Ælfric’s Sermon On Judith

Prague, Musée nat., Bibl., XVIII. B. 18, fol. 200r.

When I first started working on texts related to the biblical Judith in Anglo-Saxon England (which I discuss here), I had several goals: one of these was to provide more exposure to literature other than the Old English poem Judith. The sermon On Judith by Ælfric of Eynsham was one of the main texts that sparked my interest. Ælfric composed this sermon sometime between 1002 and 1005, after he had completed his translation of Genesis and during a period when he wrote narrative summaries of various biblical books included in or as extensions of his Lives of Saints. Among these, he wrote on Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Esther, Judith, and Maccabees.

When I posted my online anthology of texts related to Judith, I included translations for most of the contents, but not for Ælfric’s sermon because I never sat down and finished it. In the meantime, I’ve had a number of people contact me to ask if I know of a translation, or have one on hand to share. But, to my knowledge, there is no full translation in print or online. So I finally sat down to translate the entire sermon. I offer this translation under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

The translation is based on Stuart D. Lee’s online critical edition, Ælfric’s Homilies on Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees (1999). I have also consulted the previous edition, Angelsächsische Homilien und Heiligenleben, ed. Bruno Assmann, Bibliothek der angelsächsichen Prosa 3 (Kassel: Georg H. Wigand, 1889), 102-16. I have normalized names to modern standard forms, and I have supplied notes about biblical sources in square brackets.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Orazio Gentileschi (c.1610-12), courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Here begins On Judith, how she killed Holofernes

Now we tell first that in these writings there were two kings named Nebuchadnezzar in Latin, both very famous in name. One was the Chaldean who killed the people of God in the land of Judea for their unbelief, when they wrongly lived in heathen and demonic idolatry; they performed injury to their Lord. Then the king overthrew their happy city, named Jerusalem, and that holy temple, which Solomon built with marvelous craft, and cast them to the ground, and slew the people of God, and then those left from the battle he drove to his land, to Babylon, their great city. And there they lived in his cruel servitude, to know their sin against the true God. For seventy years they lived there in servitude, until King Cyrus sent them to return back to the land of Judea, from where they were led, and commanded them again to raise up that single temple, so that the almighty God sent it from his heart, that he was merciful to his people after such great misery.

Now the other king who was named Nebuchadnezzar in Latin was in the land of Syria, the son of Cyrus whom we said before, and his nickname was given as Cambisus. So, then Cambisus declared to fight against Arfaxad, the king of the Medes, and he slew him, and through that victory he raised himself into a very proud spirit, and he sent his messengers from every side of him to all of the realms of people which lay within his kingdom. He desired that they all should bend to him alone, so that he alone would be their king. But all the realms of people spoke against him together, and they sent his messengers back again quickly, without dignity, very unworthily.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was angered, and swore by his throne that he certainly desired to avenge all of them who scorned his messengers and himself. Then he gathered his counselors, and consulted with all of them all; he said that he thought that he desired to bend all the earth to his rule, and they answered him that he spoke singularly. Then the king sent a certain war-leader, named Holofernes, with a great army, and commanded him with these words: “Do not turn away from anything, nor show mercy to any kingdom nor any city region. But establish each city you bend to me!”

Then Holofernes went with an immense army, just as the king commanded, and broke each city, and slew those who stood against them, so that fear of him sprang up over all peoples. Twelve-hundred thousand warrior men were in his army, and twelve thousand bowmen went forth together with them. And no people could stand against his army, but they came to a distant land, taken with fear, asking for peace. They said that it was dearer to them that, living, they should serve the great King Nebuchadnezzar than that they, dying together, should be destroyed. And so they bowed to the famous army with all their possessions to the sole rule of the king. Then he [Holofernes] went with a fighting force against many peoples, and won their lands, until the Jewish people learned of his army, and they were afraid of his army. Nevertheless they prepared themselves for battle on that greatly surrounded high mountain, and closed off every way up to the mountain, and with one mind they all cried out to God, asking for his help so they would not be destroyed.

Afterward Holofernes came with his army to the land of the Jews, who believed in God, and the people of Israel together prepared to fight against his army, so that they might destroy them. But it became said that they themselves prepared for battle against him, and desired to stand against him. Then Holofernes asked his eldest champion who those people were, who dwelled on the mountain, who scorned him so, and would not seek him out, nor ask for peace, bowing down to him. Then a certain war-leader named Achior, of the Ammonite people, said with great belief: “Beloved, I will tell you the truth about these people. This race formerly came from the Chaldean tribe, and ever they worship one almighty God, he who dwells in heaven, believing in him.”

