Monthly Archives: November 2012

Dwarfs and She-Dwarfs in the Eleventh Century

 What the OE wið dweorh charm and the Latin Ruodlieb poem have in common

In the Early Middle Ages the belief in dwarfs was widely held among the Germanic speaking peoples of northwestern Europe[1]. The *dwerǥōs[2]were thought of as a liminal non-human race of  mountain dwelling artisans. They can be regarded as the mountainous counterparts to the forest dwelling creatures the Germanic speaking peoples called *alƀōs “elfs” (Hermann 1903 :114). In Old Icelandic literature they are sometimes called svartálfar and portrayed as the smiths of Germanic mythology and the custodians of treasures (see West 2007: 295-97). Vestiges of this belief surived into the Modern Period as evidenced by Grimm in his Deutsche Sagen (29-44), Deutsche Hausmärchen (e.g. 161 Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot) and Deutsche Mythologie (XVII Wichte und Elbe). Although non-scholarly conceptions of dwarfs are often coloured by romantic Tolkienesque visions of smallish folk integral to fantastic societies, we should not forget that to medieval contemporaries the “dwarf” mainly constituted the alien other; the heathen, the foreigner. They possessed knowledge far beyond the wit of man and, if offended, they could curse mankind with horrible diseases.

            In the capacity of  “bringer of harm” we find dwarfs mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charms that aim to alleviate dwarf induced illnesses. Consider this charm, to be found in Ha. (Harley) 585 (167a), a Northumbrian manuscript of the late eleventh century. It consists of an introduction, followed by the charm itself (see Grendon 1909 for an edition and translation).

Introduction lines 1-8


Man sceal niman VII lȳtle oflǣtan, swylce man mid ofrað, and writtan þās naman on ǣlcre oflǣtan: Maxianus, Machus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Þænne eft þæt galdor þæt hēr æfter cweð. Man scal singan, ǣrest on þæt wynstre ēare, þænne on þæt swīðre ēare, þænne ufan þæs mannes moldan. And gā þænne ān mǣdenman tō, and hō hit on his swēoran and dō man swā þrȳ dagas: him bið sōna sēl.


You must take seven little wafers, such as are used in worship and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionisus, Constantinus, Serafion. Then again, you must sing the charm which is stated below, first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then over the man’s head. And then let a virgin go to him and hang it on his neck, and do this for three days. He will soon be well.

In this introduction syncretic directions are given for an apotropaeic healing ceremony. The first direction involves inscribing sacramental wafers with the names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a Christian myth[3]), an instruction seemingly unconnected to the following directions. The following directions on the other hand do not have any connection to institutionalized forms of christianity. They state how the charm is to be chanted and what is to be done afterwards. The introduction ends with the instruction that the written charm should be presented to the afflicted by a virgin. The fact that a written version of the charm plays a role in the ceremony, attests to the power attributed to the written word in late Anglo-Saxon society.

            Enchantment lines 9-21

Hēr cōm in gangan, in spīder wiht,

            Hæfde him his haman on handa.

            Cwæð þæt þū his hængest wǣre.

            Legeþ hē his tēage an swēoran.

            Ongunnan him of þǣm lande līþan.

            Sōna swā hȳ of þǣm lande cōman,

            Þā ongunnan him þā cōlian.

            Þā cōm ingangan dēores sweostar.

            Þā geændade hēo and āðas swōr:

            Ðæt nǣfre þis þǣm ādlegan derian ne mōste,

            Ne þǣm þe þis galdor begyten mihte,

            Oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cūþe.

            Amen, fiat.

            Came right in here, the creature on a spider

            Had his harness in hand.

            Said that you would be his stallion.

            He put his rein on your neck.

            Immediately when they began to go to him

            they began to cool him.

            Then came in, the sister of the creature.

            She ended it and swore oaths.

            That he should never harm the sick.

            Nor whomever who should learn this charm,

            Or who could sing this charm.

            Amen, may it be done.

The incantation introduces the dwarf riding on a spider, who maliciously intents to ride his victim by use of magical reins[4]. After the reins have been put on the victim’s neck, the dwarf and the spider leave, which induces a fever, described in the OE text as cōlian “to cool”, presumably because of the identical symptoms (shivering, chattering of teeth)[5]. Then the sister of the dwarf arrives, probably the entity whose intercession is invoked. She ends the agony and swears oaths as to guarantee the safety of the victim, thereby protecting the victim from further harm. The charm ends with a christian amen and fiat.

