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Judith (poem)

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Judith (poem)

The Old English poem Judith describes the beheading of Assyrian general Holofernes by Israelite Judith of Bethulia. It is found in the same manuscript as the heroic poem Beowulf, the Nowell Codex (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A. XV), dated ca. 975-1025. The Old English poem is one of many retellings of the Holofernes–Judith tale as it was found in the Book of Judith, still present in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles. Most notably, Ælfric of Eynsham, late 10th-century Anglo-Saxon abbot and writer, composed a homily (in prose) of the tale.


  • History and incompleteness 1
  • Plot, structure and themes 2
  • Destruction and preservation 3
  • Authorship and date 4
    • Bibliography 4.1
    • Works cited 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

History and incompleteness

Judith was first discovered as an appendage to the Nowell Codex. Though it is certain that the poem is a derivative of the Book of Judith, still present in the Roman Catholic Bible, its authorship and year of origin remain a mystery.

The poem is incomplete: the version in the manuscript is 348 lines long, divided in three sections marked with the numbers X, XI, and XII. The numbers correspond to the 10th verse of chapter twelve, the 11th verse of chapter thirteen, and the 12th verse of chapter fourteen. Only the last three out of twelve cantos have been preserved. What remains of the poem opens in the middle of a banquet. Had the first nine cantos been preserved, it is often thought that Judith would be considered one of the most laudable Old English works (Cook, pg. lxxvi-lxxvii). What is certain about the origin of the poem is that it stems from the Book of Judith. After the Reformation, the Book of Judith was removed from the Protestant Bible. However, it is still present in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. Many discrepancies exist between the poem and Book, most notably in regards to the portrayal of Holofernes and the exaggeration of Judith’s righteousness in the poem (Marsden, pg. 147).

Plot, structure and themes

Similar to Beowulf, Judith conveys a moral tale of heroic triumph over monstrous beings. Both moral and political, the poem tells of a brave woman’s efforts to save and protect her people. Judith is depicted as an exemplar woman, grounded by ideal morale, probity, courage, and religious conviction. Judith's character is rendered blameless and virtuous, and her beauty is praised persistently throughout the poem. In line 109, Judith is referred to as an ides ellenrof, which translates as brave woman. The author also gives her the entitlement of a 'halige meowle' (line 56), which translates as holy woman, a 'snoteran idese' (line 55), which translates as wise woman, whilst her appearance is described as 'aelfscinu' (line 13), which translates as 'elf-shining'. Although Judith commits murder in the poem, she is constantly doused with a saintly light. Holofernes adopts the archetypal monstrous image, further pulling any convictions of wrongdoing away from Judith. In the Book of Judith, Holofernes is depicted as a babbling drunkard. However, the poet renders him a representation of evil. And thus, in carrying out her plan to kill him, Judith becomes a hero. Portraying the epitome of Germanic heroism, Judith was likely composed during a time of war as a model for the Anglo-Saxon people. The Abbot Ælfric similarly created his own homiletic interpretation of the Book of Judith. At the time of his creation, Vikings were ransacking England. Ælfric professed that Judith was to serve as an example to the people. In a letter, Ælfric wrote: “þeo is eac on English on ure wisan iset eow mannum to bisne, þet ge eower eard mid wæpnum beweriæn wið onwinnende here.” Translated into modern English, the phrase reads: “It is also set as an example for you in English according to our style, so that you will defend your land with weapons against an attacking force” (Nelson, pg. 47). Ælfric’s Judith is quite similar to that of the poem; and furthermore, the characters seem to have served the same purpose—to stand as an example to the people in a time of war. Judith’s city of Bethulia was being plundered by Assyrians. Holofernes was an Assyrian general and king, often drunk and constantly monstrous. Judith hatched a plan to save the Israelites and Bethulia. As Holofernes was often drunk, Judith anticipated that he would attempt to seduce her. She pretended to be charmed by Holofernes, allowing herself to be taken to his bedroom. When the unsuspecting Holofernes fell into a drunken slumber, Judith severed his head with a sword. Thereafter, she proudly displayed his head to her Hebrew army and led them into a victorious battle against the Assyrians. In the Book of Judith, though, the Assyrians simply fled Bethulia after discovering the deceased body of Holofernes (Marsden, pg. 148).