“When the great hunger went over all the earth, then their fathers went to the land of Egypt where they found food for themselves, and long they dwelled there, four-hundred years, until this race was grown so great that a man could not reckon them. Then Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, desired to afflict them evilly; and he set them in servitude to his wall-works, so that they made his city. But they cried out together to the almighty God in whom they believed so that he freed them; and soon he sent a wondrous wise man to the land of Egypt, until they let his people go free from that land to their own land.

“Then their God led all of them from the land over the Red Sea, journeying along the ground, so that the water stood like stonewalls on each side of them, there where they went in. And Pharaoh the king went to stop them; he desired to have them back in his servitude. But God drowned him in the deep sea, so that of all his army not one man remained.

“Those people of God then went up from the ground, praising their Lord who so freed them. And so they dwelled for forty winters in the wastes, there where no man before could dwell; and, through a sending of the Lord, food from the heavens came daily to them for all that race of men; and then bitter wellsprings became sweet to them; and also from a hard stone had running water. Afterward they won with victory this land, and their God helped them and fought for them; and no man could own this people, so long as they rightly held onto their God. So often as they bent from worship of him to the heathen gods, they became harried and turned to blasphemy through heathen peoples. So often as they turned back with true repentance to their God, he immediately made them mighty and strong to stand against their enemies. Truly their God hates unrighteousness!

“Now, for many years, when they neglected the heavenly God, they became harried, and some slain, and some led to distant lands, dwelling in captivity, until they turned back to the heavenly God in whom they believed; and now they have again inhabited their land and the city Jerusalem, where their temple is.

“Now I bid you, Lord, that you find out if this people now have worked any unrighteousness or sin against their God, and if they are subject to your one ruler. Then if they have no unrighteousness nor have angered their God, then we will all be finished by reproach from their lord, who guards them, just as is his custom.”

Then immediately after this speech Holofernes became very angry at him and with boasting said: “Now you know, Achior, that you shall be slain with our swords, when we slay them all to a man, that you may know that our king and lord Nebuchadnezzar is truly God, and how he will easily destroy all Israel.”

Then he [Holofernes] commanded to bind him [Achior] and to bring him into that land and be taken to the people so that he might be destroyed with them. Then he was bound, just as the famous one commanded, and led to that land; and they left him there, disgracefully bound to a tree. Then he was found by the people there, and he told them all about his journey in order, and then immediately after his speech the people fell to the earth, with flowing tears, crying with lamentation: “See, heavenly Lord, their pride and our humility; and reveal, Lord, that you despise no one who trusts in you with true belief, and that you humble those who rely on their glory.” Then they comforted the aforesaid Achior, and Ozias their leader had him with him, and then they all prayed for God’s mercy and for his protection against the Syrian army.

So, then Holofernes desired to besiege them out, and he beset their ships with guardsmen for twenty days altogether around the city; they said that they [the Israelites] hoped in the mountain more than in weapons or in any battle. Then the people of Israel became uneasy in mind for want of water, and truly there was not in all the wells in the city so much water that it might be enough for everyone. But then they had a counsel because they desired to bend to the famous war-leader in homage to him, so that they might live. Then Ozias said to all the people: “My brothers, be patient and with even minds wait still another five days for the will of our Lord, and if then no comfort comes for our people, nor any loosening of our needfulness, then we may bend to the famous war-leader in homage to him, that he might protect us.”

Then, at the same time, in that city was a singular woman in widowhood named Judith, from the race of the patriarchs, one who strongly believed in the living God, famous in servitude, rightly living by the law of Moses, a remnant of Manasses. He was her husband, but he was slain by the heat of the sun in harvest time, out with his reapers who reaped his corn. He left that widow not a little in wealth and in other possessions, according to his great birthright of wealth in many possessions; and she dwelled in cleanness after her husband in her upper floor with her maidservants. She was very beautiful, and of fair appearance, and she always fasted except on feast-days, always clothed with hair against her body, in the fear of God, without ill-fame.

