Judith Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.