1. Introduction: Complete Texts?

It is important first of all, to question how complete the texts are that are presented here. Two at least, have obviously undergone various rewritings, or restructuring. They may indeed have represented more than three textual entities to Ælfric. However, a close study of the ideas running through the three homilies shows that these texts are linked thematically.

The grouping of the three texts, and indeed the ordering of them as presented in this edition, has precedent. Ælfric, of course, was totally familiar with the Benedictine way of life, but more importantly with its rules and regulations for its religious offices and readings. All three texts edited here are to be found in the Old Testament of the Vulgate and all three are connected with the cycle of Old Testament readings used in the monasteries(1). Ælfric himself in his Letter to the Monks of Eynsham affirms their importance:

In dominica prima mensis augusti, ponimus salomonem usque in kalendas septembris & canimus: In principio. In kalendas septembris legimus iob duobus ebdomadibus & canimus: Si bona, In tertia septimana eiusdem mensis legimus, tobiam & canimus: Peto dominum. In IIIta septima ponimus iudith, hester & ezdra & canimus: Tribulationes, & cetera. Dominica prima mensis octobris ponimus libros machabæorum & canimus: Adaperiat, usque kalendas nouembrium(2).

Thus lessons from Judith, Esther, and Maccabees were to be read in the latter half of September and October. The texts were read in the monastic offices throughout these months (compare the Roman secular office where it clearly states that it was mandatory to read Judith, Esther, and Maccabees at Nocturns between Pentecost and Advent(3)). It is clear from Ælfric’s other writings , for example his Lives of Saints and Catholic Homilies, that he was intent on providing the monasteries with a selection of appropriate readings on various subjects. Thus, taking into account his own points in the Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, shoul one assume that these three texts were designed to be read in private or in the refectory to support an office at the ordained time?

In the case of Judith and Esther it is impossible to tell. The addition of a life of St Malchus to Judith may point to formal surroundings; but Esther is perhaps too incomplete to make any judgement. Clemoes addresses this question with reference to Maccabees. He describes the homily as part of a group of ‘...narrative pieces intended not for reading as part of the liturgy, but for pious reading at any time’, adding the wider ‘a formal distinction is carefully observed between a reading-piece of this kind and a liturgical homily: in the latter there is always a reference to the anniversary today.’(4) This is clearly valid. The statement that ‘Êyssera martyra gemynd is on Hlafmæssan dæg’ (l. 180) seems to imply that the piece was not only meant to be read on the 1st August.

1a. Esther

The only extant text of this homily is L'Isle's transcription in manuscript M. Examination of this shows quite clearly that to L'Isle his codex represented a form of scrapbook in which he collected together various pieces of Old English concerned with the Old Testament. He felt quite free to extract and edit, taking material from a variety of Old and early Middle English texts according to his requirements. The evidence of L'Isle must therefore be questioned(5). For example, Esther lacks any explanatory opening or ending of the sort to be found in Judith, and it is not linked to any other texts. However, as L'Isle's transcription may well be extracted from a larger text, it cannot be assumed that such passages did not originally exist. Indeed, given Ælfric's tendency to clarify and explain, it is more than likely that some text is missing. What remains of Ælfric's Esther is the biblical story. No blame can be attached to L'Isle, who must have regarded any introductory and concluding materials as superfluous to his needs. He was not, it must be remembered, attempting to provide full transcriptions of complete homilies.

1b. Judith

In contrast with Esther, Judith does have preliminary material and a lengthy ending. The main narrative is followed first by Ælfric's explication of the text, and then by the story of St Malchus (now lost). The question arises as to whether these additions were always present in Ælfric's Judith. Lines 356 onwards are there to enforce the idea of strength through purity, a theme admittedly prominant throughout, but by no means central to the homily as a whole. Furthermore, this section is clearly aimed at a monastic audience, most notably, it would appear, for a nunnery, as indicated by the phrases ‘Sume nunnan’ (l. 360) and ‘min swustor’ (l. 372). An audience of religious women seems at odds with Ælfric's reference to his version of the Old Testament book made in the Letter to Sigeweard (Crawford, 1922, p. 48). Here he clearly indicates that the story of Judith is meant to uplift the demoralised English laiety and to inspire them to defend their country. One has to ask the question then, that if the text as presented in this edition was read to the noblemen, what would they have made of the sentences addressed to the nuns?

Godden suggests that Ælfric initially translated the book of Judith as an exemplar for his religious colleagues and then saw an opportunity of using it for the pressing ‘military and political situation’(6). It can, however, be suggested that a version intended for the laiety might have finished at l. 355, together with the appropriate ending ‘Þam sy a wurðmynt to worulde! Amen’ (Judith, l. 355). This suggestion allows for the retention of the brief explanatory section of ll. 339–55, which stresses how the righteous can overcome the strong and is thus in keeping with the message that he might have wished to portray to noblemen. Alternatively it is very possible that Judith at one time contained a different explanatory ending, now lost, stating once again the importance of defending one's country: a theme which runs through the homily equally as strongly as that of chastity.

If one were to argue along these lines, then a possible problem presented by l. 2 of Judith would have to be overcome. Here Ælfric states that ‘We secgað ærest...’ seemingly implying a second subsequent piece (i.e. the Life of St Malchus). However, it could also be that ‘ærest’ refers to the author’s scene-setting of ll. 2-18. In effect, what Ælfric is saying is that to begin the tale he must first supply some information which was not to be found in the biblical story, before presenting the main events of the story. In support of this theory it should be noted that there is no mention of nuns at the beginning of the homily (whereas generally Ælfric likes to refer to his audience from the outset, particularly if it is a specific one). Furthermore, in the body of the narrative there is no digression which one could identify as being specifically directed at a female audience. It is only at l. 360 that the reference ‘Sume nunnan’ appears, and, it has to be said, the phrase comes as something of a surprise.

This idea of different versions of a text for different purposes or audiences is far from unrealistic. Consideration of his treatment of the Vulgate source material shows how Ælfric was constantly aware of the needs, requirements, and limitations of his audiences. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to suggest that Ælfric would have presented Judith in the form here edited to a non-monastic audience. Although there are only two manuscripts which contain the homily extant, both of which are incomplete, it is very possible that more manuscripts existed, some containing a version of Judith for the clergy, complete with the discussion of ‘clænnysse’, some a ‘lay’ version for the private audience of the nobility, outlining the need for resistance(7).

1c. The Maccabees

The twelve parts of Maccabees (I-XI and the ‘Item Alia’) could stand alone by themselves as distinct readings, each having its own separate focus. There is, however, internal evidence that Ælfric intended them to be read as a sequence, for he makes reference from one section to another. Section II begins ‘We wyllaþ eac awritan...’ (l. 186), and Section VI starts with ‘Hit sægð on þære æftran bec...’ (l. 427). If these are not pieces written by Ælfric at different points of time and later collected together, but rather one piece of continuous work that was for some reason segmented into twelve sections, the question that must be asked: why was this done?

The simplest answer is that together the twelve sections are too long for his intended audience. Seeing that there were clear sections in the story line he could easily segment them into small ‘chapters’. All twelve have clear closing statements that finish each section succinctly: Section II, for example, ends ‘...7 eft his gebroðra æfter his geendunge’, ll. 289-90, and Section XI ends ‘We cwæþað: AMEN!’ (l. 721), bringing the whole story of the rebellion to a close.

Given that Ælfric in the Letter to the Monks of Eynsham points to the importance of the three texts for the months of September and October, another scenario should be investigated. Does Ælfric's edition of the Maccabees represent an attempt to supply back-up readings in English to support the Offices during October? The Regularis Concordia demonstrates such a need(8):

But is Ælfric supplying a response? Although the text is in English, and thus inappropriate for the Office itself, the individual sections could have been used in private study.

Gatch (1985, p. 348–62) studies the Letter to the Monks of Eynsham (defined by him as a ‘customary’ for Eynsham), the Night Office, and Ælfric's other Old Testament translations in some detail. He concludes that Ælfric's biblical translations should be viewed: ‘against the background of the outline of the Office lectionary in the Eynsham Customary—as an adaption of materials from the monastic devotional life to the devotional life of laymen and non-monastic clergy’ (p. 362). It was not Ælfric's intention to provide readings for the Night Office; conversely, the Night Office could have influenced his selection of texts to be translated for private readings(9).

