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Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 975

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Summary and Study Guide


Judith is a war epic, written originally in Old English, that dates to the late 10th century. It tells the story of military resistance and deliverance against enormous odds. Addressed to the Anglo-Saxon Christian communities along the eastern coast of England terrified by the perpetual threat of invasions by armadas of Viking marauders from Northern Europe, Judith drew on a familiar archetypal figure, the eponymous heroine from the Old Testament’s Book of Judith, a courageous Jewish widow renowned for leading a triumphant resistance against an invading Assyrian army. In retelling the story of the victory of the Israelites, led by Judith, against the overwhelming power of the pagan Assyrians, Judith was most likely designed to inspire its contemporary community to rally together and stand strong against the nearly constant threat of armies from the pagan north.

In using the towering figure of Judith, the poem challenges entrenched gender stereotypes. The victory against the Assyrians is led by a woman of uncommon moral strength, savvy resourcefulness, and profound faith. Although the poem, at more than 300 lines, survives today only as a fragment, it creates a grand portrait of the cunning, courage, and faith of Judith as she singlehandedly beheads a powerful Assyrian general and then inspires her native city of Bethulia to attack and defeat the leaderless Assyrians. Contemporary Medieval scholars debate the authorship of the epic, but its message is timeless: Any threatened community will find its strength of purpose through virtuous leadership—no matter the gender—and through unshakeable trust in the power of God.

Note: This guide uses the translation of the poem that appears in Cosette Faust and Stith Thompson’s Old English Poems anthology, published by Scott, Foresman and Company in 1918. This translation splits the poem into seven named parts that do not appear in the original manuscript.

Poet Biography

The author of Judith is a matter of speculation. The original manuscript of the poem was recovered in the mid-16th century by Professor Laurence Nowell (1530-1572), an Oxford-trained Medieval scholar known for his pioneering work gathering Medieval manuscripts written in Old English and translating them into Latin. The codex, or collection of manuscripts, that contained Judith—now known as the Nowell Codex and among the most important holdings of The British Library—also contained the only extant version of the iconic war epic Beowulf.

Because of that connection (Judith actually follows Beowulf in the codex), speculation about the author of Judith reflects similar speculations about the author of Beowulf. That speculation centers on the early Medieval poet Cynewulf, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets known by name. Both epics suggest the work of a highly educated cleric—Cynewulf was a bishop for the missionary Christian churches in 10th-century England. Both works were preserved on vellum, carefully prepared calfskins, an expensive process that, unlike parchment, was designed to last.

More significant, Beowulf and Judith reflect similar narrative and thematic interests. Both poems are epic battle narratives informed by Christian faith in an all-powerful God who directs the vanquishing of a menacing pagan foe. Despite their vivid recreations of battle scenes, both are moral tales that center on the showdown between an unlikely but morally upstanding hero and a dark force of monstrous villainy. Stylistically, both works reflect a deft use of alliteration—repeated initial sounds in neighboring words—to create a subtle sonic effect.

Despite any similarities or authorship theories, none of the four poems collected in the Nowell Codex bear any author’s name. The name or names were either lost to time or intentionally omitted, reflecting the potential aim of these works to focus on the poems’ moral lessons rather than on the poet’s identity.

Poem text

1. The Feast

She doubted [not] the gifts

In this wide world. There worthily she found

Help at the hands of the Lord, when she had the highest need,

Grace from God on high, that against the greatest of dangers

The Lord of Hosts should protect her; for this the Heavenly Father

Graciously granted her wish, for she had given true faith

To the holy Ruler of heaven.

Holofernes then, I am told,

Called his warriors to a wine-feast and a wondrous and glorious

Banquet prepared. To this the prince of men

Bade the bravest of thanes. Then with bold haste

To the powerful prince came the proud shield-warriors,

Before the chief of the folk. That was the fourth day

Since the gentle Judith, just in her thoughts,

Of fairy-like beauty, was brought to the king.

Then they sought the assembly to sit at the banquet,

Proud to the wine-pouring, all his partners in woe,

Bold burnie-warriors. Bowls large and deep

Were borne along the benches; beakers also and flagons

Full to the feasters. Fated they drank it,

Renowned shield-knights, though he knew not their doom,

The hateful lord of heroes. Holofernes, the king,

Bestower of jewels, took joy in the wine-pouring,

Howled and hurled forth a hideous din

That the folk of the earth from afar might hear

How the stalwart and strong-minded stormed and bellowed,

Maddened by mead-drink; he demanded full oft

That the brave bench-sitters should bear themselves well.