            What struck me in this charm was the role of the female dwarf, who apparently restrains her brother in his malevolent deeds and vowes for the victim’s safety. This reminded me of another female dwarf, the spouse of the dwarf caught by the eleventh century hero Ruodlieb.

The Ruodlieb poem is an early Medieval Latin epic poem which was written halfway the eleventh century (1060-1070 CE) by a monk at Tegernsee (present day southern Germany, near to the border with Liechtenstein) in the style of the Latin epic (specifically Prudentius Symmachus). It consists of 2300 extant verses written in dactylic hexameter with leonine rhymes (the last syllable of each verse rhymes with the first syllable of the third foot of the verse). It recounts the adventures of a warrior[6] (miles) named Ruodlieb who serves a just king (rex maior) and displays chivalrous virtues like obedience and righteousness. The poem is often regarded as the first coutly romance of western literature, marking the new era of courtly novels known from the Arthurian cycle and Middle High German poems such as Der Arme Heinrich.

In fragment XVIII (Clm. 19486 fol. 34a) of the poem (XVII in Schmeller’s edition) Ruodlieb captures a dwarf who promises council in defeating two kings, Immunch and Hartunch, claiming their treasure and carrying off their daughter, a beautiful virgin called Heriburg. When the dwarf is confronted with Ruodlieb’s suspicion he offers his wife, a pretty female dwarf (parva nimis pulchra[7]), as security that he will hold true to his word. He calls his wife from a nearby cave and the dwarf woman prostrates herself in front of Ruodlieb and begs to be his hostage untill her husband has accomplished everything he had promised. Then the fragment breaks off.

Fragment VIII Ruodlieb and the Dwarf[8]

He leapt up and wanted to get away,
untill he fell exhausted and barely caught his breath.
When strength returned to him, to Ruodlieb he most humbly spoke:

“spare my wretched self, I tell you what I know you want.


If you do not kill me and if you free my hands,
I’ll show you the hoard of two kings,

Son and father, who will go to battle with you

The father’s name is Immunch, and the son Hartunch,

By you they will be defeated, both will die by your doing.


Then the king’s  daughter – the sole remaining heir

Of the entire realm, Heriburg, the most beautiful virgin,

Is to be won by you, but not without great bloodshed,

Unless you do what I advise, when I have been freed.”

Ruodlieb said to the dwarf: “you will not be killed by me.


I would have freed you quickly, if I could have trusted you;

If you do not cheat me, you will return unharmed from me.

When you are free, you will tell me nothing.”

“May it not occur that ever between us (dwarfs?) this deceit prevails:

Then we should neither be of great age nor of good health.


Among you humans no one speaks, unless with a cunning heart;
Therefore you will not come to great age. (like we dwarfs)

In accordance with the faith of each one are the times of his life.

We only speak the way we hold it in our heart,

Nor do we eat various foods that entail diseases,


That’s why we will remain sound longer than you.

Do not distrust me, I will act in such a way that you may believe me.

If you do not trust me, my wife will be a hostage.”

He called her from the cave, she immediately came forth from it,

Small but beautiful nonetheless, and adorned with gold and clothing,


She fell before Ruodlieb’s feet pouring laments:

“Best of all men, loosen the bonds of my husband

Hold me for him, untill he has accomplished all!”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .[9]

Before turning to the contents of the poem, a few remarks on the language are warranted. The Ruodlieb poem is quite unconventional for a Medieval Latin poem in language, form and content (Kartschoke 1990: 232) and a vernacular origin has often been assumed. This argument is strengthened by the fact the personal names are not latinized (in contrast to the latinized personal names in the Waltharius lied), the latinized vernacular fish names that are listed in fragment X (XIII of Schmeller’s edition), the vernacular glosses in the manuscript (this is noteworthy for the manuscript is taken to be an autograph, see Ford 1965: 3) and the OHG words in the wedding vow, which is worth quoting in full.