2. Common Themes

Some themes can be seen to run through all three texts and help explain Ælfric’s interest in them and his subsequent grouping of them together in his Letter to Sigeweard(10). Of these, there are two predominant issues that clearly stand out: the deliverance of the nation; and the Old and New Faith.

2a. Deliverance of the Nation

During much of Ælfric's lifetime England was under the authority of King Æthelred the ‘unrædig’. It was one of the most calamitous periods of the country’s history, resulting ultimately in the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and the succession of Danish rule. Several notable disasters and portents had taken place, notably the defeat at Maldon in 991, the appearance of the long-haired comet in 995, and the arrival of the great Viking host that harried most of Southern England at the turn of the millenium. This situation was accentuated by the English attempts to buy-off the Vikings with Danegeld, and the constant weakness displayed by English leaders.

From his writings we know that Ælfric was aware of the events that surrounded him and the attrocities that beset England. In the Life of St Swithun he looks back to the days of King Edgar, stating:

We habbað nu gesæd be swiðune þus sceortlice
and we secgað to soðan þæt se tima wæs gesælig
and wynsum on ængel-cynne þaða eadgar cynincg
þone cristen-dom ge-fyrðrode and fela munuclifa arærde
and his cynerice wæs wunigende on sibbe
swa þæt man ne gehyrde gif ænig scyp-here wære
buton agenne leode þe ðis land beheoldon.
(LS, XXI, ll. 443-9)

Undoubtedly, as was the common belief at the time, he attributed the recent woes to a collapse in the moral behaviour of the English(11). The country, quite literally, was in need of its own deliverance both militarily and spiritually. To find an answer, Ælfric turned to the Bible and discovered several examples where he could show the linking of the two. In all three texts edited here the Jews, like the Anglo-Saxons, are faced with destruction by a heathen force, and in all three religiously heroic action provides deliverance.

In Judith and the Maccabees the threat is from an invading army. Both the Bethulians and the Maccabeans face destruction at the hands of Hellenist forces but eventually deliver their respective nations: in the former, through the direct actions of a widow and a plan of subtle infiltration, and in the latter through a prolonged military campaign. In Esther, the Jews face total genocide, this time through the instruments of one enemy, Aman. Once again, however, through the intercession of a woman, although Mordecai at times takes the dominant role, they are saved.

An analysis of the antagonists presented in the homilies allows similar comparisons to be drawn. All three sets of enemies are heathen, attempting to destroy the religious Jews: thus the comparison between the heathen Danes' onslaught on the Christian English is strengthened. Furthermore, all the enemies are described in terms of their pride. Mordecai will not bow to Aman ‘for his upahafennysse’ (Esther l. 112), Holofernes arrogantly ignores the advice of Achior (Judith l. 71ff.), Judith eventually overcomes ‘þone modigan’ (Judith l. 344); and in the Maccabees Antiochus is first described as ‘arleas 7 uppahafen’ (Maccabees l .7)(12). Similarly, the verbal attacks made upon him by the Seven Sons are directed against his pride and promised downfall (the speeches of the fifth and seventh sons are particularly striking, Maccabees ll. 135-39 and ll. 166-73). Subsequent enemies also show signs of pride: e.g. Seron wishes to ‘wyrcan me naman’ (Maccabees l. 266). As well as being proud, the enemy is also presented as powerful in relation to the hero or heroine. Aman is ‘geuferode’ by the king ‘ofer ealle his þegnas’ (Esther ll. 106-7), whilst Mordecai is a mere ‘Iudeisc’ thane (Esther l. 65) and Esther herself an orphan. Holofernes is in charge of an ‘ormætre fyrde’ (Judith l. 42), but as the Syrian guard exclaims almost in disbelief, ‘An wifman hæfð nu us ealle gescynd’ (Judith l. 307). Similarly, the brave and resolute Maccabean leaders seem always outnumbered by the enemy, and the Maccabean troops generally despair at the forces massed against them before each battle.

Yet in all three homilies the enemy always falls(13). In Esther Aman dies on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai, and all his compatriots suffer the fate they had intended for the Jews. Holofernes dies at the hands of Judith and his army is subsequently slaughtered. In the Maccabees too, numerous enemies confront the Jews (or at least their religion) and their destruction is always complete:

I. Antiochus (l. 7 ff.)—killed by God through disease (ll. 478-85);

II. Blasphemous Jew and Antiochus's thegn (ll. 200–5)—killed by Mathathias (ll. 200-5);

III. Appollonius (ll. 258–64)—killed by Judas (ll. 261-62);

IV. Seron (ll. 265-85)—routed by Judas (ll. 282-85);

V. Lisias (l. 294 ff.)—routed by Judas (ll. 314-7, ll. 333-35, but ultimately killed by Demetrius, ll. 524–25);

VI. City of Bosor (ll. 363–7)—destroyed by Judas (ll. 366-7);

VII. Timotheus (l. 380ff.)—routed by Judas (ll. 385-87) and killed, along with his brother, by Judas and five angels (ll. 432-35);

VIII. ‘mycel burh’ (ll. 388–97)—destroyed by Judas (ll. 396-97);

IX. Eupator (l. 485 ff.)—killed by Demetrius (ll. 524-25);

X. Alcimus (l. 527 ff.)—struck dumb and killed by God (ll. 642-46);

XI. Nicanor (l. 530 ff.)—killed by Judas (ll. 558-60);

XII. Bacchides (l. 574ff.)—killed by Jonathas (ll. 640-41);

XIII. Heliodorus (l. 661ff.)—struck dumb by angels, though eventually saved (l. 688 ff.).

These are the outstanding campaigns: there are also numerous victories against heathen forces (see, for example, ll. 218-20, 248-49, 253-55, 341-62, 376-79, 601-2, 648-49). To accentuate these defeats, the victor often receives spoils from his or her enemy (e.g. Appollonius’s sword in l. 263); a device also used in Esther (e.g. Aman’s possessions l. 247) and Judith (ll. 319-20)(14). Not only do the enemies fall, but so too do their symbols of power. Much importance is made of this when the hellenistic symbols are replaced by those of the Jews (e.g. Maccabees ll. 205-6, 219-20, 335-40).

In Maccabees the nature of the defeat suffered by Antiochus (reflecting Mathathias’s prediction of Maccabees ll. 232-3) and Alcimus, as well as the fate of Heliodorus, are all important:

Wearð þa geangsumod 7 eac geuntrumod forðam þe him God gram wæs
(Maccabees, ll. 478-9)
ac hine sloh God sona mid swyðlicum paralisyn, swa þæt he dumb wæs 7 to deaðe gebroht,
(Maccabees, ll. 643-5)
7 þæt heofonlice hors þe se heahengel on sæt wearp sona adune þone dyrstigan Heliodorum, 7 þa twegen ænglas hine teartlice beoton — on twa healfe him standende — oðþæt he stille læg orwene his lifes, se ðe ær, mid gebeote 7 mid micclum þrymme, þrang into ðam temple.
(Maccabees, ll. 688-93)

All three are afflicted by some illness or punishment directly imposed on them by God. Closer analysis reveals that the notion of divine retribution is central to all three texts. However much the hero or heroine is involved in the victory, the ultimate glory is always ascribed to the power of the Lord, whether in direct speech or by some comment from Ælfric. In the Maccabees, for example, Timotheus is defeated with the aid of angels ‘of heofonum’ (l. 435); and the other ‘enemies’ fall at the hands of Judas who in turn attributes his victories to the grace of God. Judas calls on the Lord before battle in order to gain help; but also to inspire his frightened troops(15). The implication is that any subsequent victory is the Lord’s:

Forðan þe he æfre wan for willan þæs ælmihtigan Godes
(Maccabees, l. 605)

Even before his death Judas calls out to God for aid, but with the statement that should the Lord mean them to die, then so be it:

7 gif God swa foresceawað, we sweltað on mihte for urum gebroðrum butan bysmorlicum fleame.
(Maccabees, ll. 585-87)

The Lord is all-powerful in these homilies and ultimately the true victor. In Him is carried through ultimate justice, for He is the ultimate judge. As the martyrs declare at the beginning of the Maccabees:

God sylf gefrefrað us, swa swa Moyses geswutelode on ðære fiftan bec, þæt is þæt God gefrefrað his ðeowan.
(Maccabees, ll. 111-12)

When the fourth brother is brought forward for execution, his warning to Antiochus develops this theme further:

ðu dest swa swa ðu wylt, ac ne wen ðu swaðeah þæt se God us forlæte þe we on gelyfað. Þu afindst his mihte ungefyrn on ðe sylfum, hu he þe tintregað teartlice on witum!
(Maccabees, ll. 136-39)

Faith in the Lord will bring reward for service. The final speech by the youngest of the seven martyrs at the beginning of the homily acts as an exemplum of this, and as a prelude to the actions of Judas:

7 þu manfulla cyning, þinre modignysse scealt soðlice on Godes dome susle ðrowian. Ic sylle min agen lif 7 minne lichaman samod for Godes gesetnyssum, swa swa mine six gebroðra. 7 ic clypige to Gode þæt he urum cynne gemiltsige 7 þæt he do mid witum þæt ðu wite þæt he is ana God!
(Maccabees, ll. 168-73)

Victory through the Lord has historical and contemporary precedence, according to Ælfric. In his homily on Judges (Crawford, 1922, p. 416), Ælfric states ‘On Engla lande eac oft wæron cyningas sigefæste þurh God’, listing Alfred, Athelstan, and Edgar as examples(16).

Judith herself is described by Ozias as God's earthly agent (ll. 280-3), and therefore her victory must be seen as His. She begins her declaration of the defeat of Holofernes by ascribing victory to God's favour:

God sylf is mid us, se þe mihte gefremode on Israhela þeode.
(Judith, ll. 263-64)

Only once she has included her townsfolk in this victory does she focus on her own role:

Godes engel soðlice me gescylde wið hine, þæt ic unwemme eft becom to eow; 7 God self ne geþafode þæt ic gescynd wurde
(Judith, ll. 273-75)

Again, in Esther, the ultimate destruction of Aman and the reprieve of the Jews is attributed to ‘hire drihtnes fultum’ (l. 265).

The actual covenant between the Jews and the Lord is detailed in the Maccabees:

Oft is geswutelode hu God gescylde þæt folc wið heora wiþersacan, gif hi wurðodon hine; 7 swa oft swa hi gebugon fram his biggencgum ahwar, þonne wurdon hi gescynde 7 swyðe gewitnode.
(Maccabees, ll. 716-19)

As long as they keep faith in Him, then He will protect them against their adversaries (see Judith ll. 342-43). Ælfric chooses to enforce this point frequently, stressing the righteousness of the victors against the wickedness of the diabolical heathens. In Esther Mordecai is immediately established as favourable, because he ‘gelyfde soðlice’ (Esther l. 66), and he refuses to honour Aman in case he should anger God ‘mid þære dæde’ (Esther ll. 112-13). Similarly the Jews are those ‘þe wurðodon’ (Esther l. 116), whereas Aman seeks to destroy those ‘þe Godes æ heoldon’ (l. 121).

In Judith the Jews are introduced as ‘Godes folc’ (Judith l. 5) who ‘on God gelyfdon’ (Judith l. 62). War waged against them is a war against the Lord. Achior warns Holofernes of this and stresses the importance of the covenant between the Jews and God. They will always honour Him (Judith ll. 73-4) and in return He will protect them. Achior cites the destruction of Pharaoh (Judith ll. 75-93)(17), in illustration of the Lord's protection of the Jews, pointing out with some force:

ne mihte nan mann naht þisum folce, swa lange swa hi heoldon heora God on riht.
(Judith, ll. 102-4)

He warns Holofernes that if the Jews have kept covenant with their Lord, they are invincible:

Gif hi þonne nabbað nane unrihtwisnysse ne heora Gode abolgen, þonne beo we ealle to hospe gedone þurh heora drihten, þe hi bewerað, swa swa his gewuna is.
(Judith, ll. 120-23)

Holofernes, unfortunately, ignores this advice, and he falls at the hands of a woman who lives righteously in the eyes of the Lord.

Not surprisingly, the notion that the Jews are helped by the Lord because they hold true to their faith is explored at length in the Maccabees. That the Maccabees uphold God's law even in the face of death is first demonstrated by the passion of the Seven Sons. As the eldest brother says in section I:

We synd gearwe to sweltenne swyðor þonne to forgægenne ures scyppendes drihtnes æ, þe he gesette þurh Moysen!
(Maccabees, ll. 101-3)

This faith is inspired by a realisation of how much they are in debt to Him:

Ne fegde ic eowre lima, ne ic eow lif ne forgeaf; ac middaneardes scyppend eow sealde gast 7 lif, 7 he eft eow forgifð þæt ece lif mid him, swa swa ge nu syllað eow sylfe for his æ.
(Maccabees, ll. 147-50)

When Mathathias starts the rebellion he seeks only those who believe and uphold God’s law (ll. 206-7), and on his deathbed he decrees:

Beoð nu gehyrte, 7 gehihtað on God 7 healdað mid ðegenscype ða halgan Godes æ; forðan þe ge beoð wuldorfulle on hire.
(Maccabees, ll. 229-32)

Judas, the central character, is also exemplified as a model of true faith. He is knowledgable in the faith, and ever-willing to thank the Lord after a victory (e.g. Maccabees ll. 445-48, and l. 565). Once again, they are ‘Godes folc’ (Maccabees l. 621) and the Lord protects them (Maccabees l. 714).

It is important in these three texts that the Jews are the chosen race. As long as they hold true faith with the Lord their victory is assured. Their enemies may be powerful and proud, but they are destroyed. The Jews, often outnumbered, win through because they uphold the covenant, and their triumphs are to be attributed to God.

2b. The Old and the New Faith

The models provided by Judith, Esther, and Judas, who in their times were righteous, apply to all Christians. For example, although Judith lived ‘ær Cristes acennednysse’ (Judith l. 366), Ælfric still instructs his audience: ‘Nimað eow bysne be þyssere Iudith’ (Judith l. 365). If the Christians hold true to their faith—the new way—then they too will receive the protection of the Lord. For Ælfric the teachings of the Old Testament remain important, particularly as reflected in the New Testament. Ælfric states the value of the Old Testament in the Letter to Sigeweard (ll. 1161-75), and the difference between the Old Law and the New is discussed at some length in the Maccabees. In the latter it is first mentioned in the digression on ‘unclean’ meat in which Ælfric explains this concept to his audience, moving on to discuss it in relation to contemporary religious doctrine. Immediately he establishes the notion of ‘unclæne’ food as being part of the Old Law:

We moton nu secgan swutellicor be ðisum, hwylce mettas wæron mannum forbodene on ðære ealdan æ þe mann ett nu swaðeah.
(Maccabees, ll. 33-5)

Here he makes it clear that the dietary laws of Leviticus are not followed by Christians. He continues to compare the distinction between clofen-hooved and cud-chewing animals:

Þa nytenu synd clæne þe tocleofað heora clawa 7 heora cudu ceowað...Þæt getacnað þæt we tocleofan ure clawa on þam twam gecyðnyssum, þæt is on ðære ealdan æ 7 on ðære niwan gecyðnysse.
(Maccabees, ll. 48-59)

From the Christian point of view the relationship between the Jews and the Lord changed with the Incarnation (Maccabees ll. 454-56) when some would not accept Christ as the messiah (ll. 467-68, and 188-90). However, not all were unwilling to follow Christ:

Wæron swaþeah manega of þam cynne Gode, ge on ðære ealdan æ, ge eac on þære niwan—heahfæderas 7 witegan, 7 halige apostolas, 7 fela ðusenda þe folgiað Criste
(Maccabees, ll. 461-5)

Ælfric, therefore, argues that provided the Jews who lived before Christ acted according to the Old Law, they remain patterns of righteous living. Thus he singles out Judas’s action to save the souls of his fallen comrades (Maccabees, ll.421–25) and praises him at his death for living righteously (Maccabees, ll. 603–8).

Ælfric is clear about the need to distinguish between the Old and the New Law. Equally, he recognises that such heroes as Judith, Esther, and Judas, who lived under the Old Law, can provide role models as good as any Christian saint because they were righteous in observing their faith.

