The editors of the NAEL treat Judith as a loose translation from the Old Testament but I’d rather approach it as an “imitation” in the sense the word was used by Romantic poets – the original theme is described by the poet not only in her own language, but in her own words. So it is more of a paraphrase, pretty much what you do when you recap a TV episode, or when you retell a text, like I am doing right now.
The text was damaged and the beginning is missing, but it gives a rather good effect, like beginning “in medias res”. If you don’t know the story of Judith, the editors of the NAEL helpfully provide the outline to you, so it’s not a problem. King Nebuchadnezzar is conducting his invasion of Media (no, not the Media. Media as in the kingdom of Medes) and destroying all the smaller towns that stand in his way. Bethulia, an Israeli town is about to surrender, but a beautiful widow Judith intervenes, telling the leaders to resist a few days more and sets off to Holofernes’ camp, telling him that she wants to join his army and help him win the city. The moment when the poem opens, Judith has been already four days in the camp and she is praying to God to strengthen her. Holofernes throws a big party during which everybody drinks himself legless, Holofernes included.
(Spoiler alert, although honestly, if you are afraid of spoilers about the story that is thousands of years old, then in the words of Ferris Bueller, “I weep for the future”)
There are countless depictions of Judith in art because, honestly, a beautiful murderess is such a sexy subject, and what is more, she is klling a Bad Guy, so we can root for her without qualms.This is the most medieval one I’ve found, although I’d like to emphasize it is still three centuries younger than this poem. We tend to collapse all of the MIddle Ages into one “Game-of-Throny” era, so it’s important to remember that and not to be like some of my students, who refer to all pre-1900 literature as “Old English”.