Latin translation
66 Dixit: dic illi de me de corde fideli She said: say to him from my faithful heart
67 Tantundem liebes, quantum veniat modo loubes Just as much liebes (love) may come to him, as there is loubes (foliage)
68 Et volucrum wunna quot sunt, sibi dic mea minna Just as much birds have wunna (joy), say to him, (just as great) is my minna (affection)
69 Graminis et florum quantum sit, dic et honorum As much there is grass and flowers, say (as great) is (my) honour

The vernacular words in this fragment suggest an original alliterating diction in the OHG vernacular with liebes “love” as the first stressed foot of the first stanza, and loubes “foliage” of the second stanza. Also line 6-9 may allude to a vernacular origin for they call to mind lines 3-5 of the Hildebrandslied (Hiltibrant enti Hađubrant, untar heriun tuem, sunufatarungo, iro saro rihtun, Braune Ebbinghaus 1962: 84). In the two poems we both find the alliterating names of the kinsmen, i.e. Immunch, Hartunch and Heriburg. Even more interesting, we find a latin equivalent (line 7 et patris et nati) of the OHG formula sunufatarungo. We may speculate that the original vernacular lines may have ressembled the following:

ih zeigu dir,     zweio chuningo hort,

sunufatarungo (…)

daz Immunch heizzi der vater, sunu Hartunch.

To my mind it seems reasonable to assume that at least this part of the Ruodlieb poem constitutes a Latinate rendering of a vernacular poem. Whether Schmeller was right in identifying the Ruodlieb of the poem with künge Ruotliebe of the MHG Ecken Liet (who is associated with the Germanic heroic age) is open to discussion (Grimm et Schmeller 1838: 220).

A thing of interest in the Ruodlieb poem is the mutual mistrust displayed by Ruodlieb and his captive. Ruodlieb expresses his suspicion by making the release of the dwarf conditional to the dwarf holding true to his word (line 17 Si me non fallis, a me sanus remeabis). The dwarf retorts by claiming Ruodlieb’s mistrust is unjustified, deceit being a human characteristic, whereas dwarfs speak as “they hold it in their heart” (line 24 corde tenemus). It is hinted at by the dwarf that part of human mistrust originates in human envy towards the greater lifespan of dwarfs. The dwarf however attributes the shorter lifespan of humans to their insalubrious diet (line 25 neve cibos varios edimus morbos generantes). The reciprocal relationship between the hero and the dwarf in the Ruodlieb poem is characteristic of the business between humans and dwarfs in general (see Grimm 1875: 377-78) for human philanthropy is always rewarded with dwarvish generosity (Hermann 1903: 117).

            Note that the role of the dwarf woman is identical to the role of the Anglo-Saxon deores sweostar (sister of the creature, i.e. the dwarf’s sister) in that they serve as security against dwarvish maliciousness and deceit. To Early Medieval contemporaries the female hostage acting as security against masculine violence and retribution was a common literary theme[10] sprung forth from contemporary custom. On a more anthropological level this feminine apotropaeism may be compared to similar invocations of feminine entities such as Frau Holle and Frau Perhta of German folklore. These female deities were associated with duties generally attributed to the female gender, such as parturition, weaving, cleaning, but also healing and medicine (see Motz 1993: 124-30).


In this post I have compared two eleventh century texts in regards to their portrayal of those creatures of Germanic mythology that are commonly called “dwarfs”. These two texts may very well be the oldest evidence for the belief in these creatures and both texts attribute a pivotal role to a female dwarf who is supposed to act as security against the possible malicious intentions of her male partner. The one text is an Old English charm against dwarf inflicted illness, the other text is a fragment from the Latin Ruodlieb epic, an East-Frankish epic that originally may have reflected parts of an older vernacular epic. Both texts shed light on what constituted the “dwarf” in Early Medieval folk belief and may contribute to our understanding of dwarfs in prechristian times, without resorting to late medieval Scandinavian sources.

P.A. Kerkhof

 [1] Thanks to Bas Clerkx and Godelinde Perk for commenting on a earlier version of this article.