2c. General Conclusions

The underlying message of these three texts is that true faith in the Lord will lead to victory over heathen enemies. When writing to Sigeweard Ælfric describes Esther as a queen ‘þe hire kynn ahredde’(18) and he points out that Judith's example shows how the English should defend their country: eowerne eard mid wæmnum bewerian wið onwinnendne here.
(Crawford, 1922, p. 48)

The Maccabees too are described as prevailing:

mid wæmnum þa swiðe wið þone hæðenan here, þe him on wann swiðe, wolde hig adilegian 7 adyddan of þam earde, þe him God forgeaf, 7 Godes lof alecgan.
(Crawford, 1922, p. 49)

Therefore they win battles ‘þurh þone soðan God, þe hig on gelyfdon æfter Moyses æ’ (Crawford, p. 49)

It is possible therefore to view Ælfric's Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees in relation to contemporary events in England. Apparently he wished to awaken in his countrymen a will to fight or, at the very least, to hold true to their faith. What influence Ælfric might have had in political circles is unknown(19), although it is clear from the manuscripts that survive that his works were widely read. The wording of the Letter to Sigeweard reveals that Ælfric had at least one acquaintance who was a land-owner and who visited him as a friend (Crawford, 1922, ll. 1262-71(20)). In this letter Ælfric directs Sigeweard, and thus other members of the laiety, to the role models provided by Judith, Esther, and Judas Maccabees in resisting the attacks of the Danes. He may well be implying condemnation of the policy of Danegeld when he writes about the Maccabees:

Hig noldon na feohtan mid fægerum wordum anum, swa þæt hi wel spræcon, 7 awendon þæt eft...
(Crawford, 1922, p. 49)

In all three homilies the central figures choose to confront oppression, and they hold to their faith. Their reward is deliverance from their oppressors. Take note of these lessons, Ælfric declares to the English, and remember the rallying cry of Judas when you too are at the point of despair:

Beoð ymbgyrde stranglice to þysum stiðan gewinne, forðan þe us is selre þæt we swelton on gefeohte, þonne ðas yrmðe geseon on urum cynne ðus, 7 on urum haligdome. Ac swa swa se heofonlica God wylle don be us, gewurðe hit swa!
(Maccabees, ll. 302-6)

3. Judith

3a. Introduction

The story of the righteous widow who single-handedly overcame the evil Holofernes was of particular interest to the early Church Fathers, and there are commentaries by such authoritative figures as Jerome, Aldhelm, and Maurus, as well as many others. The nature of Judith's character did appear to cause some embarrassment to patristic writers, namely because her seductive beguiling of Holofernes is comparable rather with the character of Eve than with Mary; Aldhelm, for example, finds it necessary to argue that she was not in fact vain(21). Nevertheless Judith is probably the best known of the three Ælfric texts edited here, perhaps because it is sometimes compared with the fragmentary poem of the same name in the Beowulf manuscript.

3b. Patristic Background

The esteem in which Latin commentators held Judith is clear. Jerome in his Præfatio Hieronymi in Librum Judith provides an extensive introduction and recomends the text as both an exemplum of chastity(22) and non-apocryphal:

Apud Hebræos liber Judith inter apocrypha legitur: cujus auctoritas ad roboranda illa quæ in contentionem veniunt, minus judicatur. Chaldeo tamen sermone conscriptus, inter historias computatur. Sed quia hunc librum Synodus Nicæna in numero sanctarum Scripturarum legitur computasse, acquieri postulationi vestræ, immo exactioni et sepositis occupationibus, quibus vehementer aretabar, huic unam lucubratiunculam dedi, magis sensume sensu, quam ex verbo verbum transferens. Multorum codicum varietatem vitiosissimam amputavi: sola ea, quæ intelligentia integra in verbis Chaldæis invenire potui, Latinis expressi. Accipite Judith viduam, castitatis exemplum, et triumphali laude, perpetuis eam præconiis declarate.
(PL 29, cols. 37-40)

As with all commentaries, emphasis is placed on a variety of readings of the book of Judith. Here Jerome appears to balance the tropological and allegorical interpretations, giving slightly more attention to the former. Elsewhere, in his Præfatio Hieronymi in Librum Judith, he emphasises the tropological importance of the book when he states:

Hanc enim non solum feminis, sed et vivis imitabilem dedit, qui castitatis ejus remunerator, virtutem ei talem tribuit, ut invictum omnibus, hominibus vinceret, et insuperabilem superaret.
(PL 29, col. 40)

His writings praise Judith both for her strict observance of the rules of widowhood and for her strong faith which ultimately leads to triumph. For Jerome then, Judith exemplifies two of the patterns by which a Christian should live. The allegorical implications of the book do not escape him either, and he stresses them with an awareness equal to his recognition of the book’s tropological content. In his Epistola 54 ad Furiam he interprets the beheading of Holofernes as the triumph of chastity over lust:

Legimus in Judith (si cui tamen placet volumen recipere) viduam confectam jejuniis, et habitu lugubri sorditatem, quæ non lugebat mortuum virum, sed squalore corporis, sponsi quærebat adventum. Video armatam gladio manum, cruentam dexteram. Recognosco caput Holophernis de mediis hostibus reportatum ( seqq.). Vincit viros femina, et castitas truncat libidinem: habituque repente mutato, ad victrices sordes redit, omnibus sæculi cultibus mundiores.
(PL 22, col. 559)

He develops the allegorical content of the story further when he likens Judith to Mary (Epistola 22 ad Eustochium ):

Deum, fortem, patrem futuri sæculi, soluta maledictio est. Mors per Evam: Vita per Mariam. Ideoque et ditius virginitatis donum fluxit in feminas, quia cæpit a femina...Tunc Holofernis caput, Judith continens amputavit (Jud. 13). Tunc Aman, qui interpretatur iniquitas, suo combustus est igni (Esther.15).
(PL 22, col. 408)

Extending the analogy, Jerome explains Judith's role as an embodiment of the Holy Mother and therefore as a figure of Holy Church or Ecclesia. The idea is one that is investigated by later writers such as Gregory, who, in his Super Cantica Canticorum Expositio, delineates clearly the concept of the living Ecclesia and the properties its figural representatives must contain (PL 79, col. 483).

Not only is Ecclesia described and analysed but also the people who are allowed to enter. Judith can be seen to embody the Church by virtue of the exemplary way in which she conducts her life. Her victory over Holofernes is therefore a triumph of Ecclesia over Satan. Gregory defines Ecclesia as the sum of all the souls, each soul a part of Christ himself; thus all possessors of Christian souls are part of the Ecclesia. Allegorically therefore, Judith, in representing the Church, is in fact representing all Christians. Her triumph is a Christian triumph, and her conduct is a guideline for all Christians who wish to gain the ultimate victory, namely salvation.

Rabanus Maurus of Fulda, in his Expositio in Librum Judith (23), elaborates on Gregory's explanation of Ecclesia:

...contra Ecclesiam catholicam, quæ est domus Dei, ex vivis lapidibus utique constructa, quatenus quoscunque possint inde auferant et dolo perimant.
(PL 109, col. 556)

Whereas Jerome tries to balance tropological and allegorical readings of the book, Maurus clearly leans to the allegorical. He signals, as Aldhelm before him, the importance of Holofernes's ‘conopeum’, and he presents the feasting of the Assyrians as a clear demonstration of the dangers of excessive drinking:

Erant autem omnes fatigati a vino. Eratque Judith sola in cubiculo. Porro Holofernes jacebat in lecto nimia ebrietate sopitus. Vinum Holofernes et satellitum ejus hoc erat, a quo Apostolus credentes compescuit dicens: Nolite inebriari vino, in quo est luxuria. Et in cantico Deuteronomii de hujus modi vino scriptum est: uva eorum, uva fellis, et botri eorum, botri amaritudinis; furor draconum vinum eorum, et furor aspidum insanabilis.
(PL 109, col. 572)

Because he gives comparatively little attention to the moral role of Judith in terms of her adherence to the rules of widowhood, Rabanus Maurus loses the balance of Jerome's commentary.