Destruction and preservation

The only existing copy of the poem is in the Beowulf manuscript, immediately following Beowulf. Damage to the manuscript was caused by the Cotton fire of 1731 and readings have been lost. In order to account for these lost words, modern editions of the poem are supplemented by references to Edward Thwaites' 1698 edition.[1]

Authorship and date

The consensus held by modern scholars allocates Judith to the authorship of Cynewulf, though several opposing theories have been proposed. The atypical absence of Cynewulf’s runic signature has led many not to attribute authorship to him (Nelson, pg. 4). Stylistically, the poem so strongly reflects the Cynewulfian school that it may just as likely been written by one of Cynewulf’s successors (Cook, pg. xx-xxi). The poem is also commonly thought to be the work to Cædmon, which would place it around 680 A.D. (Cook, pg. xvi). However, many other scholars believe the poem to have been written during various years between the eight and tenth centuries. The existing manuscript text of Judith, following Beowulf in the manuscript, was copied by the second of two scribes.


Campbell, J.J. "Schematic Technique in Judith". English Literary History 38 (1971), 155-72

Cambell’s writing details many differences between the Vulgate’s Judith and the Old English poem Judith. Campbell offers a clearer perspective on the character of Judith as it is represented quite differently by the two works.

Chamberlain, D. "Judith: a Fragmentary and Political Poem". Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard, ed. L. E. Nicholson and D. W. Frese (Notre Dame, IN, 1975),pp. 145–59.

Chamberlain’s section on Judith includes an introduction to the work, which discusses its history and significance. Additionally, Chamberlain includes the Old English text of Judith, along with several insightful footnotes and vocabulary assistance.

Clayton, M. Ælfric's Judith: manipulative or manipulated? (1994) pp. 215–227.

Clayton provides deep insight into the character of Judith. The components of her character are closely scrutinized, as Clayton assesses the influences that may have contributed to the building of her character.

Cook, A.S. Judith, an old English epic fragment. Edited, with introd., facsim., translation, complete glossary, and various indexes, (Heath, Boston, 1889)

Cook offers the original manuscript of Judith in Old English, followed by his own in-depth translation. Additionally, he provides a great deal of information on the history, source, grammar, and prosody of the poem. His personal analysis of Judith also relates the writing to others of the time period as well as works that have influenced and been influenced by the poem.

Cubitt, C. "Virginity and Misogyny in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England", Gender and History, Vol. 12. No. 1. (2000), pp. 14–18

Cubitt discusses the uniqueness of Judith in comparison to the other works of Ælfric’s other works. He also discusses various ideas of femininity and gender law in relation to the character of Judith and those idealistic during certain time periods.

Dobbie, E. "Beowulf and Judith", ASPR vol. 4 (Columbia University Press, New York, 1953)

Dobbie provides a great deal of historical facts for both Beowulf and Judith. The texts are displayed in Old English. A lengthy introduction to the texts, as well as an extensive note section succeeding the texts, is included.

Lee, S.D. Ælfric’s Homlies on Judith, Esther, and The Maccabees,

Lee provides a great deal of knowledge pertaining to the details of the manuscript, including manuscript details, style, themes, and sources. A glossary and great compilation of notes are also included.

Marsden, Richard. "Judith". The Cambridge Old English Reader. 1st ed. Ed. Richard Marsden. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pages 147-148.

Marsden provides an introduction to the poem "Judith." He discusses the origin and content of the poem, as well as its influence on war and culture.

Nelson, M. ed., Judith, Juliana, and Elene: Three fighting Saints, (Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1991)

Nelson compares the three female characters of Judith, Juliana, and Elene. In her analysis, she implements a great deal of religious history; thus, shedding light upon both gender expectations and religion, as well as the origins of such influences.

Works cited

  • Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge (1991).
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: “Book of Judith”
  • Kennedy, Charles W. Early English Christian Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
  • Medieval England: an Encyclopedia / editors: Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Pub., 1998.
  • Savelli, Mary. Judith: a Prose Translation. The United States Chapter of Þa Engliscan Gesiðas, 1997.
  • Smyth, Mary. “The Numbers in the Manuscript of the Old English Judith”. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 7. (Nov. 1905), pp. 197–199.
  • Woolf, R. E. "The Lost Opening to Judith". The Modern Language Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Apr. 1955), pp. 168–172.

See also


  1. ^ Szarmach 1998.

External links

  • in Old EnglishJudith
  • A translation of the poem into Modern English.
  • Full digital coverage of the manuscript on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website
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