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Why Judith?

June 17, 2013

This endeavor is, at its heart, rooted in teaching. My first conceptions of this project began when I taught the Old English poem Judith in spring 2013, and I started wondering about its relationships to other related texts–first to the Vulgate version of the biblical story of Judith, and second to Ælfric’s vernacular homiletic version of the same narrative. As I pursued these ideas, I discovered that the range of texts associated with the biblical Judith and known to the Anglo-Saxons is much wider, though rarely acknowledged.

Perhaps the best way to think of these works, I think, is as a “constellation” of texts centered around the biblical narrative (and I would be grateful for feedback on this concept). By considering all of these related texts together, I want to decentralize the Old English poem as the primary object of study, in order to emphasize that it is one of many compositions about Judith that circulated in Anglo-Saxon England. In other words, although this poem holds a more canonical status (increasingly in recent years) in the corpus of Old English literature–and Anglo-Saxon literature more generally–it should not be the sole focus for Anglo-Saxonists.

What I particularly like about using Judith for this project is that the constellation of texts is both significant and manageable. As is apparent from the number of Anglo-Saxon texts associated with the biblical Judith, it was a significant subject for Anglo-Saxon authors. Surely there are other biblical books where this is likely not the case, or where evidence of interactions have not survived. Yet there is also the potential for the opposite problem, of a daunting number of related texts to consider. No doubt this would be the case if this project encompassed the whole of the Bible as its scope. Similarly, the depth of analysis that I hope for with Judith may not be possible for certain other parts of the Bible, since the massive breadth of inquiry necessary could distract from the details. For example, Genesis might be examined in a similar way, but the sheer number of texts related to this book (commentaries, sermons, glosses, genealogies, allusions, Old English translations, etc.) would surely pose many methodological problems. (Of course, it can be hoped that this Judith project is just one among similar future digital projects, and that projects for Genesis and other biblical works might be undertaken in the future.)

The subject of Judith opens up as a sort of microcosm for inquiry into Anglo-Saxon engagement with the Bible. In this, it poses a suitable case study for addressing questions about how readers and writers interacted with the biblical book, how related texts circulated, what Anglo-Saxons knew and produced concerning Judith, and how individual texts within this constellation connect to each other.

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