[2] The etymology of PGmc. *dwerǥais controversial. A connection to PIE *dhreughseems unlikely because of the unwarranted Schwebeablaut. Note that a zero-grade to the root is attested in OIc. dyrgja “female dwarf” < PGmc. *durgjō. Liberman (46-47) assumes that we are dealing with the rhotacized form of a PGmc. root *dwezǥ-, which would be a Verner variant to PGmc. *dwes- as attested in OE gedwǣsnes “dementia”. The Gmc. material allows to reconstruct the ablaut variants *dwē1s- and *dwas- (cf. MDu gedwas “foolishness” if this word has not been subjected to secondary shortening), so the postulation of an e-grade and the velar extension would be without Gmc. parallels. I am tempted to adhere to an old etymology, namely going back to PIE *dher- “to harm” (cf. Skt. dvarás- “demon” ← Skt. dvárati “to harm”) with an old athematic diminutive suffix. In connection to this negative epithet it seems relevant that the dwarfs are often called by more neutral names, i.e. OIc. svartalfar and in Grimm’s work Bergmännlein, das stille Volk, das kleine Volk.

[3] Attesting to the popularity of the myth in the Early Medieval West are the insertions of the myth into the Historia Langobardorum by Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century and even earlier Gregory of Tours in his Passio Sanctorum martyrum septem dormientium apud Ephesum which dates to the second half of the 6th century.

[4] Mythical creatures riding humans were generally blamed for causing diseases in humans. The most famous of these creatures is no doubt the “nightmare” (OE mare, OHG mara), a female elf-like creature (cp. ModG. Alptraum) who torments men in their sleep by sitting on their chest, thus pushing the air out of their lungs.

[5] In this regard, also consider ModDu jicht “gout” < PGmc. *jekti (cf. MidE isykle “icicle” < PGmc. *īs-jekila-) and ModDu koorts “fever” Pre-Du *kurts- < PGmc. *kruts- (cf. Goth. kriustan  “to chatter with the teeth”, see also De Vaan 2010) and OS hrido “fever” (cf. OHG ridōn “to shiver”). That we are dealing with an affliction involving fever is corroborated by another wið dweorg charm (E 11, Cotton Vitellius C iii, 46a) which states that the dwarf may arrive by day or by night and that the cure might at first intensify the attack (the fever) before it abbates (Grendon 1909: 212-13).

[6] Lat. miles is often translated as knight, but considering the fact that in the eleventh century East Frankish empire a hereditary feudal nobility was not yet institutionalized, I deem the term anachronistic and prefer a more neutral “warrior”.

[7] Note that this cannot be taken as an unambiguous reference to the size of dwarfs, for it concerns a woman. In OIc. literature dwarfs are not characterized as being unusually small (see Simek 2006: 92)

[8] The Latin original text is published online: It should be remarked that not everyone is convinced that the fragment containing the dialogue with the dwarf is part of the Ruodlieb poem.(see Kartschoke 1990: 232).

[9] Latin text as found in Schmeller´s edition of the manuscript (Grimm et Schmeller 1838: 196):


Exiliens et abire volens salit undique clamans,
Dum lassus cecidit vix spiramenque recepit.
Cui vigor ut rediit, ad Ruodlieb humillime dixit:
«Parce mihi misero, scio quod gratum tibi dico.


Si me non occideris atque manus mihi solves,
Monstro tibi censum binorum denique regum,
Et patris et nati, qui tecum preliaturi
– Nomen habet genitor Immunch, sed filius Hartunch –
A te vincuntur, ambo per te perimentur.


Filia sed regis – heres tunc sola superstes
Regni totius, Heriburg, pulcherrima virgo –
Est tibi lucranda, sed non sine sanguine magno,
Ni quod consiliar facias, ego quando resolvar.»
Ruodlieb ait nano: «non occidendus es a me.


Te cito solvissem, tibi si confidere possem;
Si me non fallis, a me sanus remeabis.
Quando potens fueris tuimet, nil post mihi dices.»
«Absit, ut inter nos umquam regnaverit hec fraus:
Non tam longevi tunc essemus neque sani.


Inter vos nemo loquitur, nisi corde doloso;
Hinc nec ad etatem maturam pervenietis.
Pro cuiusque fide sunt eius tempora vite.
Non aliter loquimur, nisi sicut corde tenemus,
Neve cibos varios edimus morbos generantes,


Longius incolomes hinc nos durabimus ac vos.
Non mihi diffidas, faciam, mihi quod bene credas.
Si mihi diffidas, mea coniunx sit tamen obses.»
Hanc vocat ex antro, que mox processerat illo,
Parva nimis pulchra, sed et auro vesteque compta.


