Judith in a Very Long Tale

07 Jul

Filed under “Things I Never Knew” and “How Did I Find That Out?”

  • Judith is mentioned in the one of the first greatest writings of the English language, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • And … there is a version of The Canterbury Tales that is beautifully illustrated by Sir William Russell Flint, P.R.W.S., R.A. (1880-1969)

The Canterbury Tales (written between 1387 and 1400) are presented as a story-telling contest within a group of travelers on a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The tales are told in ten Fragments, in which tales are closely related and contain indications of presentation order, usually with one character speaking to and then stepping aside for another character. In Fragment VII, Judith appears in The Tale of Melibee – one of the longest and most boring of all the tales. In this tale, Melibee and Dame Prudence (his wife) debate how to seek retribution from an enemy who beat her and their daughter – using many proverbs and quotes from learned authorities and the Bible to make their points. Melibee makes five points and Dame Prudence rebutes –

When Dame Prudence, very debonairly and with great patience, had heard all that her husband was pleased to say, then she asked of him permission to speak, and said in this manner: 

… And truly, as to your fifth reason, where you say that in wicked advice women vanquish men, God knows, that reason has no value here. For understand now, you ask advice to do wickedness; and if you will do wickedness, and your wife restrains that wicked purpose, and overcomes you by reason and by good advice, certainly your wife ought rather to be praised than blamedJudith by her good advice delivered the city of Bethulia, in which she dwelled, out of the hands of Holofernus, who had besieged it and would have entirely destroyed it.

By the way, Dame Prudence wins the debate in the end.

Fast forward to 1913.

William Russell Flint (1880-1969), “Judith,” 1913, watercolor illustration for The Canterbury Tales, published by Medici Society Ltd., London, UK

The Medici Society published an illustrated edition of the Tales in three volumes, with thirty-six plates by William Russell Flint (1880-1969). Flint was already famous for his watercolors of the female form. “These illustrations show the appeal of stories about medieval women–an appeal which should probably be set in the context of such artistic movements as the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, Aestheticism, and Art Nouveau.” (1)

Flint’s work bares a striking resemblance to the Orientalists and to the Pre-Raphaelites, who both flourished from 1850 into the early 20th century and who I have admired. And I have admitted several times to a soft spot for illustration, appealing to the romantic in me. So no surprise that I find this Judith to be enchanting, with her thick braid of hair that is complimented by her heavy gold adornments. She demurely looks away from the severed head – either distancing herself from the violence or preparing for her next move. But she stands in full view with a simple gown and shawl of resplendent color. A breath-taking depiction for one line in a very long story.

Enjoy the other thirty-five watercolors from this book at the blogspot of Pierangelo Boogeymen, The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer illustrated by W. Russell Flint.

(1) Siân Echard, Printing the Middle Ages, 2008, University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US

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Posted by on July 7, 2020 in No category


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