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Judith: Introduction

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Only 350 lines of this poem remain, found in the same manuscript as Beowulf, the Cotton Vitellius A.XV. The rest of it was destroyed in the same fire that destroyed portions of Beowulf in 1731, though some scholars argue that it was never substantially longer. [1] The poem seems to have been composed some time in the tenth century. [2] The story is roughly that of the apocryphal Old Testament book of Judith. What remains corresponds to about the last one-fourth of the apocryphal work. [3]

The poem describes how Judith, her people under attack by the Assyrians, is taken to Holofernes, leader of the invaders. He is drunk and lusts after the beautiful Jewish woman. She continues to offer him drink, and when he passes out she beheads him. Consequently, the Assyrians are defeated and flee. The poet uses common Christian imagery in his description of Judith, having her pray to the Trinity and giving her many characteristics associated with virgin martyrs. [4]

The main theme of the poem is persevering in the face of what seem like overwhelming odds. The relevance of such a theme to the England of the Anglo-Saxons during a time when Danes were constantly assailing the island is clear; however, scholars agree that the poem was not written with a particular event or person in mind. There is, too, a more timeless Christian message, upon which the poet builds, that of faith and salvation. Judith becomes the unflinching savior and Holofernes a moral monster, with vices associated with satanic vices of greed, lust, and pride. [5]

The language of the poem is remarkable, particularly its descriptions of battle. [6] The poet also excels at characterization, and by taking conventional Germanic heroic language and effectively applying it to a female figure, he makes of her a hero at once familiar and innovative. [7]


1. S.A.J. Bradley, trans. and ed., Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman: London, 1982), 495.

2. Bradley, 496.

3.Margaret Drabble, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 521.

4. Bradley, 495.

5. Bradley, 495.

6. Drabble, 521.

7. Bradley, 496.



Cook, Albert S., ed. Judith, an Old English Epic Fragment. New York: AMS Press, 1972.

Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk, ed. Beowulf and Judith. New York : Columbia UP, 1953.

Magoun, Francis Peabody & Jess B. Bessinger, eds. Béowulf and Judith: Done in a Normalized Orthography. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.

Timmer, Benno Johan, ed. Judith. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966.


Moore, Carey A., trans. Judith : A New Translation with Itroduction and Commentary. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1985.

Critical Studies

Huppé, Bernard Felix, ed. and trans. The Web of Words: Structural Analyses of the Old English Poems. Albany: State U of New York P, 1970.

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This introduction is copyright 2000 Teresa P. Reed. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.