By the time of Rabanus Maurus the story is mostly read allegorically, and tropological interpretation is secondary. This shift in emphasis is perhaps first seen in Isidore's Allegoriæ Quædam Scripturæ Sacræ (24), where he reiterates the customary interpretation of Judith as representing the church. The preference for the allegorical becomes general from approximately the seventh century. Prudentius, in his Psychomachia, sees her as a figurative representation of the curative power of Christ, the New Law; whilst other writers, for example Dracontius, see the whole story as symbolising the triumph of the righteous weak over the strength of evil(25).

3c. The Homily and the Poem

The representation of the character of Judith herself makes a good starting point for the discussion of the differences between the Old English poem(26) and Ælfric’s homily. The ‘taint of Eve’ that presented itself as a problem to some Church Fathers is not apparent in the poem. Here the character of Judith is clearly categorised into the role of an exemplary heroine for Christians. Nearly a quarter of all the words and phrases describing Judith in the poem refer to her ‘radiance’, thus emphasizing her physical and spiritual purity. Coupled with this is the characterization of her as wise, a trait which is not explicitly present in the Vulgate. Furthermore, the focus on her chastity, so apparent in the Old Testament, and evident also in Ælfric's homily, plays little part in the poem. Instead the audience is presented with a ‘wise’ widow who takes on the role of warrior-queen. Although the poem uses the noun ‘mægð’ (e.g. l. 35) this word cannot be firmly equated with the modern terms of ‘maiden’ or ‘virgin’, having the wider meaning ‘woman’. A demonstration of this can be seen in the donning of her jewellery, presented in the Latin as aids to enticement, but transformed in the poem into the trappings of an Anglo-Saxon warrior preparing for battle. She is laden with ‘hringum’ (l. 37) (a word often used of ‘ring-mail’(27)) thus emphasizing the description of her as ‘ides ellenrof’ (l. 109). However she is not simply a warrior—she is a leader: the Bethulians and her maidservant act upon her instructions. By comparison with her passive figure of the Vulgate Judith she is a miles christi.

This firm depiction of Judith as an unblemished heroine leads the poet to alter his source material at several points. For example, Judith is not present at Holofernes's feast. This absence disassociates her from the debauchery of the feast, removing any possible blame from her for the Assyrians' drunkenness and Holofernes's lechery. She is not out to seduce in the poem; rather Holofernes is intent on committing rape. Furthermore, before she beheads the unconscious commander, she prays at some length to the Lord (an expansion of the text in the Vulgate). The effect of this is to heighten the Lord's role in Judith's victory, ultimately lessening her guilt in what can at best be described as an assassination.

If Judith is to be seen as the poem's heroine then it is not surprising to find that Holofernes becomes the great enemy, the epitome of evil. Although he is described as a leader (e.g. the ‘gumena baldor’ in l. 9 of the poem) backed by an impressive army, this simply serves as a contrast to Judith who is alone (apart from her serving woman).

Although the poem is largely narrative, there are obvious symbolic elements of allegory. Judith is figurally the model Christian, or Ecclesia, and thus Holofernes is delegated the role of Satan. By his very actions, and the historical context of the story(28), he is known to be a heathen and a persecuter of the Jews. Moreover, he is a sinner who will be punished by the Lord at the Last Judgement. In the poem he suffers the extreme fate reserved for a devil(29), i.e. direct banishment to hell(30):

gæst ellor hwearf
under neowelne næs and ðær genyðerad wæs,
susle gesæled syððan æfre,
wyrmum bewunden, witum gebunden,
hearde gehæfted in hellebryne
æfter hinsiðe.
(ll. 112b-117a)

There is no need to attribute his destruction to Judith's seductive wiles. Holofernes does not fall in love with her and he does not wish to charm her: he simply wishes to have sex with her. Because of his own excesses, and the power of the Lord, he brings about his own fall. Indeed the whole feast, where his drunkenness manifests itself, becomes a parody of the heroic world of Beowulf (31). Holofernes displays none of the regal dignity of Hroðgar, and the Vulgate reference (12:20) to the fact that he ‘sometimes’ drank too much is at variance with the picture given by the poet.

The surviving portion of the poem has essentially four main roles (Judith, her maid, Holofernes, and the Assyrian soldier), but only two are named. Attention is thus focused on these two polarized characters. In the poem there is only black and white, good and evil, with no room for grey ambiguity. Judith is an exemplary heroine, and Holofernes is the archetypal evil pagan. As Judith contrasts with Holofernes, so are the resolved and victorious Hebrews contrasted with the drunk, and ultimately doomed Assyrians(32).

Ælfric's version of the story differs from the poem in this respect and in others(33). The polarized forms of good and evil in the poem are not so apparent in Ælfric's version. Judith sets out to deceive Holofernes by dressing ‘mid golde, 7 mid purpuran, 7 mid ænlicum gyrlum’ (Judith l. 193), so that when he ‘beseah on hire scinendan nebbwlite swa wearð he gegripen mid ðære galnysse his unstæððigan heortan’ (Judith ll. 206-8). This is an Eve-like temptress using her seductive wiles to destroy the Assyrian. The reason she gives to Holofernes for seeking him out is at best a prevarication, at worst a lie. In the homily the heroine plans and seizes her opportunity, with the suspense being heightened when we are told that the maid has to hold the door to prevent discovery.

Whereas the poem goes to some lengths to exonerate Judith from any sin, Ælfric, though clearly full of admiration for her, recognises her human failings and does not attempt to cover them up. In many ways then, Ælfric's version presents a far more complicated story in terms of its presentation of the adversaries.

3d. Ælfric's Explication of His Narrative

It is to lines 342-75 of the homily that one should turn to understand Ælfric's thoughts on Judith. Here he expounds his theories in as clear a manner as one could desire. For him Judith was an example of two of the axioms by which a Christian should live, namely chastity and faith. She is an admirable widow because ‘hi wunode on clænnysse æfter hire were on hyre upflore’ (Judith ll. 172-73), a point reiterated in the praise of Joachim:

Þu eart wuldor soðlice ure byrig Hierusalem, 7 Israheles bliss, ures folces arwurðnyss; forþan þe þu wunodest æfter þinum were wiflice on clænnysse, 7 God þe gestrangode for þære clænnysse
(Judith, ll. 325-28)

The theme of ‘clænnysse’ is one to which Ælfric continually returns. The important message to him is that through all her tribulations, Judith maintains her chastity and is rewarded by the Lord. When one considers that the homily addresses itself, at l. 372, to a chaste woman, this emphasis is understandable(34). We know that Ælfric was distressed by the widespread disregard for moral teaching and practices of Christianity, especially amongst the monastic orders, which he attributed to the arrival of the Vikings:

Wel we magon geðencan hu wel hit ferde mid us
þa ða þis igland wæs wunigende on sibbe
and munuc-lif wæron mid wurð-scipe gehealdene
and ða woruld-menn wæron wære wið heora fynd
swa þæt ure word sprang wide geond þas eorðan.
Hu wæs hit ða siððan ða þa man towearp munuclif
and godes biggengas to bysmore hæfde
buton þæt us com to cwealm and hunger
and siððan hæðen here us hæfde to bysmre.
(LS, XIII, ll. 147-55)

Judith, however, symbolises Ælfric's ideals of chastity. By keeping strictly to her obligations as a widow and remaining pure, she is victorious:

Nimað eow bysne be þyssere Iudith, hu clænlice heo leofode ær Cristes acennednysse.
(Judith, ll. 365-6)

With this firm statement Ælfric is pointing to the tropological content of the story. Holofernes, filled with ‘galnysse’ (Judith l.208), is the antithesis of Judith, and consequently he ‘besengð on helle’ (Judith l. 369). For reinforcement Ælfric draws on the authority of Paul:

swa swa hit on Læden stent æfter Paulus lare: ‘Fornicatores & adulteros iudicabit Deus’.
(Judith, ll. 369-71)

Indeed it is for this reason that when editing the text of Judith the partial remains of the Malchus narrative must be regarded as integral(35). Not only is it clear from the phrase ‘Ic wylle eac secgan, min swustor...’ (Judith l. 372) that Ælfric viewed the two as one piece; thematically they are related. Malchus is a saint who preserves his chastity despite extreme pressure, as Ælfric indicates:

þæt mægðhad 7 clænnys mycele mihte habbað, swa swa we gehwær rædað on martira þrowungum 7 on uitas patrum, swa swa Malchus...
(Judith ll. 372-75)

The tropological content of Judith is elaborated with references to the widow's faith and trust in the Lord, and Ælfric points out that:

heo getacnode untweolice mid weorcum þa halgan gelaðunge ge gelyfð nu on God
(Judith, ll. 345-47)

Judith herself attributes her victory to faith in the Lord’s power when she declares:

Heriað, ic bidde, mid blisse urne drihten, se þe ne forlæt on hine gelyfende 7 þa þe hihtað on his micclum truwan
(Judith ll. 268-70)

It is this strength of belief which leads to her victory, and if the audience imitates her fortitude they will also be triumphant.