So the hellish demon through the whole of the day

Drenched with drink his dear companions,

The cruel gold-king, till unconscious they lay,

All drunk his doughty ones, as if in death they were slain,

Every good gone from them.

2. The Slaying of Holofernes

He gave then commands

To serve the hall-sitters till descending upon them

Dark night came near. The ignoble one ordered

The blessed maiden, burdened with jewels,

Freighted with rings, to be fetched in all haste

To his hated bedside. His behest they performed,

His corps of retainers —the commands of their lord,

Chief of the champions. Cheerfully they stepped

To the royal guest-room, where full ready they found

The queenly Judith, and quickly then

The goodly knights began to lead

The holy maiden to the high tent,

Where the rich ruler rested always,

Lay him at night, loathsome to God,

Holofernes. There hung an all-golden

Radiant fly-net around the folk-chief’s

Bed embroidered; so that the baleful one,

The loathed leader, might look unhindered

On everyone of the warrior band

Who entered in, and on him none

Of the sons of men, unless some of his nobles,

Contrivers of crime, he called to his presence:

His barons to bring him advice. Then they bore to his rest

The wisest of women; went then the strong-hearted band

To make known to their master that the maiden of God

Was brought to his bower. Then blithe was the chief in his heart,

The builder of burg-steads; the bright maiden he planned

With loathsome filth to defile, but the Father of heaven knew

His purpose, the Prince of goodness and with power he restrained him,

God, the Wielder of Glory. Glad then the hateful one

Went with his riotous rout of retainers

Baleful to his bedside, where his blood should be spilled

Suddenly in a single night. Full surely his end approached

On earth ungentle, even as he lived,

Stern striver for evil, while still in this world

He dwelt under the roof of the clouds. Drunken with wine then he fell

In the midst of his regal rest so that he recked not of counsel

In the chamber of his mind; the champions stepped

Out of his presence and parted in haste,

The wine-sated warriors who went with the false one,

And the evil enemy of man ushered to bed

For the last time.

Then the Lord’s servant,

The mighty hand-maiden, was mindful in all things

How she most easily from the evil contriver

His life might snatch ere the lecherous deceiver,

The creature crime-laden awoke. The curly-locked maiden

Of God then seized the sword well ground,

Sharp from the hammers, and from its sheath drew it

With her right hand; heaven’s Guardian she began

To call by name, Creator of all

The dwellers in the world, and these words she spoke:

“O Heavenly God, and Holy Ghost,

Son of the Almighty, I will seek from Thee

Thy mercy unfailing to defend me from evil,

O Holiest Trinity. Truly for me now

Full sore is my soul and sorrowful my heart,

Tormented with griefs. Grant me, Lord of the skies,

Success and soundness of faith, that with this sword I may

Behead this hideous monster. Heed my prayer for salvation,

Noble Lord of nations; never have I had

More need of thy mercy; mighty Lord, avenge now

Bright-minded Bringer of glory, that I am thus baffled in spirit,

Heated in heart.” Her then the greatest of Judges

With dauntless daring inspired, as he doth ever to all

The sons of the Spirit who seek him for help,

With reason and with right belief. Then was to the righteous in mind,

Holy hope renewed; the heathen man then she took,

And held by his hair; with her hands she drew him

Shamefully toward her, and the traitorous deceiver

Laid as she listed, most loathsome of men,

In order that easily the enemy’s body

She might wield at her will. The wicked one she slew,

The curly-locked maiden with her keen-edged sword,

Smote the hateful-hearted one till she half cut through

Severing his neck, so that swooning he lay

Drunken and death-wounded. Not dead was he yet,

Nor lifeless entirely: the triumphant lady

More earnestly smote the second time

The heathen hound, so that his head was thrown

Forth on the floor; foul lay the carcass,

Bereft of a soul; the spirit went elsewhere

Under the burning abyss where abandoned it lay,

Tied down in torment till time shall cease,

With serpents bewound, amid woes and tortures,

All firmly fixed in the flames of hell,

When death came upon him. He durst not hope,

Enveloped in blackness, to venture forth ever

From that dreary hole, but dwell there he shall

Forever and aye till the end of time,

In that hideous home without hope of joy.

3. The Return of Bethulia

Great was the glory then gained in the fight

By Judith at war, through the will of God,

The mighty Master, who permitted her victory.

Then the wise-minded maiden immediately threw

The heathen warrior’s head so bloody,

Concealed it in the sack that her servant had brought—

The pale-faced woman, polished in manners—

Which before she had filled with food for them both.

