The Participation of Women in the Anglo-Saxon World: Judith and The Wife’s Lament
By Jennifer Brookbanks
Innervate: Leading Undergraduate Work in English Studies, Volume 1 (2008-2009)
Introduction: The ‘terrestrial, secular experience of the Anglo-Saxon world’ can be interpreted as the heroic society of the Anglo-Saxons, based upon earthly relationships between lords and retainers and governed by heroic codes of behaviour. Whilst the Judith poet transforms his poem’s biblical source to present a text that is located in the Anglo-Saxon world, he also suggests that it is a patriarchal society in which women are unable to participate fully. This is conveyed as the poet undercuts Judith’s warrior role and presents her as dependent upon male agency; he depicts God as responsible for her war-like behaviour and suggests that Holofernes’ self-destructive conduct removes the need for Judith to act heroically. Contrastingly, the poet of The Wife’s Lament portrays female inclusion in the heroic Anglo- Saxon world. Although he presents a woman who is physically excluded from the social structure following male abandonment, the poet portrays a reversal of the female’s subservience to her husband as the poem progresses. The female gains power through her authoritative speech, which can be interpreted as a form of revenge on her husband. In independently performing this heroic duty, the female can be considered as achieving liberation from the patriarchal hierarchy and participating fully in heroic society.
In Judith, the poet diverges from the biblical source and alters the narrative to convey Judith’s inability to act freely in the Anglo-Saxon world. The poet repeatedly refers to his knowledge of the poem’s resolution, suggesting that the Assyrian soldiers are ‘doomed’ (fǣge, 19) and that Holofernes does not ‘foresee’ (wēnde, 20) this. He further predicts how Holofernes is to ‘lose his life’ (his blǣd forlēosan, 63) after going to bed for the ‘last time’ (nēhstan sīðe, 73). Whilst this creates what Pringle identifies as a ‘strong sense of the steady, inexorable movement of the narrative’, the poet’s intrusive voice is also suggestive of regulatory male authority, to which Judith will be further subjected as the narrative develops. Furthermore, the poet implies that God also has knowledge of the poem’s resolution, in stating that he ‘would not…allow’ (ne wolde… geðafian, 59-60) Holofernes’ corruption of Judith. Thus, in suggesting that Holofernes’ defeat is predetermined by God, the poet begins to detract from Judith’s participation in heroic society.
In contrast to the third-person narrative of Judith, which is filtered through the masculine voice of the poet, The Wife’s Lament is written in the first-person, and conveys a wholly female voice. The poet emphasises the individual nature of the female speaker’s experience, by presenting her statement:
IC þis giedd wrece bī mē ful geōmorre, mīnre sylfre sīð. (1-2)
This tale I put about my most melancholy self, my personal experiencing.