It is impossible to doubt Ælfric's belief in the events depicted in his story of Judith. To him they were historical facts which contain figural significance and religious doctrine. Clearly he presents the text as canonical:

Nis þis nan leas spel! Hit stent on Leden þus on ðære bibliothecan. Þæt witon boceras þe þæt Leden cunnon þæt we na ne leogað.
(Judith, ll. 339-41)

Here he assures his audience that the story is taken from the Vulgate, and its existence there was proof enough of its historical validity. However, his recognition of this does not necessarily preclude his recognition of the allegorical content of the story. Although he is not as forceful in stressing this as he is the tropological, one can discern several references along those lines.

First, we are told that in Judith ‘wæs gefylled þæs hælendes cwyde’ (Judith ll. 341-42) and that she is ‘Cristes cyrce on eallum cristenum folce, his an clæne bryd’ (Judith ll. 347-48). If one adds to this the description of Holofernes as the ‘ealdum deofle’ (Judith l. 349) then one has the allegorical theme so often emphasised by the Church Fathers, namely that of Judith as Ecclesia overcoming Holofernes the Devil.

In terms of the ‘call to arms’ the Letter to Sigeweard could not be more forthright:

...seo ys eac on Englisc on ure wisan gesett eow mannum to bysne, þæt ge eowerne eard mid wæpnum bewerian wið on winnende here.
(Crawford, 1922, p. 48)

For Astell Ælfric's homily thus illustrates ‘the tropology or moral lesson of the Judith story as a timely call to men such as Sigeweard to resist the invading army of the Danes’(36). Nevertheless there is no statement or declaration in Ælfric's summation of the meaning of Judith at the end of the homly to indicate its importance as a patriotic call to arms. What then is one to assume from its absence?

Pringle (1975) sees a deeper level in the linking of such diverse themes as patriotism and chastity. He argues that if the book of Judith is about the respect for chastity, and that if a lapse in chaste behaviour by the English had brought about the Danish invasions, then a return to Christian morality would itself be a form of defence. To reinforce this argument Pringle refers to Ælfric's Memory of the Saints (LS, XVI, p. 353), which points to repentance as a path to triumph over the heathens. This indeed is in keeping with Ælfric's fusion of spiritual and worldly conflicts in Maccabees (ll. 609-20). Thus, when exhorting the English ‘þæt ge eowerne eard mid wæpnum bewerian wið on winnende here’ (Crawford, 1922, p. 48) Ælfric is referring both to physical ‘wæpnum’ (swords and spears) and spiritual ‘wæpnum’ (chastity)(37).

Clayton (1994) reassesses Pringle's arguments, finding them forced. She suggests that the problems arise from the multiple ways of approaching the text, whether as a call to arms, or as a plea for chastity, and concludes that they result from Ælfric's confused attempt to make the story ‘safe’ as well as ‘to contain and defuse it’ (p. 225). Yet, such criticisms should not cause the reader concern if the likelihood that Ælfric composed different versions for different audiences is recognised. Thus the text edited here, taken from MS C, could be a version intended for chaste women or the clergy; whereas the Letter to Sigeweard refers to a version, now lost, which presumably had a different ending (or none at all) placing the emphasis on a call to arms.

4. Esther

4a. Introduction

In his Letter to Sigeweard Ælfric states that he has translated into English the story of Esther, in which the queen ‘ahredde’ her nation (Crawford, 1922, p. 48). Otherwise he supplies little by way of commentary on Esther. The text itself is short, lacking any digression that might indicate Ælfric's reading of the story. The English account keeps fairly close to the Vulgate materials throughout. The most notable change is the omission of two speeches by Esther (Esther 4:9-15 and 5:9), which may suggest an attempt to reduce her importance.

4b. Patristic Background

Because there is so little direction from Ælfric himself it is necessary to look to other writers for some insight into the interpretation of this story. In his Allegoriæ quædam scripturæ sacræ Isidore identifies Judith and Esther as:

122. Judith et Esther typum Ecclesiæ gestant, hostes fidei puniunt, ac populum Dei ab interitu eruunt.
(PL 83, col. 116)

This identification is repeated by Rabanus Maurus in his De Universo (Libri III), where he states:

Esther interpretatur absconsa. Hæ quoque mulieres, quæ typum gestant Ecclesiæ, hostes fidei puniunt, ac populum ab interitu eruunt.
(PL 111, col. 66)

Even more instructive is Rabanus Maurus's Expositio in Librum Esther:

Liber Esther, quem Hebraei inter hagiographa annumerant, multipliciter Christi et Ecclesiæ sacramenta in mysterio continet; quia ipsa Esther in Ecclesiæ typo populum de periculo liberat, et interfecto Aman, qui interpretatur iniquitas, partem convivii et diem celebrem mittit in posteros.
(PL 109, col. 635)

Thus, Esther resembles Judith in that she represents the Church in its spiritual conflict against evil. Alcuin too makes this point, when he presents her as ‘sub figura Ecclesiæ’ in the Disputatio Puerorum (PL 101, col. 1127).

Esther is also characterised as pure. In his 62nd Letter Ambrose likens her to Judith and Anna (PL 16, col. 1197), and Isidore in the De Ortu et Obitu Patrum states:

Esther regina, filia fratris Mardochai, de stirpe Benjamin, captiva de Jerusalem in urbem Susim translata est, atque aspectu formæ, et perspicua virginitatis excellentia regi Persarum connubiis copulata.
(PL 83, col. 147)

In the extant text Ælfric does not elaborate on any of these points, although there may have been some concluding section to explain the story's meaning, which William L'Isle chose not to transcribe in the seventeenth century.

4c. Ælfric's Esther

It has already been noted that the story of Esther, Mordecai, and Aman fits neatly into the ‘call to arms’ theme common to these three biblical texts. As Dubois (1943(38)) states, the story, like that of Judith, symbolises:

la lutte spirituelle contre le tentateur et la lutte armée contre l’ennemi national. C’est la douce Esther qui, par son dévoument, parvient à sauver les Juifs...
(p. 98)

There is an obvious basic moralizing theme running throughout Esther: it is pleasing that the guilty are punished and the innocent reprieved. Furthermore, in reaching its conclusion the story makes strong use of irony, with situations resolving themselves in an almost theatrical style (suggesting that the story is fictional). Aman’s punishment is particularly effective as he is executed on the gallows he intended for Mordecai. He is a figure so beset with ironic reversals that it is hard not to feel sympathy for his plight. Throughout the story his plots are foiled by circumstance. For example, his plan to denounce Mordecai fails, but only because the king chooses to read the chronicle on the night before Mordecai's execution, thus realising his debt to the Jew. In the end the very date Aman sets for the massacre of the Jews, the people who ‘heoldon þa Godes æ’ (Esther l. 268), ends up as the day on which his own followers are slaughtered.

5. The Maccabees

5a. Introduction

In his Letter to Sigeweard Ælfric devotes considerable attention to explaining the importance of the campaigns of the Maccabees, and points towards their importance as an illustration of just military action based on faith. He identifies Judas as ‘se mæra Godes cempa’ paraphrasing his declaration in the Vulgate:

Syle us, leof Drihten, þinne soðan fultum on ure gedrefednisse 7 gedo us strengran, for þan þe mannes fultum ys unmihtig 7 idel. Ac uton wyrcean mihte on þone mihtigan God, 7 he to nahte gedeð urne deriendlican fynd.
(Crawford, 1922, p. 50)

In his edition of Ælfric's homily Skeat observes that the text of the Maccabees ‘ written (it would seem) with more than usual care’(39). Furthermore its overall length(40) and the author’s statement that ‘ic awende hig on Englisc 7 rædon gif ge wyllað eow sylfum to ræde!(41)’ both attest to the text’s importance.

