Judith Essay - Critical Essays




Old English poem fragment.

The 349-line poetic fragment Judith, which is found in the same manuscript as the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, is an adaptation of the biblical Book of Judith. The poem tells the story of the victory of Judith of Bethulia over the Assyrian general Holofernes. Like Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems, Judith stresses heroism and focuses on battle and the trappings of warfare. It also explores the complex position of a female hero and God's deliverance of the righteous against their enemies. The authorship and dating of the fragment is uncertain, and critics have disagreed on the historical circumstances surrounding its composition. In addition to discussing the questions of its composition, biblical source, fragmentary nature, narrative style, themes of spirituality and morality, and use of language, scholars have been interested in the work as one of the first depictions of a female hero in English literature.

Textual History

The fragment Judith survives in what is known as MS Cotton Vitellius A xv, the late tenth-century codex containing Beowulf. The author and date of the fragment are unknown, but some scholars have suggested that it is closely allied in theme to poems by the author Cynewulf and his school and thus must have been composed in the early part of the ninth century. Others attribute it to Caedmon, who died around 670. A close investigation of the diction in the fragment led critic Gregory Foster to place it around 918. He suggests that the poem was composed as a eulogy of Aethelflaed, Queen of Mercia, who fought nobly against the Danes in the early part of the tenth century. The work is almost certainly composed by a man, as there is no evidence of female poets writing during the Anglo-Saxon era.

Plot and Major Characters

The action of Judith concerns the beheading of the Assyrian general Holofernes and the triumph of the Jews over their Assyrian oppressors. While the story is taken from the Book of Judith, which is considered canonical by the Catholic Church but not by Protestants, the poem is an adaptation rather than a translation of the biblical version. As it has survived, Judith begins at the end of the ninth canto. Cantos X, XI, and XII are preserved in full, but the earlier part of the poem is entirely gone. Most scholars tend to agree that the cantos that remain contain the crisis of the story and are probably the finest in the entire work. They also deal with a complete episode. Canto IX serves as a preface to the work, setting the scene for the action to follow. Canto X describes the drunken feast in the Assyrian camp, during which Holofernes orders that the beautiful Jewish widow, Judith, with whom he has become enamoured, be brought to his bed. The poet in this section illustrates the banquet in great detail, describing deep bowls of wine and the laughter of the revelers. The warriors bring Judith to their master's tent, but he falls into a drunken sleep. Judith prays to heaven for help, draws her sword from its sheath, grabs the general by his hair, and cuts off his head. Canto XI relates how Judith and her maid escape from the camp with the head of Holofernes and return to Bethulia, where their kinsmen await them. The maid reveals the head of Holofernes to the Bethulian warriors, and Judith passionately exhorts them to attack the Assyrian camp. At dawn they set out, where they come upon the enemy warriors, who are drowsy from the previous night's revelry. Canto XII tells of how the terrified Assyrians go to their leader to inform him of the assault, only to find his dead body. The Assyrians are overthrown and the Jews return with their booty to Bethulia. The poem ends with Judith's prayer of submission and praise to her God.

Major Themes

Despite its fragmentary state, Judith exhibits remarkable dramatic and thematic unity. The extant fragment begins and ends with praise and supplication to God. The action that follows is a battle between good and evil, between a woman and a man, between a Christian heroine and a pagan oppressor. The Old English version of the story differs considerably from the biblical source; in the original, Judith uses seduction and feminine wiles to undo her enemy, in the Anglo-Saxon poem she uses physical and spiritual courage to rescue herself, her honor, and her people. The Old English poet does not present Judith as a devious seductress as portrayed in the original, but rather concentrates on Judith's submission to God and her Christian heroism. The major focus of the poem, then, is heroism, and the main themes explored are spiritual warfare, Christian versus pagan morality, courage, and the affirmation of faith in God.

