Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Epanalepsis: A Retelling of the Judith Story in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Language

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Epanalepsis: A Retelling of the Judith Story in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Language

Article excerpt

ANGLO-SAXON JUDITH: A NEW SYMMETRY

One of the most well-liked poems written in Old English, Judith has nonetheless defied straightforward categorization. Its source material would place it among scriptural narratives, a prolific genre in Anglo-Saxon poetry since Caedmon, England's first named poet who, according to Bede, composed poems based on the Bible chronologically spanning the Creation and the Last Judgment (Historia Ecclesiastica 4.24). But, unlike the Junius Manuscript (earlier called the Caedmon Manuscript), which is dedicated almost entirely to Old Testament narrative pieces like Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, (1) the manuscript in which Judith appears, the Nowell Codex, has been called a "book of monsters" because of the elements of the marvelous strewn in its texts, including Beowulf, The Wonders of the East, and The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. Modern scholars have surmised that a woman who cuts the head off of her enemy must have seemed to the compiler of the manuscript as wondrous and strange as a dragonslayer, a one-legged man, and a king who campaigned to India. (2) Another favorite approach to Judith is an interpretation of its heroic aspect in the light of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and other secular writings. (3)

It is interesting that Judith's complexity comes from its apparent simplification of the Latin source material. (4) The poem narrates incidents that are covered in fewer than five chapters of the sixteen-chapter Book of Judith in the Vulgate (from 12.10 to 16.1). Even though the poem as we have it lacks both beginning and end, recent scholars generally believe that this 349-line "fragment" constitutes a large part of the original composition. (5) Moreover, the extant poem includes only two named characters, Judith and Holofernes; internal evidence seems to suggest that the poet has eliminated most or perhaps even all of the other characters in the Latin. One character that is not mentioned in the extant poem is Nebuchadnezzar. Mark Griffith rightly observes that, by omitting or at least downplaying the part played by this deified king of Assyria, the poet has "sacrificed the symmetrical balance of the source," because he has lost the contrasting pair of Nebuchadnezzar and God, and forced Holofernes, originally the king's general, "into contraposition with both God and Judith" (55).

What the Old English Judith has gained by letting go of the original structure of the story, as I hope to argue in this essay, is a new balance struck by contrasting the Hebrews with the Assyrians. The omission of the sympathetic gentile, Achior, for example, has enabled the poet to underline the irreconcilable strife between the two peoples and to rid his narrative of conversion, a theme that plays an important part in hagiographic poems like Elene, Juliana, and Andreas. By eliminating most of the Assyrian and Hebrew characters, moreover, the poet alters the social structure of these two communities. Without Nebuchadnezzar, Assyria is no longer a centralized kingdom that dispatches a general and his soldiers to punish the disobedience of satellite countries. In the Anglo-Saxon poem, the Assyrians seem to form a barbaric society headed by Holofernes as the lord of a people. The simplification of Hebrew society is no less drastic. The only community mentioned in the poem is Bethulia, whose inhabitants seem to constitute an independent tribe (cneoris; 323b). (6) Unlike in the Vulgate version (15.5, 15.9), Bethulia does not ask for military support from other cities or regions of Israel before the battle or receive the high priest Joachim from Jerusalem for blessing after the victory. Having defeated the Assyrians apparently all by themselves, the Bethulians become the most glorious of all races (maeg[eth]a maerost; 324a). (7) As Paul De Lacy has pointed out, Judith frequently has "weeded out Hebraisms," even though these have been retained in the Vulgate (400). Elements of Judaism that are missing from the extant poem include dietary laws, priesthood, the temple, and (most importantly of all) circumcision, which the poet has managed to leave unmentioned by omitting the character of Achior. …

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