5b. Patristic Background

Jerome points to the significance of the Maccabees in his Commentarius in Ecclesiasten (PL 23, col. 1066) as suffering ‘pro Christo’. Augustine often refers to the books in relation to Psalm 143(42), and in discussing the martyred family states ‘At illa mater, iam non Evæ, sed matrii Ecclesiæ similis’(43). Isidore also discusses this point in his Ex Veteri Testamento:

Machabei septem, qui sub Antiocho acerbissima perpessi tormanta, gloriosissime coronati sunt significant Ecclesiam septiformem, quæ ab inimicis Christi multam martyrum stragem pertulit et gloriæ coelestis coronam accepit.
(PL 83, col. 116)

Rabanus Maurus provides a lengthy commentary for the two Vulgate books (PL 109, cols. 1126-56), in which he praises Judas’s valour, as well as discussing the seven martyrs (cols. 1235-39). He points to Eleazar’s act of killing the elephant as an example of unselfish devotion (cols. 1174-5), and numerous other writings(44), all extolling the virtues of the Maccabees, must certainly have made Ælfric aware of the books' importance in Christian doctrine.

5c. The Maccabees: The Defence of War

The setting of warfare is established in ll. 2-13 with the introduction of Alexander the ‘egefulla cyning’ (Maccabees l. 2) and the campaigns waged by Antiochus against Egypt and Israel. The English begins with the passion of the Seven Sons, a retelling faithful to the Vulgate, and demonstrating the strength of faith against adversity. Eleazar’s explanation of why he will not comply with the king’s edict sets a pattern of behaviour to be mirrored in the subsequent events detailed in the homily:

ac ic læte bysne þam iungum cnihtum gif ic cenlice swelte arwurðum deaðe for ðære halgan æ.
(Maccabees, ll. 91-2)

Judas, although embroiled in a military rebellion, conducts all his actions with moral fortitude, constantly striving to follow his father’s instructions:

7 wrecað eower folc on ðam fulum hæðenum 7 healdað Godes æ on godum biggencgum!
(Maccabees, ll. 239-40)

Ælfric describes Judas as like a ‘leon’ (Maccabees l. 252) and says that his ‘hlisa þa asprang to þam ytemestan landum’ (Maccabees l. 257); but throughout his adventures Judas is ‘Godes ðegen’ (Maccabees l. 607), His champion on earth. He does not invade anyone else’s homeland, but constantly defends his own, and more importantly, the faith.

Ælfric may have worried that his Maccabees glorified warfare, for he chooses at two points in the sequence to discuss war in general terms. In ll. 609-33, immediately after Judas’s death, Ælfric points out that new attitudes to war were introduced:

Ac Crist on his tocyme us cydde oðre ðincg, 7 het us healdan sibbe 7 soðfæstnysse æfre, 7 we sceolon winnan wið þa wælhreowan fynd
(Maccabees, ll. 609-11)

The enemies of Christendom are found in heathen armies, of course, but more importantly they take on the form of ‘ða ungesewenlican and þa swicolan deofle’ (Maccabees l. 612) who seek not to conquer physically, but to ‘ofslean ure sawla’ (Maccabees l. 613). Accordingly, each man may face two conflicts: physical battle (as represented by the rebellion for the Maccabees, and by the Danish invasions for the English); and spiritual battle, fought with ‘gastlicum wæpnum’ (Maccabees l. 614). Just as Judas is God's champion, Ælfric urges his audience to be ‘Godes cempan on ðam gastlican gefeohte’ (Maccabees l. 617).

Ælfric also attempts to reconcile the idea of physical conflict with the Christian ideal of peace. Following Isidore’s exposition of De Bello (in his Etymologus), he divides war into four categories: just, unjust, civil, and ‘plusquam’ civil. Of these only the first is acceptable to a Christian. The war waged by Judas against the heathens was just and so too is ‘rihtlic gefeoht wið ða reðan flotmenn’ (Maccabees l. 628). By taking up arms against the Danes, the Anglo-Saxons would not be subverting their Christian faith, but protecting it, just as Judas fought for the 'halgan æ'(45).

5d. The Defence of War II: ‘Oratores, Laboratores, Bellatores’

The second point at which Ælfric directs his attention towards the subject of war is in the ‘Item Alia’ entitled ‘Oratores, Laboratores, Bellatores’. Skeat argues that the ‘piece was probably introduced by way of apology for the militant tone of the homily’ pointing out that ‘unlike other ‘Item Alia's’ it has its own title’ (LS, vol. II, p. 449).

This material, which does not appear in the Vulgate, has sometimes been read as a separate discourse. Yet, the main source manuscripts for the Maccabees (i.e. J, C, E, and L) all contain the ‘Item Alia’. Furthermore, the phrase ‘Item’ can not be taken to indicate a separate text, as manuscript J (Cotton Julius E.vii) uses it to separate Sections I and II of the homily.

Elsewhere in J there are examples of ‘Item Alias’ as being part of the preceding homily. For example, at the end of the Life of St Swithun (LS, XXI) there is an ‘Item Alia’ concerning St Macarius. Its beginning line of ‘Mannum is eac to witenne...’ (l. 464) indicates a continuation of thought. The same is true of the ‘Item Alia’ of the Life of St Mark (LS, XV) which begins:

We habbaþ nu gesæd sceortlice on ðysum gewryte
hu se halga marcus wæs gemartyrod
(ll. 104-6)

Another example is the ‘Item Alia’ of Abdon and Sennes (LS, XXIV), concerning a Letter to Abgarus, which must also be a continuation of the story as it begins:

Nu we spræcon be cynegum we willað þysne cwyde gelencgan
and be sumum cynincge eow cyðan git. Abgarus wæs geciged
(ll. 81-82(46))

The ‘Item Alia’ in the Maccabees provides an effective ending for the homily as a whole. Not only does it balance Section I in the sense that it is removed from the main action by location and characters, it also embodies one of the main messages of the whole homily. Although war itself is not classified, the people who take part in it are by using the medieval concept of the ‘three orders’, i.e. the Oratores, Laboratores, and Bellatores.

In categorizing these three levels of society, Ælfric states which conflict is applicable to each. The ‘laboratores’ are involved in the war against nature and hunger, for ‘swincð se yrðlincg embe urne bigleofan’ (Maccabees, l. 730). The ‘bellatores’ face physical threat, such as that confronting Judas, for he ‘sceall winnan wið ure fynd’ (Maccabees, l. 731), and the ‘oratores’ face the ‘ungesewenlican’ enemy (Maccabees, l. 733)(47). It is impossible to identify one role as more important than another, for each group needs to succeed for all to prosper (Maccabees, ll. 737-43).

Any action that goes against the normal order of things will not succeed. To prove this point Ælfric cites the example of Julianus (Maccabees, ll. 744-56) and his maltreatment of the priests, which ultimately ends in the Lord's direct intervention. Julianus’s error was his attempt to force the priests to take up arms against a ‘gesewenlican’ enemy, for this is clearly the role of the ‘bellatores’. Ælfric states that no servant of the Lord, by which he means the clergy(48), should use weapons, as they are not needed in the fight against the invisible enemy. In the struggle with the invisible enemy only spiritual weapons are of any use (Maccabees, ll. 757-65).

Powell (1994) relates Ælfric's treatment in the homily of the ‘three orders’ to its appearance in both the Letter to Sigeweard (Crawford, 1922, pp. 71-72) and a private pastoral letter to Wulfstan(49). Speculating on a Frankish source written in Latin (now lost, see pp. 113 and 117) Powell notes a shift in the emphasis from the importance of the ‘oratores’ as apparent in the Maccabees and the letter to Wulfstan, to a more prominent role for the warrior or ‘bellatores’ in the Letter to Sigeweard (possibly reflecting back to King Alfred's earlier treatment of the topic(50)). However, although the role of the ‘bellatores’ may not be as developed in the Maccabees, Powell is unconvincing when he states that Ælfric does not, in the homily, ‘urge the English to emulate literally the example of Judas Maccabees’ (p. 111). Ælfric is clearly aware of the importance of the physical struggle, as can be seen from his reference to the just war against the Vikings in l. 628: but he is careful not to urge all of the English into taking part in it. He sees it as a war on two fronts; and each order, be they the ‘oratores’ or the ‘bellatores’, has its special role to play.

