The Figure of Judith in Anglo-Saxon England

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This paper explores the appearances of the character of Judith in the literature of

Anglo-Saxon England. Transported from the Apocryphal book of the Old Testament to

the Latin Vulgate Bible by St. Jerome, this Hebrew heroine held an enduring fascination

for medieval and early modern writers and artists, and her story gained in stature and

meaning with each telling. This paper explores the interpretations and implications of the

use of the Judith story in Anglo-Saxon times. Focusing on each work in context of the

larger tradition, the paper analyzes the impact the literature might have had on its

audience, specifically in what it suggests about prevailing attitudes toward women. The

exploration will begin with a broad survey of the cultural attitudes concerning women in

Anglo-Saxon England and will then proceed to a closer examination of the portrayal of

women in various types of literature. Next the paper will examine the tradition of storytelling

and interpretation that grew around Judith, beginning during the early years of the

Christian Church and flowering in the poetry and prose of Anglo-Saxon England. This

paper argues that readings of the Judith story comment revealingly on the place of

women in Anglo-Saxon society as well as the possibilities for action and selfhood the

Judith stories characterize for the female element of the audience. As a narrative

tradition developing into myth, the story of Judith contains and contributes to the

culture’s consciousness of women as well as the consciousness of individual women.

Ultimately, the analysis shows that that Judith’s incarnations in Anglo-Saxon England

bear a curiously modern relevance. She transcends genre, context, and culture,

performing a boundary- and barrier-crossing function which even today can serve to

liberate and perpetuate healthy perceptions of culture, community, and womanhood

which integrate rather than isolate the female element of society.


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