Critical Reception

Only some 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive today, with Judith constituting just over one percent of that number. For this reason alone it is regarded as an important work, as it provides modern readers with a glimpse into Anglo-Saxon life, language, religion, and culture. The Beowulf manuscript in which it appears was not discovered until the sixteenth century and it was only in the nineteenth century that critics began to devote attention to Judith as a work of literature rather than as strictly an historical document. Since then, scholars have investigated issues such as the composition and dating of the poem as well as the work's inventive narrative style and uncommon use of meter. One distinctive feature of Judith and other Old English poems is the extensive use of synonyms. Many critics have found this to be a flaw from a stylistic perspective, arguing that the lack of conciseness that results from this practice delays the action and casts an air of vagueness about the heroine. Others, however, have found the poet's use of simple sentences layered with synonyms a powerful device that gives the work an intensity it otherwise would not have. Further issues that critics have taken up regarding the poem are the manner in which it adapts a biblical source in Anglo-Saxon cultural terms, its presentation of gender roles, and how it compares with other versions of the Judith story, notably Aelfric's Homily on Judith from the tenth century.

Principal Works

Judith (edited by L. G. Nilson) 1858

Judith: An Old English Epic Fragment (edited by A. S. Cook) 1888

Beowulf and Judith (edited by Eliot V. Dobbie) 1953

Beowulf and Judith (edited by A. J. Wyatt) 1954

Beowulf and Judith (edited by Richard M. Trask) 1997


Albert S. Cook (essay date 1889)

SOURCE: Cook, Albert S. Introduction to Judith: An Old English Epic Fragment, pp. xv-lxxiii. Boston, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath & Co., 1889.

[In the following excerpt, Cook analyzes the literary qualities of Judith, including its character portrayals, narrative structure, and use of poetic devices.]

The modes in which the poet's art [in Judith] is displayed may be considered under the four heads of Selection, Arrangement, Amplification, and Invention. To these might be added his mastery of language and skill in the handling of metre.


The characters are limited to three,—Judith, Holofernes, and...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)

B. J. Timmer (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Timmer, B. J. Introduction to Judith, edited by B. J. Timmer, pp. 1-16. Exeter, Eng.: University of Exeter, 1978.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Timmer surveys previous scholarly perspectives on Judith and offers his own theory regarding the work's date as well as comments on its literary merits.]


Judith is a good example of the difficulty of assigning a date to Old English poetry, for it has been put at various dates from the seventh to the tenth century or even later. Some of the earlier editors ascribed it to Cædmon, others to Cynewulf or his school. Both these theories may now be rejected...

(The entire section is 3350 words.)

Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk. Introduction to Beowulf and Judith, edited by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, pp. ix-lxxiv. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.

[In the following essay, Dobbie offers an overview of the scholarship on Judith, discussing its biblical source, fragmentary nature, date and circumstances of composition, and poetic elements.]


[T]he 349 lines of Judith which are still preserved are no more than a fragment of what was once a much longer work. The original length of the poem may be estimated from two bodies of evidence: (1) the relation of the extant text to the poet's source, and (2) the...

(The entire section is 3046 words.)

Bernard F. Huppé (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Huppé, Bernard F. “Judith.” In The Web of Words: Structural Analyses of the Old English Poems Vainglory, The Wonder of Creation, The Dream of the Rood, and Judith, pp. 114-90. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Huppe reviews the historical and biblical background of Judith.]

The beginning of the Judith is lost, but how much is lost is a matter of debate. On the one hand the amount of loss is assumed by A. S. Cook to be negligible, the poem being “virtually complete as it now is.” On the other hand, B. J. Timmer considers that the surviving lines constitute merely the last fourth of a poem...

(The entire section is 6075 words.)

Jane Mushabac (essay date spring 1973)

SOURCE: Mushabac, Jane. “Judith and the Theme of Sapientia et Fortitudo.Massachusetts Studies in English 4, no. 1 (spring 1973): 3-12.

[In the following essay, Mushabac discusses the defining traits of heroism as embodied in the eponymous protagonist of Judith.]

The Apocryphal Book of Judith is adjudged to have been written during the last two centuries B.C. by a learned Jew1 considerably influenced by Hellenistic style and motifs.2 Since then the story it tells has been the subject for many interpretations and retellings which as we would expect reflect the concerns of the particular age in which they were written. Among...

(The entire section is 5487 words.)

Burton Raffel (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Raffel, Burton. “Judith: Hypermetricity and Rhetoric.” In Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation, edited by Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese, pp. 124-34. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Raffel reflects on the reasons for his “disquiet” while translating Judith into modern English and explores some of the problematic aspects of the poem.]