The ‘Item Alia’ complements the Maccabees as a whole. Although Judas is an exemplary figure to lay-men who seek guidance in times of war, this final section shows clearly that his actions are not to be copied by all members of society. Clergy, and notably young monks of ‘Benedictes regole’ (Maccabees, l. 762), should not take Judas Maccabees as their model, any more than they should imitate his brothers Simon and Jonathan, who were both involved in the fighting as rebels whilst holding the office of High Priest. The task performed by Judas was that suitable for ‘bellatores’ but not for ‘oratores’. Thus his war is not the type of conflict that monks should confront; rather they face spiritual struggle against the invisible enemy. Nevertheless, although Judas’s military actions should not be copied by the ‘oratores’, his virtuous actions and adherence to the law of God figurally illustrate a perfect example of the type of weapon that will aid them in their fight against the ‘ungesewenlican fynd’.

(1) See M. McC. Gatch, Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England: Ælfric and Wulfstan (Toronto & Buffalo, 1977), p. 203, n. 53. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(2) Found in G. W. Kitchin, Compotus Rolls of the Obedientaries of St Swithun's Priory (London, 1892), p. 195. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(3) As well as Kings, Paralipomenon, Solomon, Job and Tobias; see Antiquus ordo Romanus PL 66, col. 1002. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(4) Clemoes (1959), p. 220 and footnote 3. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(5) See Lee (forthcoming), for a complete analysis of L'Isle's transcription methods. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(6) Godden (1994), p. 140. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(7) Clayton also sees the explanations at the end of the homily as having ‘very much the air of being appendages’ (p. 219). See M. Clayton, ‘Ælfric's Judith: Manipulative or Manipulated?’ ASE 23 (1994), pp. 215-27. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(8) H. Logeman, The Rule of S. Benet, EETS, OS 90 (London, 1888). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(9) Compare J. R. Hall, ‘Some Liturgical Notes on Ælfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynsham’, Downside Review 93 (1975), pp. 297-303. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(10) Note that he places all three together at the end of the discussion of the Old Testament, in keeping with the structure of the Vulgate. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(11) See ll. 147-55 of De Oratione Moysi, LS, I, XIII. For further discussion of this see M. R. Godden, ‘Ælfric's Saints' Lives and the Problem of Miracles’, Leeds Studies in English 16 (1985), pp. 83–100. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(12) It was common to associate this trait with Antiochus and Holofernes, as in Chaucer’s The Monk’s Tale, ll. 2551-74, and ll. 2575-2630. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(13) With the exception of Heliodorus, whose survival reinforces the piety of Onias. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(14) The importance here is the actual capturing of the possessions and not the wealth. This can be seen by the episode of the hidden treasure (Maccabees ll. 405-25), where the hoarding of the spoils is strongly condemned. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(15) See Maccabees, ll. 273-81, 302-11, 327-32, 431-32, 445-47, and 551-57. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(16) See also W. A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester, 1970), especially p. 109. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(17) Compare the example used by Judas (Maccabees ll. 305-11). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(18) Crawford (1922), p. 48. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(19) Godden (1984, p. 131) suggests that Ælfric would have had some considerable political influence through such patrons as Æthelweard and Æthelmær. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(20) See Wilcox (1994b), pp. 37–44, for a more recent description of the Letter to Sigeweard. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(21) See A. Rapetti, ‘Three Images of Judith’, Études de Lettres (1987), p. 155. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(22) Compare his strong recommendations in the Apologia Adversus Libros Rufini (PL 29, col. 412). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(23) See also Aldhelm's prose version of De Virginitate (MGH, Auctores Antiquissimi 15, pp. 316-17). In this lengthy passage, Aldhelm argues that as each Christian is married to Christ, then because of His death each person must be a widow. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(24) PL 83, col 116. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(25) Dracontius's De laudibus Dei, MGH, Auctores Antiquissimi, p. 105; and Sermones de Judith, PL 39, cols. 1839-41. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(26) Most recently edited by Mark Griffith, Judith (1997). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(27) e.g. see Beowulf, l. 1502b ‘hring utan ymbbearh’. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(28) Some of which could possibly have constituted the missing beginning of the poem. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(29) Note that Holofernes is actually called ‘se deofolcunda’ in l. 61. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(30) J. P. Hermann elaborates on this in ‘The Theme of Spiritual Warfare in the Old English Judith’, PQ 55 (1976), pp. 1–9. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(31) See H. Magennis, ‘Adaption of Biblical Detail in the Old English Judith: The Feast Scene’, NM 84 (1983), 331–37. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(32) See J. F. Doubleday, ‘The Principles of Contrast in Judith’, NM 72 (1971), 436–41. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(33) The battle, which forms a large part of the extant poem, does not occur in the Vulgate or the homily. In Ælfric's version as soon as the murdered Holofernes is discovered the Assyrians flee from the area and the Hebrews' ‘sige’ is only briefly mentioned. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(34) Clayton (1994, p. 227) convincingly argues that ‘nunnan’ need not refer to nuns as it can refer to women who have taken a vow of chastity or ‘have promised their virginity to Christ’, but are still at liberty to live in the lay-world, possibly in a community of like-minded women. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(35) Clayton (1994, p. 222) feels that the life of Malchus was included by Ælfric because he was aware of the possible ambiguity presented by Judith's actions (notably she never actually rejects sex with Holofernes): ‘Ælfric's uncomfortable awareness of the moral ambiguity of the action leads him to try to copperfasten the desired moral by telling another story. This further that of Malchus and his “wife”, told to exemplify the power of “mægðhad” and “clænnys’’’. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(36) A. W. Astell, ‘Holofernes's Head: Tacen and Teaching in the Old English Judith’, ASE 18 (1989), pp. 117–34. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(37) L'Isle, in his edition of the Letter in 1623, translates these lines as ‘that ye men may also defend your countrey by force of armes against inuasion of a forreine host’ adding in the margin of ‘This was written when the Danes used to inuade the land – W. L.’. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(38) M. M. Dubois, Ælfric, Sermonnaire, Docteur, et Grammairien: Contribution à L'Étude de la Vie et de L'Action Bénédictines en Angleterre au Xe Siècle (Paris, 1943). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(39) LS, vol. II, p. 449. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(40) 773 lines (811 in Skeat) making it the second longest piece by Ælfric in the Lives of Saints after the expanded Life of St Martin (LS, XXXI). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(41) Crawford (1922), p. 51. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(42) See his Sermon 32 in PL 38, col. 202. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(43) Enarratio in Psalmum LXVIII, PL 35, col. 2192. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(44) See St Gaudentius’s De Machabeis, PL 20, cols. 948-55; St Hilary’s Carmen in Machabeos, PL 50, cols. 1275-86; St Cyprianus’s 56th Letter, PL 4, col. 354; and St Zenonis’s Tractatus 16, PL 11, col. 378. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(45) See J. E. Cross, ‘The Ethic of War in Old English’ in (eds.) P. Clemoes and K. Hughes, England Before the Conquest—Studies in Primary Sources (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 269–82. Cross recognises these comments of Ælfric, built around Isidore's definitions, as the only ‘categorized definition of the kinds of war in Old English literature’ (p. 273). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(46) The only ‘Item Alia’ to cause concern is that of Ahitophel and Absalom at the end of the Life of St Alban (LS, XIX). However, although there is no obvious linking phrase, the two are placed together because the ‘Item Alia’ details the punishing of ‘arleasan sceaþan’ (l. 156) whereas in St Alban the emperor Diocletian is unpunished.[To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(47) A point which Ælfric discusses earlier in Maccabees ll. 609-20. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(48) As can be seen by his immediate reference to ‘se munuc’ (Maccabees, l. 761). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(49) See D. Whitelock et al., Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church I 871-1204 vol I (Oxford, 1981), pp. 242-55 (no. 45). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(50) See W. J. Sedgefield, King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius De Consolatione (Oxford, 1899), p. 40; translated in Keynes and Lapidge (1983, p. 132). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]