This Judith learned how Ozias spoke, and said that it was truly bad counsel that one should set such an appointed day for God, so that within five days he should help the people or they would seek out the Syrian army and the nobleman in his sole rule: “These words do not gladden God into mercy for us, but they provoke him to fierce anger. We should be mindful to his mercy, because we know no other god but him alone. Let us await with humility his singular comfort. Abraham and Isaac and our patriarchs were tested in their perils and in sufferings. They were true to the almighty God, who always freed them. We should pray to him, so that he blesses us, and save us from this suffering.”

After these words, and other prayers, she cast off her haircloth and her widow’s clothes, and adorned herself with gold, and with purple, and with singular apparel, and afterward she went out, with one maidservant, out of the city. And she asked the people and the aforesaid Ozias that they not worry about her going, but they remained in prayers and prayed for her; and they all wondered at her great beauty.

Then, in the early morning, she came to the guards, said that she desired to seek the nobleman and to instruct him in his own desires how he might easily betray that race, without peril to his own people, so that not one man in his troop might be destroyed. Then they wondered greatly at her beauty, and her wise words, and with honor they led her to their leader into his tent. As soon as he [Holofernes] looked on her shining countenance, he became taken by the lust in his inconstant heart; and she lay down at his feet, said that she knew a certain thing, that the people of Israel were so badly held with sharp hunger, and great thirst, for their sins against the true God, that they could all together be destroyed, unless they bend to his rule immediately.

Again she [Judith] said other words: “I will worship my God just as well with you, and in a set time I shall pray with bended knees to him and learn from him when you might easily come to the people, with all your army, into the middle of Jerusalem, by my instruction, and you will have them all just as shepherdess sheep. For this I came to you, so that I might tell you this.”

Then he believed her words and promised her well, and his warriors said that no such woman was so fair of beauty in all the earth, and so wise in speech; and the nobleman commanded them to go into his treasure-chamber and remain there until he should send word, and he commanded his officers to serve her from his own meals and his luxury foods. However, she did not desire to eat his meals because of his heathenism, but she had brought in her maidservant’s bag her own food, until with works she fulfilled the intention of her mind.

Then Judith asked the nobleman that she might by his leave, in the long night, go to her prayers to pray to her lord outside of the treasure-chamber on her bended knees, and he gave her leave so that she might do so; and she did so ever into the night. She asked the almighty God that he instruct his people to freedom in their peril.

Then, on the fourth day, the nobleman gave a feast for his officers in his tent with much joy, and commanded his chamberlains that they should bring the aforesaid Judith into his feast, and so they did. Then she came adorned with no lust, and stood before him very fair in beauty, and his mind immediately became very kindled with desire for her in his lust; and he commanded her to be joyful in his feast, and she promised him that she so desired it.

Then Holofernes became wondrously joyful all the day, and made himself drunk with the strong wine through his custom, and all his warriors were also drunk; and they hastened into the evening in their great wickedness, and the chamberlains brought the nobleman to his own bed with Judith, and did not care much for their lord.

Then, when he 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.

Then Judith cried out and said to the guardsmen: “Undo these city gates! God himself is with us, he who might free the people of Israel.” And they quickly undid the gates, and together they came to her with a light, because they did not believe that she came back again. Then she ascended up to the high city, and showed the head to them all, saying: “I bid you, with joy praise our lord, who did not abandon those believing in him and those who trust in his great faithfulness; and through me he fulfilled his mercy, which he promised to the house of Israel; and now, tonight, through my hands he slew the enemy of his people!” And unafraid she said: “Truly the angel of God shielded me against them, so that I came back to you unblemished; and God himself did not allow that I should be shamed, but without defilement he sent me back, rejoicing in his victory and in your freedom.”

Then they beheld that head with great wonder, and Ozias their leader, and all of them together, blessed Judith with this blessing: “The Lord blessed you in his lordly might, he who turned our enemy to nothing through you, and he who magnified your name today, so that your fame might not cease in the mouths of men.” Then came Achior, the servant of Holofernes, he who earlier spoke the testimony of God, and it happened to them, just as he said, although he [Holofernes] commanded him [Achior] to be bound with disgrace, and caused him to be slain with the [Israelite] people. Then at first he became very afraid at the sight, when he beheld the head. But soon he rejoiced, and blessed Judith, and afterward believed in the living God, through the law of Moses, the famous war-leader.

