In what ways is Judith a Germanic Hero? How does she follow the Germanic-Heroic Code?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Insofar as the poem Judith was discovered with the Beowulf manuscript, and given that the latter is considered the template for the notion of the Germanic hero, it is fair to suggest that the figure of Judith does qualify as a Germanic hero in her own right – or, at least, was intended to fall under that category.  In his study on the subject, The German Hero: Politics and Pragmatism in Early Medieval Poetry, Brian Murdoch defines “German hero,” in the literary context, as a warrior “characterized in literature by the part he plays within a set of predetermined political and social constraints.  Although concerned with the preservation of his reputation . . . he is not a sword-wielding barbarian concerned solely with how to establish his own fame. . .The hero must conquer the blows that fate aims against his own person because he is committed, too, to the conquest of chaos.”  Most discussions of the Germanic Heroic Code agree that the code defines the proper ways to behave on the part of a noble, and that physical strength, honor, courage, and courtly behavior are all characteristic of the code. [See, for instance, Kelly Guenther, “The Old English Judith: Can a Woman be a Hero?”]

While Judith is, obviously, a woman, and as the quintessential Germanic hero is typically male, the question does arise as to whether the author, writing in the time and place presupposed, would dare to make a female figure of such heroic stature.  Judith is a beautiful woman who kills her enemy not by vanquishing him on the field of battle, but through her feminine prowess.  She decapitates Holofernes while he’s passed out drunk -- hardly the stuff from which legends are made.  What qualifies for distinction, however, is the manner in which she arises from her mourning over the death of her husband, during which she has devoted herself to worship of the Lord – an important consideration in discussions of the Code – to confront the threat to her people that arises with the march of Holofernes and his huge army.  In Chapter 8, the author depicts Judith in this solemn state:

“4. And Judith his relict was a widow now three years and six months. 5. And she made herself a private chamber in the upper part of her house, in which she abode shut up with her maids. 6. And she wore haircloth upon her loins, and fasted all the days of her life, except the sabbaths, and new moons, and the feasts of the house of Israel. 7. And she was exceedingly beautiful, and her husband left her great riches . . . 8. And she was greatly renowned among all, because she feared the Lord very much . . .”

And, in the following chapter, Judith arises from her self-imposed isolation to confront the threat:

“1. And when they were gone, Judith went into her oratory: and putting on haircloth, laid ashes on her head: and falling down prostrate before the Lord, she cried to the Lord, saying: 2. O Lord God of my father Simeon, who gavest him a sword to execute vengeance against strangers, who had defiled by their uncleanness, and uncovered the virgin unto confusion:”

Holofernes is commaning an army numbering 120,000 fighting men on foot, plus another 12,000 archers and horsemen.  In short, he commands seemingly invincible military force against which Judity and the good folks of Bethulia seem as helpless as all of the other nations over which Holofernes has trampled, slaughtered and looted.  The author of the poem, however, emphasizes the moral righteousness of Judith’s cause, following a description of the human toll taken by Holofernes campaign with the fealty of the Bethulians to God and their request for a quick and relatively painless death:

“17. We call to witness this day heaven and earth, and the God of our fathers, who taketh vengeance upon us according to our sins, conjuring you to deliver now the city into the hand of the army of Holofernes, that our end may be short by the edge of the sword . . . 18. And when they had said these things, there was great weeping and lamentation of all in the assembly, and for many hours with one voice they cried to God, saying: 19. We have sinned with our fathers we have done unjustly, we have commited iniquity: 20. Have thou mercy on us, because thou art good, or punish our iniquities by chastising us thyself, and deliver not them that trust in thee to a people that knoweth not thee . . .”

Judith, though, has a sense of her role in history and of the mission upon which she must now embark.  Again, in Chapter 8, the author sanctions that mission, ensuring that this female leader acts with the blessings of God despite the apparent plethora of sins for which her people are responsible:

“28. And Ozias and the ancients said to her: All things which thou hast spoken are true, and there is nothing to be reprehended in thy words. 29. Now therefore pray for us, for thou art a holy woman, and one fearing God. 30. And Judith said to them: As you know that what I have been able to say is of God: 31. So that which I intend to do prove ye if it be of God, and pray that God may strengthen my design.”

To reiterate, Judith tells the tale of a woman who emerges from three-plus years of mourning to confront the existential threat facing her people.  She exhibits moral piety, leadership, courage, resourcefulness, honor, and sufficient physical strength to decapitate another human being.  She is driven by a mission sanctified by God.  All in all, she qualifies as a Germanic hero under the code defining that category of humanity.

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