10 Judith


“Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Caravaggio, 1599. Wikimedia Commons.



The Old English poem Judith describes the beheading of Assyrian general Holofernes by Israelite Judith of Bethulia. It is found in the same manuscript as the heroic poem Beowulf, the Nowell Codex (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A. XV), dated ca. 975–1025.

The Old English poem is one of many retellings of the Holofernes–Judith tale as it was found in the Book of Judith, still present in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles. Most notably, Ælfric of Eynsham, late 10th-century Anglo-Saxon abbot and writer, composed a homily (in prose) of the tale. It is evident that the story of Judith has been modified and set within the framework of Anglo-Saxon context. Much of the geographic and political structures relevant to a Hebrew culture have been removed, allowing an Anglo-Saxon audience to better understand and relate to the poem (Greenblat 109). 



Similar to BeowulfJudith conveys a moral tale of heroic triumph over monstrous beings. Both moral and political, the poem tells of a brave woman’s efforts to save and protect her people. Judith is depicted as an exemplar woman, grounded by ideal morale, probity, courage, and religious conviction. Judith’s character is rendered blameless and virtuous, and her beauty is praised. In line 109, Judith is referred to as an ides ellenrof, which translates as “brave woman.” The author also gives her the entitlement of a ‘halige meowle’ (line 56), which translates as “holy woman,” a ‘snoteran idese’ (line 55), which translates as “wise woman,” whilst her appearance is described as ‘aelfscinu’ (line 13), which translates as ‘elf-shining’. Although Judith kills a man, she appears to be doing God’s will; Holofernes, while described to some extent as a standard military leader in the Beowulfian vein, is also cast as a salacious drunk and becomes monstrous in his excess. As Holofernes was often drunk, Judith anticipated that he would attempt to seduce her. She pretended to be charmed by Holofernes, allowing herself to be taken to his bedroom. When the unsuspecting Holofernes fell into a drunken slumber, Judith severed his head with a sword. Thereafter, she proudly displayed his head to her Hebrew army and led them into a victorious battle against the Assyrians. In the Book of Judith, though, the Assyrians simply fled Bethulia after discovering the deceased body of Holofernes (Marsden 148).


Historic Context

Portraying the epitome of Germanic heroism, Judith was likely composed during a time of war as a model for the Anglo-Saxon people. The Abbot Ælfric similarly created his own homiletic interpretation of the Book of Judith. At the time of his creation, Vikings were ransacking England. Ælfric professed that Judith was to serve as an example to the people. In a letter, Ælfric wrote: “þeo is eac on English on ure wisan iset eow mannum to bisne, þet ge eower eard mid wæpnum beweriæn wið onwinnende here.” Translated into modern English, the phrase reads: “It is also set as an example for you in English according to our style, so that you will defend your land with weapons against an attacking force” (qtd. in Nelson 47).

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012: 109.

Marsden, Richard. “Judith”. The Cambridge Old English Reader. 1st ed. Ed. Richard Marsden. Cambridge University Press, 2004:147–148.

Nelson, M. ed., Judith, Juliana, and Elene: Three fighting Saints, Peter Lang Publishing, 1991: 47.

Discussion Questions

  • What similarities does this poem share with other Old English works?
  • What women other women are present in Old English literature? How does Judith compare?
  • What source did the poet use for his poem and why does it not appear in Protestant versions of that text?
  • Why is Judith careful to pray to god as “Majesty of the Trinity”? What historical context makes this necessary?
  • What animal symbolism stands out here? What does it mean?

Further Resources

  • A video of Judith being performed as part of Medieval Tales in Performance
  • A webpage with student illustrations and commentary on Judith titled: “The Old English Judith: A Student Doodle Edition”
  • An academic article giving interesting background on the poem called “The Sword of Judith”

Reading: Judith


. . . . . . . . . . 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.

[Translator’s note: Although the fragment begins in the middle of a line, it presents the appearance of being practically complete. Certainly, as it stands it makes an artistic whole: we begin and end the poem by showing how Judith was favored of God. Within a very short space after the opening lines we are in the midst of the action: Judith has come from her beleaguered city of Bethulia and enchanted Holofernes by her beauty, and Holofernes has finished his great feast by summoning her to him. All this is put before us in the first 37 lines. The rest of the poem is vividly conceived, from the slaying of the Assyrian king to the final victory and rejoicing.]


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.

[Note: Here begins a series of extended lines which some critics think are intended to lend an air of solemnity to the passage. A study of the occurrence of these long lines in this and other poems, such as The Wanderer, The Charms, or Widsith, does not seem to bear out this contention. Usually these long lines have three accents in each half. The rules for the alliteration are the same as for the short verses.]


3. The Return to 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.

[Note: The picture of the birds of prey hovering over the battle field is one of the constant features of Anglo-Saxon battle poetry. Note its occurrence in The Fight at Finnsburg and The Battle of Brunnanburg especially.]


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 meed 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.

Source Text 

Faust, Cosette and Stith Thompson. Old English Poems. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1918, licensed under No Known Copyright.




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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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