Then the gory head gave she to her goodly maid-servant

To bear to their home, to her helper she gave it,

To her junior companion. Then they journeyed together,

Both of the women, bold in their daring,

The mighty in mind, the maidens exultant,

Till they had wholly escaped from the host of the enemy,

And could full clearly catch the first sight

Of their sacred city and see the walls

Of bright Bethulia. Then the bracelet-adorned ones,

Traveling on foot, went forth in haste,

Until they had journeyed, with joy in their hearts,

To the wall-gate.

The warriors sat

Unwearied in watching, the wardens on duty,

Fast in the fortress, as the folk erstwhile,

The grieved ones of mind, by the maiden were counselled,

By the wary Judith, when she went on her journey,

The keen-witted woman. She had come once more,

Dear to her people, the prudent in counsel.

She straightway summoned certain of the heroes

From the spacious city speedily to meet her

And allow her to enter without loss of time

Through the gate of the wall, and these words she spoke

To the victor-tribe:

“I may tell to you now

Noteworthy news, that you need no longer

Mourn in your mind, for the Master is kind to you,

The Ruler of nations. It is known afar

Around the wide world that you have won glory;

Very great victory is vouchsafed in return

For all the evils and ills you have suffered.”

Blithe then became the burghers within,

When they heard how the Holy Maid spoke

Over the high wall. The warriors rejoiced;

To the gate of the fortress the folk then hastened,

Wives with their husbands, in hordes and in bands,

In crowds and in companies; they crushed and thronged

Towards the handmaid of God by hundreds and thousands,

Old ones and young ones. All of the men

In the goodly city were glad in their hearts

At the joyous news that Judith was come

Again to her home, and hastily then

With humble hearts the heroes received her.

Then gave the gold-adorned, sagacious in mind,

Command to her comrade, her co-worker faithful

The heathen chief’s head to hold forth to the people,

To the assembly to show as a sign and a token,

All bloody to the burghers, how in battle they sped.

To the famed victory-folk the fair maiden spoke:

“O proudest of peoples, princely protectors,

Gladly now gaze on the gory face,

On the hated head of the heathen warrior,

Holofernes, wholly life-bereft,

Who most of all men contrived murder against us,

The sorest of sorrows, and sought even yet

With greater to grind us, but God would not suffer him

Longer to live, that with loathsomest evils

The proud one should oppress us; I deprived him of life

Through the grace of God. Now I give commands

To you citizens bold, you soldiers brave-hearted,

Protectors of the people, to prepare one and all

Forthwith for the fight. When first from the east

The King of creation, the kindest of Lords,

Sends the first beams of light, bring forth your linden-shields,

Boards for your breasts and your burnie-corselets,

Your bright-hammered helmets to the hosts of the scathers,

To fell the folk-leaders, the fated chieftains,

With your fretted swords. Your foes are all

Doomed to the death, and dearly-won glory

Shall be yours in battle, as the blessed Creator

The mighty Master, through me has made known.”

4. The Battle

Then a band of bold knights busily gathered,

Keen men at the conflict; with courage they stepped forth,

Bearing banners, brave-hearted companions,

And fared to the fight, forth in right order,

Heroes under helmets from the holy city

At the dawning of day; dinned forth their shields

A loud-voiced alarm. Now listened in joy

The lank wolf in the wood and the wan raven,

Battle-hungry bird, both knowing well

That the gallant people would give to them soon

A feast on the fated; now flew on their track

The deadly devourer, the dewy-winged eagle,

Singing his war-song, the swart-coated bird,

The horned of beak. Then hurried the warriors,

Keen for the conflict, covered with shields,

With hollow lindens— they who long had endured

The taunts and the tricks of the treacherous strangers,

The host of the heathen; hard was it repaid now

To all the Assyrians, every insult revenged,

At the shock of the shields, when the shining-armed Hebrews

Bravely to battle marched under banners of war

To face the foeman. Forthwith then they

Sharply shot forth showers of arrows,

Bitter battle-adders from their bows of horn,

Hurled straight from the string; stormed and raged loudly

The dauntless avengers; darts were sent whizzing

Into the hosts of the hardy ones. Heroes were angry

The dwellers in the land, at the dastardly race.

Strong-hearted they stepped, stern in their mood;

On their enemies of old took awful revenge,

On their mead-weary foes. With the might of their hands

Their shining swords from their sheaths they drew forth.

With the choicest of edges the champions they smote—

Furiously felled the folk of Assyria,

The spiteful despoilers. They spared not a one

Of the hated host, neither high nor low

Of living men that they might overcome.

