In regard to the gender stereotypes of Judith’s period of time, a selective reading of the story in The Book of Judith (considered a Deuterocanonical or Apocryphal text by many), can well portray the heroine, Judith, in a very different light from that which may be more commonly accepted. The biblical story from the Christian Old Testament depicts Judith as ‘the pious, wealthy, and beautiful widow’ of the Israelite town of Bethulia, which is being besieged by a Babylonian army under the command of Holofernes. Holofernes, a general in the service of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, leads this army sent by his king to punish certain subject peoples. Judith acts to prevent this plan from being carried out.
In the Anglo-Saxon version of this story, Judith is depicted, in accord with the culture’s standards, as a young warrior maiden. Either way, she is most certainly not a devious, scheming woman in the manner of Morgan from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Far from it, she is regarded in this version as ‘one of the women of power in Anglo-Saxon history and literature.’ As we shall see, there are many examples to confirm this from the text of the story itself.
At the very beginning of the story, Judith has been in the camp of Holofernes for four days, and she is described as ‘this woman of elfin beauty.’ While it can be readily acknowledged that she does use her physical attributes to a certain degree, and one could also extrapolate the employment of artifice and charm as well, to initially gain entrance to the inner circle of the enemy army, this is not her primary weapon.
Yet even before she makes her move to the camp, she steels herself for battle in a warrior’s way. She prays ‘to God in sackcloth and ashes,’ then, ‘dresses and adorns herself sumptuously.’ Clearly, what Judith is about is not being a weak, deceiving female, but a soldier of her God going into a war from which she may not return.
The courage that it took to openly enter the enemy’s camp was plenty, and the nerve she displays in simply waiting for the right time to strike is profound. She appears to possess a sound understanding of the nature of her opponents; strengths, and weaknesses, and of the protocol of battle in that time and place. Holofernes is described as ‘the wicked one, the stern dispenser of treasures, drenched his retainers with wine until they lay unconscious,’ as did he.
In juxtaposition, a great deal of what a warrior does is … wait. So Judith, no doubt holding herself firmly in control and with steady resolve, waits for Holofernes to put himself at her mercy. By waiting, Judith was able to take action that was not at all stereotypically female in nature or supposition. Rather than trying, perhaps, to poison him and skulk off into the night, or by some other means avoiding brute strength and open bloodshed, Judith took hold of the drunken sack that was Holofernes, ‘Then, the woman with braided locks struck the enemy, that hostile one, with the shining sword, so that she cut through half of his neck.’
She finishes him off and removes his head, which is not the sort of act that a dainty, fainting heart would, or could, perform. The strength that it takes to cut off a head, and all of that blood released, would be enough to make a weaker constitution swoon.
Finally, as Judith and her handmaiden make their escape back to the city of Bethulia, the soldiers of the city await her, ‘just as Judith the wise maiden had asked.’ She is not just a warrior, but seemingly the figurative leader, even the literal general of this operation.
Ultimately, she sends them off to their eventual victory over the Babylonian army with these words, ‘Now I intend to ask each of the men of these citizens, each of the warriors, that you immediately hasten to battle.’
Judith comes down the ages to us as far more than a typical stereotype of womanhood, either Biblically or according to Anglo-Saxon tradition. She can clearly be read as a very devout, wise, brave, and physically strong woman leader. And it was only through the performance of all of these traits that she managed to lead her people not just to survival, but to victory.