Does Judith Pass the Bechdel Test?

Recently the following came across my Twitter feed:

Intrigued, I read the article and also began wondering what we could gain from thinking about the Bible through the lens of the Bechdel (or Bechdel-Wallace) Test. So I turned to a book of the Bible (at least, included in some bibles) that seems like a natural candidate: the Book of Judith. At the start, I want to acknowledge my own privileged position, as a cis white man—but also a feminist ally to women and other marginalized voices, including people of color and LGBTQ communities.

So I offer these reflections as a way to pose questions, to help spur on conversations about representations of women in art. Of course, the biblical Judith (the book and character) has been significant for feminist criticism before.[1] As medievalist who focuses on early English literature, I’m especially interested in this narrative, since there exist two Old English versions, which have also garnered feminist interpretations.[2] Here I focus on all three versions: the biblical Judith; the Old English poetic Judith; and Ælfric of Eynsham’s sermon De Iudith.

In the biblical narrative, three passages stand out.[3] The first appears in 13:3, when the narrative relates, “And Ioudith had told he slave girl to stand outside of her bedchamber and watch out for her departure, just as each day, for she said she would be setting forth for her prayers.” There is a clear indication that Judith and her handmaiden speak, but it is represented only as indirect speech.

Significantly, this brief passage includes no mention of a man, but is focused on Judith and her actions as well as her handmaiden and commands to her. This is perhaps the closest to passing the Bechdel test as possible without direct character speech. Yet the namelessness of the handmaiden must also be acknowledged, since some consider character names to be a necessary part of passing the test.

Even more, this lack of name highlights the role of the woman, rather than her individuality. There is something of a contrast here with Judith, who is named, described, and made central as an individual in many ways throughout the narrative.

Gentileschi's Judith
Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1610-12), at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

Also significant for acknowledging women’s interactions in the biblical story are two other passages. Both appear after the climax and resolution of the narrative, one in 15:12-13:

And every woman of Israel rushed together so as to see [Ioudith], and they blessed her, and some of them performed a choral dance for her, and she took wands in her hands and gave them to the women who were with her. And they crowned themselves with olive, she and those with her, and she went before all the people leading all the women in dancing….

These verses present a group of women communicating together about Judith’s deeds, praising her for her actions and the salvation brought to the Israelites. While there is (as previously) no direct speech quoted, the women are represented as a group talking together, without men until they go out into the larger community.

Finally, in 16:23, we also learn that “she set free her favorite slave”—again, with no direct speech, but the implication of a conversation between the two women. It is also noteworthy that this narrative reference addresses the double marginalization of the handmaiden: as a slave and as a woman in a patriarchal community.

Turning to the Old English texts reveals much the same, since both take cues directly from the biblical versions. With the poetic Judith (an anonymous poem composed in the late ninth or early tenth century), we find an elaborate expansion of Jerome’s Vulgate—though only the end survives in a fragmented form. In this vernacular acount, one passage stands out for the interaction between Judith and her handmaiden:[4]

Þa seo snotere mægð         snude gebrohte
þæs herewæðan         heafod swa blodig
on ðam fætelse         þe hyre foregenga,
blachleor ides,         hyra begea nest,
ðeawum geðungen,         þyder on lædde,
ond hit þa swa heolfrig         hyre on hond ageaf,
higeðoncolre,         ham to berenne,
Iudith gingran sinre.         Eodon ða gegnum þanonne
þa idesa ba         ellenþriste,
oðþæt hie becomon,         collenferhðe,
eadhreðige mægð,         ut of ðam herige,
þæt hie sweotollice         geseon mihten
þære wlitegan byrig         weallas blican,

(125-38a: Then the wise maiden quickly put the head of the war-wager, as bloody as it was, into the bag in which her maidservant, the lily-cheeked lady, mindful of her duties, had brought their provisions, and as gory as it was, Judith gave it to the hand of her young companion to bear home. The two daring women then both went from there, until they, elated, triumphant maidens, came out of the army camp, so that they could clearly see the walls shine of that lovely city, Bethulia.)

While she clearly plays a significant role as Judith’s accomplice, the unnamed handmaiden still speaks no lines, and there is only an indication of indirect speech. Both women are, however, described in glowing terms, as the handmaiden is represented in the same terms of courage and virtue afforded to the heroic protagonist Judith.

Ælfric’s sermon De Iudith (composed c.1002-5) provides a sort of homiletic epitome of the Judith story, also derived from Jerome’s Vulgate version.[5]As in the biblical account, Ælfric relates that Judith left the city and went to the enemy camp “mid anre þinene” (“with one maidservant”), but little is told about this figure.

The only clear evidence of Judith’s direct interaction with her maidservant is at the climax of the story, when Holofernes lies drunk in his tent after feasting and Judith sets the key to her plan in motion:

Iudith geseah þa, þa þa he on slæpe wæs, þæt hire wæs gerymed to hire ræde wel forð; & het hire þinene healdan þa duru, & gelæhte his agen swurd & sloh to his hneccan, & mid twam slegum forsloh him þone swuran, & bewand þæt bodig mid ðam beddclaðum. Heo nam ða þæt heafod, & his hopscytan, & eode hire ut mid hire þinene swylce on gebedum, swa swa hyre gewuna wæs, oþþæt hi buta becomon to þam burhgeate.

(254-61: Then, when he [Holofernes] was asleep, Judith saw that the way forward was opened up fully for her; and she commanded her maidservant to hold the doors, and she took his own sword and struck into his neck, and with two strikes cut him in the throat, and she wound the body with the bed-sheets. Then she took the head, and his bed-sheets, and she went out with her maidservant with such prayers, just as her custom was, until they came to the city gates.)

The account adds little to what has already been seen in the other versions. Here Ælfric doesn not even indicate indirect speech; the only communication between the two women is in the form of prayers (gebedum).

The difficulty of assessing these texts in terms of the Bechdel-Wallace Test lies in the interpretation of women’s speech. In Judith and the early medieval adaptations, speech manifests only referentially, indirectly, not as utterances from the mouths of the characters themselves.

Of course, as other critics have pointed out, passing the Bechdel-Wallace Test is not the true goal of fair representation. The requirements seem “pretty strict” to some (to use the term from Allison Bechdel’s comic that originated the concept), but they are also fairly basic. Indeed, there are many other ways in which a work of art might represent women to cut against gender norms—whether it passes the test or not. Nor can the issue be covered in a single blog post.

With the story of Judith, readers must account for not only women’s voices and conversations but also representations of Judith as widow/virgin, heroine, and virtuous, all in terms acclaimed by men. But hers is also the most legitimate, authoritative voice in the story, as she commands men and takes action while they remain idle.

In the different versions, and at different moments, Judith is variously portrayed as pure, seductive, and murderous. The story of Judith, it turns out, is a prime example of nuances surrounding assessing the Bible and the requirements of the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

[1] See, for example, essays in A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, ed. Athalya Brenner, The Feminist Companion to the Bible 7 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

[2] See esp. Stacy S. Klein, “Gender,” A Handbook to Anglo-Saxon Studies, ed. Jacqueline Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 39-54.

[3] References are to the translation by Cameron Boyd-Taylor, in A New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 441-55, available here.

[4] References by line numbers are to the edition from the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, available here.

[5] References by line numbers are to the edition by Stuart D. Lee, Ælfric’s Homilies on Judith, Esther, and The Maccabees, 1999, available here.

[Note: This post originally appeared on the History of Christianity Blog, April 8, 2016, now available in archive form here. I have undertaken minor revisions in this version.]

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