So the kinsmen-companions at the coming of morning

Followed the foemen, fiercely attacking them,

Till, pressed and in panic, the proud ones perceived

That the chief and the champions of the chosen people

With the swing of the sword swept all before them,

The wise Hebrew warriors. Then word they carried

To the eldest officers over the camp,

Ran with the wretched news, arousing the leaders,

Fully informed them of the fearful disaster,

Told the merry mead-drinkers of the morning encounter

Of the horrible edge-play. I heard then suddenly

The slaughter-fated men from sleep awakened

And toward the bower-tent of the baleful chief,

Holofernes, they hastened: in hosts they crowded,

Thickly they thronged. One thought had they only,

Their lasting loyalty to their lord to show,

Before in their fury they fell upon him,

The host of the Hebrews. The whole crowd imagined

That the lord of despoilers and the spotless lady

Together remained in the gorgeous tent,

The virtuous virgin and the vicious deceiver,

Dreadful and direful; they dared not, however,

Awaken the warrior, not one of the earls,

Nor be first to find how had fared through the night

The most churlish of chieftains and the chastest of maidens.

The pride of the Lord

Now approached in their strength

The folk of the Hebrews. They fought remorselessly

With hard-hammered weapons, with their hilts requited

Their strife of long standing, with stained swords repaid

Their ancient enmity; all of Assyria

Was subdued and doomed that day by their work,

Its pride bowed low. In panic and fright,

In terror they stood around the tent of their chief,

Moody in mind. Then the men all together

In concert clamored and cried aloud,

Ungracious to God, and gritted their teeth,

Grinding them in their grief. Then was their glory at an end,

Their noble deeds and daring hopes. Then they deemed it wise

To summon their lord from his sleep, but success was denied them.

A loyal liegeman, —long had he wavered—

Desperately dared the door to enter,

Ventured into the pavilion; violent need drove him.

On the bed then he found, in frightful state lying,

His gold-giver ghastly; gone was his spirit,

No life in him lingered. The liegeman straight fell.

Trembling with terror, he tore at his hair,

He clawed at his clothes; he clamored despairing,

And to the waiting warriors these words he said,

As they stood outside in sadness and fear:

“Here is made manifest our imminent doom,

Is clearly betokened that the time is near,

Pressing upon us with perils and woes,

When we lose our lives, and lie defeated

By the hostile host; here hewn by the sword,

Our lord is beheaded.” With heavy spirits

They threw their weapons away, and weary in heart,

Scattered in flight.

5. The Pursuit

Then their foemen pursued them,

Their grim power growing, until the greatest part

Of the cowardly band they conquered in battle

On the field of victory. Vanquished and sword-hewn,

They lay at the will of the wolves, for the watchful and greedy

Fowls to feed upon. Then fled the survivors

From the shields of their foemen. Sharp on their trail came

The crowd of the Hebrews, covered with victory,

With honors well-earned; aid then accorded them,

Graciously granted them, God, Lord Almighty.

They then daringly, with dripping swords,

The corps of brave kinsmen, cut them a war-path

Through the host of the hated ones; they hewed with their swords,

Sheared through the shield-wall. They shot fast and furiously,

Men stirred to strife, the stalwart Hebrews,

The thanes, at that time, thirsting exceedingly,

Fain for the spear-fight. Then fell in the dust

The chiefest part of the chosen warriors,

Of the staunch and the steadfast Assyrian leaders,

Of the fated race of the foe. Few of them came back

Alive to their own land.

The leaders returned

Over perilous paths through the piles of the slaughtered,

Of reeking corpses; good occasion there was

For the landsmen to plunder their lifeless foes,

Their ancient enemies in their armor laid low,

Of battle spoils bloody, of beautiful trappings,

Of bucklers and broad-swords, of brown war-helmets,

Of glittering jewels. Gloriously had been

In the folk-field their foes overcome,

By home-defenders, their hated oppressors

Put to sleep by the sword. Senseless on the path

Lay those who in life, the loathsomest were

Of the tribes of the living.

6. The Spoil

Then the landsmen all,

Famous of family, for a full month’s time,

The proud curly-locked ones, carried and led

To their glorious city, gleaming Bethulia,

Helms and hip-knives, hoary burnies,

Men’s garments of war, with gold adorned,

With more of jewels than men of judgment,

Keen in cunning might count or estimate;

So much success the soldier-troop won,

Bold under banners and in battle-strife

Through the counsel of the clever Judith,

Maiden high-minded. As mead for her bravery,

From the field of battle, the bold-hearted earls

Brought in as her earnings the arms of Holofernes,

His broad sword and bloody helmet, likewise his breast-armor large,

Chased with choice red gold, all that the chief of the warriors,

The betrayer, possessed of treasure, of beautiful trinkets and heirlooms,

Bracelets and brilliant gems. All these to the bright maid they gave

As a gift to her, ready in judgment.

