Judith (poem)

Judith (poem)

Judith is an Old English poetic Biblical paraphrase retelling the story of the beheading of Holofernes, an Assyrian military leader, by the eponymous heroine, as recorded in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith.


The manuscript is 348 lines long and it features 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. In each of these places (where the number is seen) fits the corresponding section of the biblical Judith. This sparks an argument among scholars as to whether the other parts of the poem were lost or if it was author intention to solely include these most crucial sections. (Smyth) The lines that would be missing from the poem, if they are actually missing would be approximately 850, and the lines would be summarized in the following manner: The town of Bethulia has been seized by Holofernes the Assyrian general. Unless God has the ability to save them with a miracle, the town will surrender in five days. A widow named Judith chastises the town for not putting trust and faith in God and tells them she has a plan and that before making any radical decisions, they should wait for her return. She travels to Holofernes, and offers the town’s secrets to ease the capture, and prevent him from losing men. Because of her beauty, Holofernes believes her when she explains it is her intention to tell him this information for Gods sake. She tells him it is the will of God to punish the people of the town. She stays for four days, and Judith, with her beauty, has captured the attention of Holofernes. The Old English poem begins on the last night of her stay (the fifth day), and it is on the night when Holofernes sends his servant to summon Judith to come to his bed (Szarmach)


Biblical Structures are easily seen with the Old English poem. The poet exploits ideals of the hero and expresses approval for Judith and the Bethulians. In effect, he is also expressing condemnation for the Assyrians and their general Holofernes. (Szarmach) Judith is seen as a figure of the people of God living in a world of hostility. (Szarmach) She saves her people from the Assyrian army by executing Holofernes (the general of the Assyrians) (Lapidge) In the Judith biblical text, this method of executing Holofernes is consistent. It has been noted by scholars that this poem, and its use of Judith as a symbol of ultimate faith and courage, is a direct call to the English to rise up and fight against the armies that have threatened them. The poem has been influenced by “patristic interpretations” of the Liber Judith and by Latin hagiography (Savelli).


The only existing copy of the poem is in the Beowulf manuscript. However, it is impossible to draw any true conclusions as to the original length of the poem (Szarmach). Many believe the poem is complete, while others believe about 100 lines are missing from its original composition. This is mostly drawn out of the conclusion that it only covers about one-fourth of the book of Judith, namely chapters 12-15. However, there are some inconsistencies (Szarmach). Those who believe the OE Judith poem is incomplete also note that it differs from the final chapter of the book of Judith (Lapidge). In the actual biblical text, upon returning from the execution, Judith is greeted and blessed by Ozias. Then, she finds Achior to praise him and his faith in the Jewish God. Since this is omitted in the poem, some scholars argue that none of the text has been lost; instead, it was just the author’s intention to include the chapters he included (Woolf).


The poem was written anonymously. Judith was originally copied by the second of the two scribes that wrote the text of Beowulf, but the parts were originally separate (Szarmach). Now, Judith can be found in BL Cotton Vitellius A.xv and it comes directly after Beowulf. Damage to the manuscript was caused by the Cotton fire of 1731 and therefore, there are places where it is impossible to note the exact words of the author. In order to account for these lost words in the manuscript where the text was affected by the fire, modern editions of the poem are supplemented by references to Edward Thwaites edition, an edition that was written in 1698 (Szarmach). Some believe the poem is close in theme to the author Cynewulf, and due to this, must have been written around the ninth century. However, some believe the poem’s style and content should be attributed to Caedmon, who died in the later part of the 7th century (Savelli).

Works Cited

Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge (1991).

Catholic Encyclopedia: “Book of Judith”Available: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08554a.htm

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. Available: http://www.dnaco.net/~sirbill/Judith.htm

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.

External links

Old English poem: [http://www8.georgetown.edu/departments/medieval/labyrinth/library/oe/texts/a4.2.html]


*Mark Griffith, University of Exeter Press, 1997, ISBN 0-85989-568-8

ee also

* Judith (homily), the other major Anglo-Saxon retelling of the story.
* A [http://www.dnaco.net/~sirbill/Judith.htm translation] of the poem into Modern English.

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