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).


One response to “Overcoming the female gender role in the Medieval Judith receptions

  1. Judith Koren

    Never noticed the similarities between the Book of Judith and Het Lied van Heer Halewijn. Fascinating!

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