Que ruit ante pedes Ruodlieb fundendo querelas:
«Optime cunctorum, vinclis mihi solve maritum
Meque tene pro se, donec persolverit omne!»
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[10] This custom is hinted at in OE poems such as Beowulf and The wife’s lament.


Braune Wilhelm et E. Ebbinghaus, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (1875: 14th edition Tübingen 1962).

Ford jr., Gordon B., The ruodlieb; the first medieval epic of chivalry from eleventh century Germany (Leiden 1965).

Grendon, Felix, “The Anglo-Saxon charms”, The journal of American Folklore 22 (1909) 105-237.

Grimm, J. et A. Schmeller eds., Lateinische Gedichte des X. und XI. JH. (Göttingen 1838).

Grimm, Jacob, Deutsche Mythologie (Berlin 1875: 4th edition).

Grimm, Jacob et Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Sagen (Kassel 1818: 1865).

Grimm, Jacob et Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen  (1819).

Kartschoke, Dieter, Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im frühen Mittelalter [Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im Mittelalter 3] (1990: 3d edition München 2000).

Liberman, Anatoly, an analytical dictionary of English etymology (2008).

Motz, Lotte, The beauty and the hag; female figures of Germanic Faith and myth [philologica Germanica 15](Vienna 1993).

Hermann, Paul, Nordische Mythologie in gemeinverständlicher darstellung, (Leipzig 1903).

Simek, Rudolf, Götter und Kulte der Germanen (2004: München 2006).

Vaan de, Michiel, “etymologie en dialectgeografie van koorts”, in: Verslagen en Mededelingen vande Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 120 3

(2010) 45–79.

Overcoming the female gender role in the Medieval Judith receptions

When it is okay for a woman to cut a mans head off in the Middle Ages

Being a woman in the Early Middle Ages was not easy. The Germanic kingdoms that arose amidst the ruins of the Roman empire valued the sword, masculinity and the bible. It was a mans world and warriors roamed the land. The Early Medieval dominance of the male gender was without a doubt facilitated by christian misogyny. The Church Fathers have a well earned reputation for having a not very egalitarian view on sex and gender roles, but exemplary is of course this passage from Paul’s epistle to the Ephasians.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Eph. 5:22-24.

We should note that before christianity took root in northern Europe attitudes towards women were probably a lot less chauvinist. In the Middle Ages on the margins of European christianity we find attitudes as expressed in literature and law that attribute women more indepedence and agency than in the more thoroughly christianized regions of Europe. This need not surprise us because it makes sense for rural sedentary societies to posess a pragmatic view on gender roles. Simply put, on a farm everybody has to work hard, often unsupervised and with an indepedent mind. In rural northwestern Europe labour was divided, the men doing most of the outdoor work and the women tending to the household; the men could simply not afford to marginalize the position of the women in their households, since they were essential to the wellbeing of the household. Also, women were not completely without means when it came to dispute and strife. In the Old Icelandic sagas they often are independent agents who trick, murder, and ocassionally fight their way out of many a predicament. And when matters were taken to court, many a woman was capable of rallying male sibling to her cause, letting them fight for her honour.

Ironically, escape from male discrimination was possible within the framework of medieval Christianity. Were a woman to leave the secular world and enter a monastery, thereby devoting herself to christ and renouncing all secular pleasures she could (as a dewomanized being) attain status, indepedence and religious authority. Whereas in Early Christianity monasticism was reserved for male recluses and woman had to crossdress to enter a monastic community, in the Early Middle Ages female monasticism became an institution in itself. For example, Merovingian noble families tried to sacrilize political power by founding monasteries and appointing their daughters as abbesses.  For a woman, joining a convent and becoming a bride of christ meant shedding the bonds of their sex and being regarded as pure vessels of religiousness, equal to men in the face of christ.