7. The Praise

For all this Judith now rendered

Thanks to the Heavenly Host, from whom came all her success,

Greatness and glory on earth and likewise grace in heaven,

Paradise as a victorious prize, because she had pure belief

Always in the Almighty; at the end she had no doubt

Of the prize she had prayed for long. For this be praise to God,

Glory in ages to come, who shaped the clouds and the winds,

Firmament and far-flung realms, also the fierce-raging streams

And the blisses of heaven, through his blessed mercy.

Judith. Late 10th century. Pressbooks.


Part 1 opens with a prayer. Her city of Bethulia under siege by Assyrian forces under the command of the bloodthirsty Holofernes, Judith, a courageous young Jewish maiden, refuses to accept the inevitable surrender to the invading pagans. She prays for God’s help and direction “against the greatest of dangers” (Line 4). Her plan is as simple as it daring: She has ingratiated herself with the occupational army, walking amid its tents outside the city accompanied only by her maid, as a strategy to attract the attention of the general, known for his debauchery. If Holofernes succumbs to her charms, she, with God’s help, will kill the general herself.

Three days into the Assyrian occupation, the mighty Holofernes, unconcerned by any resistance from the Israelites, hosts a wild feast for his soldiers, where the wine flows. All his knights eat and drink to excess. “[M]addened by mead-drink” (Line 27), Holofernes, who has indeed noticed the comely Jewish maiden, now commands his knights to bring Judith to his tent so that he can seduce her. The knights do as they are ordered.

Part 2 begins with Judith, “burdened with jewels / Freighted with rings” (Lines 37-38), being brought to the general’s tent. His intention is clear: “[T]he bright maiden he planned / With loathsome filth to defile” (Lines 60-61). But Holofernes passes out from too much wine. Praying, Judith, her determination set, grabs Holofernes’s great sword. Pleading for God’s help, protection, and forgiveness, Judith pulls back the general’s hair, exposes his throat, and slices into his neck. But the cut does not kill the general. The second cut, “more earnestly smote” (Line 112), completes the job, decapitating the Assyrian general and dispatching his spirit to “the flames of hell” (Line 119) for eternity.

Part 3 tells of Judith’s return to the city. Knowing her work is not finished, Judith places the general’s head into a sack and, accompanied by her maid, steals out of the general’s tent, slips out of the Assyrian camp, and heads to the city. Jewish soldiers stop them at the gates, uncertain what the business of these two women might be. Undeterred, Judith declaims to the dispirited soldiers that God is manifestly on the side of the city and that the Assyrians can be defeated: “[Y]ou need no longer / Mourn in your mind, for the Master is kind to you” (Lines 158-159). Judith’s clarion voice is heard in the city streets, and the gates are thrown open to welcome this spirited young girl.

Summoning her maid to bring her the sack, Judith holds up high the “hated head of the heathen warrior, / Holofernes, wholly life-bereft” (Lines 184-185). She delivers an inspirational message to encourage the city to rise up. She tells the Israelites to prepare for battle, that the Assyrians are vulnerable now without their leader: “Your foes are all / Doomed to the death” (Lines 200-01).

In Part 4, the morning of the battle dawns. When the Israelites’ surprise attack commences, the Assyrians are confused, “the slaughter-fated men from sleep awakened” (Line 252). The guards posted outside Holofernes’s tent hesitate to bother the general, fearing his wrath should they interfere with his time with the “virtuous virgin” (Line 261). Meanwhile, the Israelites “f[i]ght remorselessly” (Line 268). Finally, a soldier sees the battle going badly and agrees to disturb the general. He finds the headless corpse of their general “in frightful state lying” (Line 284). Word spreads quickly of the general’s assassination. The Israelites, emboldened by the inspirational leadership of Judith, charge the Assyrians, who have “scattered in flight” (Line 298).

Part 5 records how the Israelites pursue the terrified Assyrians and slaughter them. Their armor dripping with blood, “they [hew] with their swords / [Shear] through the shield-wall” (Lines 311-12). The invaders are soundly defeated, “put to sleep by the sword” (Line 330).

In Part 6, the army, led now by the “clever” (Line 343) Judith, returns triumphant to the besieged city. Judith is presented with the spoils of the victory, decorated with gems and even gifted the armor and sword of Holofernes himself, a sign of ultimate military respect.

Part 7, however, records how the humble Judith, grateful for her success, offers her thanks and “praise to God” (Line 357) for His mercy and power in liberating the city. She looks ahead to her awaited paradise, the true prize in the kingdom of Heaven.