Then Judith commanded the city-dwellers thus: “Set his head on the highest wall, and go with weapons, trusting in God, now in the early morning, out of this city. Then your enemies will be afraid of you, when they find their nobleman headless, when you may make your word over them.”

Then they did so, early in the red of day, and with weapons they went out with a troop, making a very loud noise at the unbelievers, until the Syrians saw their army; and then they desired to arouse their nobleman. But no man dared to unlock the door, so they desired to awaken him with loud noise. When this did not happen through their loud speech, then they sent in one of this chamberlains and he found his lord lying headless. And then he went out again with lamentation, seeking Judith, and said to the people: “A woman has now disgraced us all and our people’s lord! Here lies the nobleman headless in bed soiled with his blood!”

Then they all became afraid in wonder, and without any counsel they fled disgracefully toward their land, and abandoned the gathering with their enemies into the hands of those who followed in the back, and ever they [the Israelites] hounded them from behind with weapons. And from all their cities Ozias sent great help, and together they followed from their land so that they [the Syrians] did not return again. Then the people of Israel turned themselves homeward with singular victory, and dealt out those left from the battle between themselves as dear treasure, so that they became very wealthy; and they all gave these things from Holofernes for Judith to have, and then they praised God with very great rejoicing in song and in joy.

Their eldest priest was named Joachim. He came from Jerusalem with all his priests to the city of Bethulia with great joy, so that he saw Judith; and they all greatly blessed her with these words: “You are truly a glory to our city Jerusalem and the joy of Israel, worthy among our people, because you dwelled as a woman in cleanness after your husband, and God strengthened you for your cleanness, and therefore you yourself will be blessed in the world!”

Then Judith greatly praised the heavenly God with a hymn-song, as it tells us in Latin, and they all joyfully offered their sacrifice to God in Jerusalem for the victory. Then Judith dwelled in her widowhood famously for God in great honor; she lived one hundred years, and she freed her maidservant, and the people of Israel all dwelled in peace for all her life, and also long afterward.

This is no lying story! It stands in Latin, so in the Bible. Those scholars who know Latin know that we do not lie. In her was fulfilled the Savior’s saying: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” [Matthew 23:12, Luke 14:11] She was humble and clean, and overcame pride, little and not strong, and laid down the great one. Therefore she signifies the faithful with works, the holy congregation who now lives in God, that is the church of Christ in all Christian people, his one clean bride who with keen belief cuts off the head from the old devil, ever in cleanness serving Christ. Judith first promised the bloodthirsty noblemen that she would bring him inside to her people. But it was not at all a lie, that she promised him that, when she bore his head within the walls and showed the people how God helped her. Glory be to him forever! Amen.

She did not desire to have, just as the story says, the bloodthirsty one’s war-spoils, which the people gave her; but she accursed all his clothes, she did not desire to wear them, but cast them off from her—she did not desire to have any sin because of his heathenism. Certain nuns are living disgracefully, believing it so little a sin that they might fornicate and that they might easily atone for so little. But she is not a virgin afterward, if she fornicates once; nor might she have the hundredfold reward of increase. Take for yourselves an example from this Judith, how cleanly she lived before the birth of Christ, and do not deceive God in the time of the Gospel in the holy cleanness that you promised to Christ, because he damns the secret fornicators and he scorches the foul shameful ones in hell, just as it says in Latin according to the teaching of Paul: “God judges fornicators and adulterers.” [Hebrews 13:4]

I also desire to say, my sisters, that virginity and cleanness have great power, just as we read everywhere in the passions of the martyrs and in the Vitas Patrum, just as Malchus….[1] Then Malchus went out of the cave with his companion, greatly astonished, and they took the horses that they had brought there, and then they were riding although before they were walking, and they came to Syria, where lived afterward always in cleanness in servitude to Christ. May glory and praise be to him forever and ever! Amen.

[1] Here there is a gap in the manuscript record: the main witness, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 303, contains only up to line 321; and the fragmentary witness in London, British Library, Cotton Otho B.x ends here due to damage during the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Lee reconstructs the end of the text based on Humphrey Wanley’s transcription of the explicit from Otho B.x in Librorum Veterum Septentrionalium Catalogus, printed in George Hickes, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (Oxford: Theatrum Sheldonianum, 1705); see Lee’s edition for details.

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