine, falls into a stupor. At this point Judith, anachronistically invoking the Holy Trinity in her prayer for heaven’s help, draws a sword she has concealed and with two blows hacks off the Assyrian’s head. She and her maid conceal the head and make their way back to the besieged city of Bethulia. Here she shows her kinsmen the general’s head and urges them to take arms and attack the Assyrian encampment. Stunned by the sudden attack, the Assyrian soldiers turn to their general and find his decapitated body, at which point they flee, and the poem ends with their destruction by the Jewish defenders of Bethulia.
   The poet’s style is vivid and focuses on action. Only two characters are named in the poem, thus emphasizing the diametric opposition of Judith and Holofernes. The poet expands details of the battle and portrays Holofernes as a degenerate version of a Germanic leader in his hall, entertaining his retainers. The internal rhyme and use of unusually long alliterative lines suggest that the poem was written late in the Old English period, probably in 10th-century Wessex. At that time the figure of Judith was commonly used as an example to Christian women to be chaste and to resist bravely the devil. But particularly in the later 10th century, during the period of increased Viking invasions under the reign of Ethelred “the Unready,” Judith became a model of resistance, so that AELFRIC, for example, cites her as a figure of armed defense against heathen foreign invaders. It is likely the Judith poet had the same kind of encouragement in mind. Attempts to link the character of Judith to a historical woman, like Queen Aethelfled of Mercia (d. 918)—famed for victorious battles against the Danes—have not won widespread scholarly consensus. But the poet certainly hoped to arouse a similar martial spirit in his readers.
   Bibliography
   ■ Beowulf and Judith. Edited by Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie. Vol. 4, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.
   ■ Godden,Malcolm. “Biblical Literature: The Old Testament,” in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 206–226.
   ■ Harmann, J. P. “The Theme of Spiritual Warfare in Old English Judith,” Philological Quarterly 55 (1976): 1–9.
   ■ Kaske, R. E.“Sapientia et Fortitudo in the Old English Judith.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, edited by Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel, 13–29. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications,Western Michigan University, 1982.
   ■ Nelson,Marie, trans. Judith, Juliana, and Elene: Three Fighting Saints. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.
   ■ Woolf, R. “The Lost Opening to the Judith,” Modern Language Review 50 (1955): 168–172.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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