Unsurprisingly, a life of celebacy was not cut out for everyone and many women preferred the institution of marriage and the prospect of offspring to the harsh regime of the cloister. Even nuns could be tempted by carnal desires after joining a convent, as is clear from Boniface laments that so many Anglo-Saxon women who went on pilgrimage to Rome never made it to the eternal city and prostituted themselves in inns across Francia. Naturally, there were many women who weren´t nuns or prositutes or prostituting nuns and generally speaking many women were married, living a life of hard work and silent obedience.

Nevertheless, the bible does not only contain passages rife with misogyny and female subjugation. One of the more interesting bible books, albeit apocryphical, is the book Judith, relating the story of how a Jewish widow, Judith (Yəhūḏīṯ ), lifts the Assyrian siege of Bethalia by seducing and murdering the Assyrian warlord Holofernes. When Holofernes is drunk and fast asleep in his chambers Judith takes up his sword, grabs him by the hair and cuts of his head with two consecutive hews.

Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes’ head, and took down his fauchion from thence, And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.  And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid” Judith 13: 6-9

This remarkable tale of Hebrew feminism is presumed to have been written relatively late, around the second century BCE (Brine 2010: 3). This partly may be the reason why the book is not to be found in the Hebrew bible, but it is just as likely that the rabbis who established the Hebrew canon thought the deeds of the protagonist were to unbecoming for her sex. Whatever the case, it has to be remarked that the story of Judith was immensely popular in the Barbarian west. We posess a ninth century commentary on the book by the Carolingian scholar Hrabanus Maurus, a tenth century Old English epic poem relating the story in beautiful Germanic alliterating stanzas and a late eleventh century High German poem in verse. Furthermore Judith became a personal name for Early Medieval nobility as is clear from the Judith who was the wife of Louis the Pious and the Judith who was the mother of the Polish king Bołeslaw III.

 Perhaps we may take this as a sign that Christian misogyny was sufficiently alien to the Barbarian west in order to allow the tale of Judith to be pushed to the fore in northern European christianity. We must note however that the christian appropriation and reinterpretation of the biblical tale predates the Middle Ages. The Church Fathers had already stressed the chastity of biblical Judith as her main characteristic. She did not defeat the godless Holofernes ánd kept her chastity as a widow, but she defeated Holofernes because of her chastity. Jerome’s words are examplary for the christian attitude towards biblical Judith.

Receive the widow Judith, example of chastity, and with victorious  praise acclaim her with perpetual celebrations. For not only to women, but even to men, she has been given as an example by the one who remunerates her chastity, who has ascribed to her such virtue that she defeated the one who was undefeated by all men, and conquered the one who is unconquerable.” Vulgata Incipit Prologus Iudith 9-12.

By insisting upon her chastity the woman Judith, who is described in the bible book as exceptionally beautiful, is effectively desexed and reinterpreted in christian terms.

And when Judith was come before him and his servants they all marvelled at the beauty of her countenance; and she fell down upon her face, and did reverence unto him: and his servants took her up.” Judith 10: 23. (King James translation)

This twist of the story keeps it from contradicting the general misogynystic drift of orthodox christianity, equating Judith with the virgins of the Early Medieval convents.

Not only the chastity of biblical Judith appealed to an Early Medieval audience, also her martial prowess connected well to the attitudes of the warrior societies of the Early Middle Ages. Gregory of Tours relates in his sixth century historia francorum the story about a slave girl who was molested by the drunk Duke Amalo. When Amalo fell asleep, she seized the opportunity, grabbed his sword and avenged her lost honour.

The girl stretched out her hand above his head, took hold of his sword, eased it out of its scabbard and, just as Judith did to Holofernes, dealt him a mighty blow.” Gregory of Tours Decem Libri historiarum francorum, book 9 chapter 25. (Penguin translation, Lewis Thorpe).

As you can see, Gregory did not refrain from likening the bold slave girl to biblical Judith, even alleging that no actual intercourse had happened yet. Since this specific girl was first apprehended by a gang of Amalo’s lackee’s who severely abused her before bringing her to Amalo himself we might question that assertion.

Nevertheless, we may want to contrast this tale of female vengeance to Lucretia of Classical Rome who plunged a dagger in her breast after Sextus Tarquinius Superbus took her virginity. In Classical Rome she stood as an example for female chastity and humility. Probably this attitude was not shared by Rome’s northern neighbours. Gregory of Tours did not think it a strange thing when a Frankish woman avenged her lost honour by taking the life of the men who raped her. On this Gregory of Tours and many present day feminists would probably agree.

