July 17, 2010

The story of Judith is a medieval reworking of a biblical text, considered apocryphal to Protestants but an official part of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). One third of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic texts are biblical in nature, and Judith is a paragon of the genre.

Though the poet is unknown and the first (likely 100) lines of the text is lost, Judith recounts the story of a prudent and god-fearing woman, whose name is the title of the work, who uses her beauty to enter the enemy’s camp. Her people, the Jews of Bethulia, had fallen under the attack of one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s generals, the nefarious Holofernes. Her people in distress, Judith entices Holofernes by her pulchritude and becomes a mistress unto him. One night, after bacchanalian excess, Holofernes requests to sleep with Judith. She waits in his bed not anticipating sex but with a sword in hand which she uses to decapitate him in two strokes. Taking his head with her in a sack, she leaves Holofernes’s camp and returns to her own people, informing them of the timeliness of a prompt attack. The Jews attack their captors with much success, as the leaders of the enemy’s army fruitlessly wait around the perimeter of Holofernes’ shrouded bed for him to wake, the net of which allows only Holofernes to look out and none to look in. By the time one man finally musters the bravery to open the bed shroud, he sees his decapitated captain and laments the inevitable doom that will befall them all. The Jews do win the battle, appropriating the enemy’s riches and weapons. Judith receives both Holofernes’s armor and the assurance that she will dwell in the eternities with God.


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