The Conversion of Gendered Rhetoric in the Old English Judith poem

Kathryn A Green


In the Latin Book of Judith, the eponymous heroine severs the head of the Assyrian General, Holofernes, inspiring victory in war, and is consequently hailed for “doing manfully” (tu honorificentia populi nostri, quia fecisti viriliter); yet, in the Anglo-Saxon Judith poem, the extant Old English equivalent (werlice) of this gendered Latin phrase does not appear, though it is used in reference to women elsewhere in the Old English corpus. How does the omission of this masculine expression reshape our understanding of Judith’s heroics?

In Anglo-Saxon England (c. 450-1066), a time when Latin biblical verse provided much inspiration for poets and distinctions between biological sex and categories of gender had not been made, an attempt at linguistic fidelity on the part of the poet often undermined the accomplishments of women characters in heroic roles. This paper will analyze the anonymous Judith poem from a gendered perspective exploring the manner in which the poet, who is thought to have drawn his inspiration from the Latin Vulgate, made linguistic changes that deemphasize the masculine traditions associated with heroism.

Through a textual analysis informed by feminist translation theory (Chamberlain, 1988; Simon, 1996; von Flotow, 2001), this paper will show how the Judith poet’s manipulation of specific gendered rhetoric builds the heroine’s agency and identity, transforming the female image of secondariness. I argue that while the Anglo-Saxon Judith poet, perhaps sensitive to the implications and difficulties inherent in certain words like werlicewhen applied to women, creates a shift of perspective. This shift is of great significance in that it neutralizes contemporary notions regarding biological sex/gender in the Anglo-Saxon poetic version of the story.


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