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Book Chapter

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Classical Studies



Publication Title

The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines


In the late fourth century, the Christian poet Prudentius wrote the Psychomachia (The Battle within the Soul), which depicts a series of single combats between personified virtues and vices. Immensely popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Psychomachia’s allegorical battles were depicted in a variety of relief sculptures and paintings throughout churches in Europe. In his poem, Prudentius frequently uses a character or story from the Old Testament that prefigures a character or event from the New Testament, Roman Christian history, and a personified virtue or vice. These typologies form the backbone of Prudentius’s poem; so, for instance, the biblical story of Judith who refuses the sexual advances of the Assyrian king, Holofernes, and then kills him in order to save the Israelites is treated at Psych. 58–75. In the passage, the personified virtue, Pudicitia (Chastity), tells the defeated vice, Libido (Lust), that her violent death was predicted by Judith’s killing of Holofernes:

Tene, o vexatrix hominum, potuisse resumptisviribus extincti capitis recalescere flatu,Assyrium postquam thalamum cervix Oloferniscaesa cupidineo madefactum sanguine lavit gemmantemque torum moechi ducis aspera Iudith sprevit et incestos conpescuit ense furores, famosum mulier referens ex hoste tropaeum non trepidante manu, vindex mea caelitus audax!At fortasse parum fortis matrona sub umbralegis adhuc pugnans, dum tempora nostra figurat,vera quibus virtus terrena in corpora fluxit,grande per infirmos caput excisura ministros?Numquid et intactae post partum virginis ullumfas tibi iam superest? Post partum virginis, ex quocorporis humani naturam pristina origodeservit carnemque novam vis ardua sevitatque innupta deum concepit femina Christum,mortali de matre hominem sed cum patre numen.

Should you, harasser of human beings, be able to resume your strength and grow warm again with the breath of life that was extinguished in you, after the severed head of Holofernes soaked his Assyrian chamber with his lustful blood, and the unbending Judith, spurning the lecherous captain’s jeweled couch, checked his un-clean passion with the sword, and woman as she was, won a famous victory over the foe with no trembling hand, maintaining my cause with a heaven-inspired boldness? But perhaps a woman still fighting under the shade of the law did not have enough strength, though in doing so she prefigured our times, in which the true power of virtue has passed into earthly bodies so that a great head is severed by the hands of feeble agents. Well, since an immaculate virgin has born a child, do you have any claim remaining − since the day when a man’s body lost its primeval nature, and power from on high created a new flesh, and an unwedded woman conceived the God Christ, who is man in virtue of his mortal mother but God along with the Father?


This published version is made available on Dickinson Scholar with the permission of the publisher. For more information on the published version, visit Open Book Publishers’ Website.

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