The Old English Judith: Can a Woman be a Hero?

The Old English Judith: Can a Woman be a Hero?

Guenther, Kelly

York Medieval Yearbook, ISSUE No. 1, (2002)


The Old English Judith is unique among the other poems in the extant Old English poetic corpus in depicting a woman as the hero at the center of the poem. A hero, as portrayed in Old English poetry, is one who performs acts of valor in a life-threatening situation, out of loyalty to a lord, gaining a glorious reputation as a result. Thus, while Elene and Juliana also feature women as their central characters, they are not necessarily portrayed as heroic. Elene embarks on a quest to retrieve the True Cross, but there is no sense that she is performing an act of bravery. She endures no hardship, and there is no threat to her own safety or that of her people.

She is at the head of a troop of armed men, but she does not lead them into battle, unlike her son Constantine at the beginning of the poem. Juliana does verbally battle with the devil and withstands physical tortures in her determination to remain true to her faith, but this seems to be more a depiction of a saint imitating Christ in a hagiographical vein than a Germanic heroic ideal. Judith, conversely, kills the mortal enemy of her people, returns victorious to her city, and her people proceed to win a battle against their foes.

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