I hope it will not seem sententious if I explain that the validity of literary criticism depends, for me, on there being some substantial connection between the critic's criticism and his own interior world. My purpose in this essay, in...

(The entire section is 4600 words.)

John P. Hermann (essay date winter 1976)

SOURCE: Hermann, John P. “The Theme of Spiritual Warfare in the Old English Judith.Philological Quarterly 55, no. 1 (winter 1976): 1-9.

[In the following essay, Hermann argues that the controlling principle underlying much of the characterization and selection of narrative events in Judith is the theme of spiritual warfare and not, as many scholars have argued, moral rectitude.]

When Judith, recently returned from the decollation of Holofernes, formulates strategy for the upcoming battle with the Assyrians, it is clear in the Vulgate that the daybreak sortie she orders the Bethulians to make is not intended to bring victory in and of itself. It is...

(The entire section is 3218 words.)

Elizabeth M. Tyler (essay date March 1992)

SOURCE: Tyler, Elizabeth M. “Style and Meaning in Judith.Notes & Queries 39, no. 1 (March 1992): 16-19.

[In the following essay, Tyler provides a brief study of the relationship between style and theme in Judith.]

Even the most casual reading of the Old English poem Judith cannot help but reveal the poet's repetition of key words and phrases. In this paper I will consider the poet's use of heroic language and language which describes the state of the mind or spirit in the light of the importance of style for conveying meaning in Old English poetry. Close attention to the style of Judith, which brings to the surface levels of meaning the...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)

Peter J. Lucas (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Lucas, Peter J. “Judith and the Woman Hero.” Yearbook of English Studies 22 (1992): 17-27.

[In the following essay, Lucas maintains that the character of Judith in the Old English poem transcends interpretations of her as a seductress, virgin beauty, and figure of the church, claiming that she illustrates the theme of the power of faith that could not have been achieved in a male hero.]

Who yaf Judith corage or hardynesse
To sleen hym Olofernus in his tente,
And to deliveren out of wrecchednesse
The peple of God?(1)

According to Christina of Markyate Judith, the chaste widow celebrated for her victory over the devil of lust, was a...

(The entire section is 5744 words.)

Alfred G. Litton (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Litton, Alfred G. “The Heroine as Hero: Gender Reversal in the Anglo-Saxon Judith.CEA Critic 56, no. 1 (fall 1993): 35-44.

[In the following essay, Litton examines what he views as a fascination with gender role reversal on the part of the anonymous author of Judith.]

Few literary scholars, when asked to cite examples of works containing complex male-female relationships or works presenting intriguing issues concerning gender roles, would immediately summon to mind the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon period. Indeed, most readers are accustomed to viewing the typical female character in Anglo-Saxon poems as the sort of stoic helpmate who, as Tacitus...

(The entire section is 4045 words.)

Christopher Fee (essay date September 1997)

SOURCE: Fee, Christopher. “Judith and the Rhetoric of Heroism in Anglo-Saxon England.” English Studies 5 (September 1997): 401-6.

[In the following essay, Fee maintains that the heroism of Judith in the Old English poem was altered from the Vulgate original to conform with Anglo-Saxon cultural ideals and expectations.]

The Old English Judith differs from the Liber Iudith of the Vulgate at several crucial points, and in one particularly important way. In the Vulgate version of the story, Judith is a heroine in every sense of the word: she is a tropological symbol of Chastity at battle with Licentiousness, an allegorical symbol of the Church in...

(The entire section is 3211 words.)

Further Reading


DeLacy, Paul. “Aspects of Christianisation and Cultural Adaptation in the Old English Judith.Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 97, no. 4 (1996): 393-410.

Discusses Judith as an example of Anglo-Saxon poetic practice with respect to the adaptation of religious works.

Foster, Thomas Gregory. Judith: Studies in Metre, Language and Style. Strassburg, Austria: Quellen und Forschungen, 1892, 103 p.

Important early study that attempts to date the fragment based on internal evidence.

Fry, Donald K. “Imagery and Point of View in Judith 200b-231.” English Language...

(The entire section is 367 words.)