The Franks’ western neighbours that lived across the Channel, the Anglo-Saxons, also valued the book Judith and wrote a lengthy vernacular poem about the biblical heroine. The Anglo-Saxon Judith poem was presumably written in the late tenth century and is preserved in Cotton Vitellius A XV (British Library, London). The poem is filled with battle scenes and heroic imagery and combines the image of Judith as a christian example of chastity with the martial Judith that Gregory describes; a chaste sword wielding Xena Warrior Princess. In the Anglo-Saxon poem Judith is described as a virgin, which makes sense when we consider the Early Medieval practice of equating chastity with virginity. Instructive is the scene where Judith does the deed and beheads the dreaded Holofernes (Treharne 2000: 201).

Genam ða þone h æðenan mannan     Fæste be feaxe sinum, teah hyne folmum wið hyre weardBysmerlice, ond þone bealofullan

Listum alede, laðne mannan,

Swa heo ðæs unlædan eaðost mihte

Wel gecwaldan. Sloh ða wundenlocc

Þone feondsceaðan fagum mece,

Heteþoncolne, þæt heo healfne forcearf

Þone sweoran him, þæt he on swiman læg,

Druncen ond dolhwund.


She seized the heathen manSecurely by his hair,Pulled him shamefully towards herWith her hands, and skillfully placed

The wicked and loathsome man

So that she could most easily manage

the miserable one well.

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, such that he lay

unconscious, drunk and wounded.

(Treharne’s translation).

The Old English Judith poem is however not the only old vernacular poem about the Judith tale, we also have a High German Judith poem preserved, traditionally called the Ältere Judith to distinguish it from a clearly younger and longer Middle High German Judith poem. Although the Ältere Judith is not significantly younger than its Old English counterpart, its style and content are considerably different. The Ältere Judith poem, also called Nabuchodonosor, is preserved in the early twelfth century Vorau Manuscript 276 (Stiftsbibliothek), but the poem itself may predate the manuscript by a century atleast with some scholars even arguing for a tenth century conception. The poem consists of 19 lines in verse, significantly shorter than 349 alliterating lines of the Old English version, written in a late Old High German possibly early Middle High German Rhine Franconian dialect. The poem equates the Nebukadnezar of the book Daniel with the Nebukadnezar of the book Judith, incorporating both the story of the murder of the three young men in the oven and the story of Judith who murdered Holofernes in the poem. We may compare the “murder scene” of the Old English poem with the “murder scene” of the late Old High German poem. For the sample below I used Waag’s edition (Waag 1890: 34-41).

Dô irbarmôtiz doch                Den alwaltintin got:Dô santer ein eingil voni himiliDer kuntiz deri vrowin hî nidini:

Nu stant ûf, dû gûti Judithi

Dû zi goti woli digiti,

Unde geinc dir zi demo gizelti

Dâ daz swert sî giborgin

Du heiz dîn wîb Avin

Vur daz betti gâhin,

Ob er ûf welli,

Daz sû in eddewaz âvelli

Du zûhiz wîglichi

Undi slâ vravillichi,

Du slâ Holoferni

Daz houbit von dem bûchi,

Du lâ ligin den satin bûch,

Daz houbit stôz in ginin stûch.

Then God took pity on her.Then he sent an angel from heaven,who revealed it to the woman here below: now rise, you excellent Judith,who prayed dilligently to god,

go to the tent,

where the sword is hidden.

Command your chambermaid Ava,

to go in front of the bed,

to keep him down

when he wants to rise,

now draw battle-like (the sword)

and hit boldly,

hit his head from his belly,

leave his drunk belly behind

and put his head in your sleeve.


This Judith needs more divine help than her Old English namesake. After invoking Gods help in a similar way as the Old English Judith (German Judith: nu hilf mir alwaltantir got, Old English Judith: Ic ðe, frymða God, ond frofre Gæst, Bearn alwaldan, biddan wylle), an angel comes down from heaven and narrates what she should do. Thus the actual action scene is not related and the angelus ex machine takes the responsibility away from our heroine. Nevertheless, the words of the angel imply that she is still the same sword wielding heroine as in the Old English poem as is clear from the words wîglichi “battle-like” and vravillîchi “boldly”, martial epithets for a martial protagonist.

