Judith in Late Anglo-Saxon England

Judith in Late Anglo-Saxon England

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Judith in Late Anglo-Saxon England

By Tracey-Anne Cooper

The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, eds. Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann (Open Book Publishers, 2010)

Introduction: Judith makes two spectacular appearances in the Old English corpus: she is the brave heroine of a poem which is included in one of the most famous manuscripts of the late Anglo-Saxon period, the Nowell Codex, which also contains the heroic epic, Beowulf. Judith is the subject also of a homily by Ælfric, the most prolific and highly-regarded homilist of the age, who rendered her as an appropriate subject for the contemplation of clænnysse (chastity) for the benefit of nuns. Thus, even at our first approach to the perception of Judith in late Anglo-Saxon England, we are presented with ambivalence; is she a courageous military heroine to be heralded at the ”mead-bench,” or is she a pious example of chastity to be meditated upon in the cloister? In actuality, the Anglo-Saxon interpretations of Judith are more complex than even this dichotomy between genres suggests. While the Judith poem is most certainly an heroic epic in the manner of Beowulf, particularly in the second half when the Israelite army takes on the Assyrians, Judith’s own martial role, though described in gory detail, is actually diminished as she is presented as an allegorical type in a contest between good and evil and she is portrayed very much as the instrument of God. The Judith of Ælfric’s homily, on the other hand, is much more the mistress of her own will and actions.

Margarita Stocker referred to Judith as ”the Good Bad woman,” encapsulating her fundamental ambiguity. It is this very ambiguity that has made her fascinating to many writers throughout the ages. In the process of explicating Judith’s shocking act and addressing the ambiguity between her roles as both murdering seductress and virtuous instrument of God, individual authors can transmit their own messages to their audience. The Anglo-Saxons imbued Judith with both the qualities of military hero and chaste widow, and used her narrative both as tropological message and allegorical type. These seeming ambiguities begin to make sense when we understand that these divergent attitudes were produced from an amalgam of the Anglo-Saxons’ past and their present. The patristic scholarship which the Anglo-Saxons inherited had many differing interpretations of Judith; to some she was a tropological model of chastity and faith, while to others she was an allegorical type for the Church, coming to represent all Christians in their struggles. The Judith narrative had also taken on a new urgency and poignancy in the late Anglo-Saxon period, as they confronted their very own ”Assyrian” aggressors in the form of renewed Viking assaults beginning in the 990s. Judith, as she was imagined at the turn of the first millennium in Anglo-Saxon England, therefore, needs to be thought of within the context of both the patristic background and the contemporary calamity.

Watch the video: The True History Of The Anglo-Saxons. King Arthurs Britain Part 3. Real Royalty With Foxy Games (July 2022).


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