In the High and Late Middle Ages numerous Judith receptions followed, several of which have made their way to written form. The biblical heroine had become part of oral tradition and plays a role in the work of Chaucer and Dante. Folk songs and many oral versions of the story were brought by trouvères and minstrels from town to town and were integrated into the collective reservoir of oral poetry.

Finally we may note that the tale of the woman cutting off an evil mens head and carrying it home became a folk motive which eventually made its way into the late Middle Dutch Heer Halewijnlied, a Dutch folk song that probably is to be ascribed to the 14th c., despite the only copy dating from a 19th c. scholarly edition of the song from a lost leaflet. We may also wonder whether the name Halewijn is not in some way connected to the name Holofernes, perhaps via Early Romance *ɔlɔƀɛrn which provoked a folk etymological interpretation. It has been argued that the English Elf-Knight and Danish Ulver from modern folktales are also to be connected to the Holofernes of the biblical Judith tale (Nygard 1958: 32).

To me this song holds special significance since it was my first introduction to the historical prestages of Dutch in high school and a great one it was. The story of the song is amazing in every possible way. A princess hears the magic song of a dark knight called lord Halewijn who makes every woman in the land fall in love and elope with him. The princess also hears the song and asks permission from her parents and family to go to Halewijn. Every family member tells her not to go (neen, mijn dochter, neen, gi niet, wie derwaert gaen en keeren niet “no, my daughter, not you, who goes yonder does not come back”), but her brother says she can go just as long as she keeps her honour. Of course she doesn’t intend to keep her honour and goes to Halewijn for some serious extramarital intercourse. Unfortunately for our heroine, Halewijn has the nasty habit of slaying the women he slept with and she, alas, is no exception. Gallantly he does offer her a choice in the manner of her execution. Our heroine has both brains and brawn and chooses the sword but bids him to take off his shirt lest it get soaked in blood. Halewijn takes off his shirt, but the princess has already grabbed his sword and cuts off his head. She puts it in her garments and walks away.

Heer Halewijn heeft alsdan geseid:“Mits gi di scoonste maget zijtSoo kiest u dood; het is nu tijd.” “Wel, als ik dan hier kiesen sal,

Soo kies ic tsweert noch boven al.

Maer trect eerst uit u opperst kleet:

Want maegdenbloet dat spreit soo breet:

Soot u bespreide, dat ware mi leet.

En eer sijn kleet getogen was,

Sijn hooft al voor sijn voeten lag.

(Willems 1848:118)


Lord Halewijn then said:Unless you are the prettiest maidenChoose your execution: it is time.Well, if I have to choose here,

so I will choose the sword above all other ways.

But take off your shirt, because maidenblood

Spills o so widely. I would hate to see it soil you! And before his shirt was off, his head lay at his feet.

In every way this sassy young lady is heiress to a long tradition of Judith receptions and embodies the bold female protagonist who outwits the evil antagonist and defends her own honour by beheading her male opponent. In this regard she is strikingly similar to Gregory of Tours slave girl who killed Duke Amalo. In both cases, the message is clear: Don’t mess with a smart woman or you might lose your head!


Brine, Kevin R.

2010        “The Judith Project” in: The sword of Judith: Judith studies across the disciplines, Kevin R. Brine e.a. eds. (Cambridge).

Gregory of Tours

1974       History of the Franks, Lewis Thorpe ed. (London).

Nygard, Holger Olof

1958      The ballad of Heer Halewijn, its form and variations in western Europe: a study of the history and nature of a ballad tradition (Helsinki).

Treharne, Elaine

2000        Old and Middle English c. 890- c. 1400; an anthology (Oxford).

Waag, Albert

1890 Kleinere deutsche Gedichten des XI und XII Jahrhunderts (Halle).

Weber Robert e.a. eds.

1969        Biblia Sacra; iuxta vulgatam versionem (Stuttgart).

Willems, J.F.

1848           Oude Vlaemsche liederen; ten deele met de melodiën (Gent).