I am pleased to announce that I have completed the first draft of the translation of the Archbishop Hrabanus Maurus’s commentary on the book of Judith. As always, An Explanation of the Book of Judith is available freely online through Google Documents. I usually offer highlights on the chapter I most recently completed, but this chapter was so long that I’m going to forego that on this last chapter. But do feel free to provide feedback on the translation of Chapter 16. Feedback can be given directly in the document itself. You can simply highlight something and add a comment or edit the document itself to make suggestions.
This medieval commentary is the earliest full length commentary that we have on the book of Judith, and probably the only one that could be considered big-O Orthodox.
While this is a major milestone for me, four years in the making, I do want to make it clear that this is the first draft. So yes, if you are eager to get into the commentary and really dig into the book of Judith, you may certainly do that. But also realize that this work still requires a great deal of editing and double-checking for accuracy. The current draft should serve to get across the basic message that the blessed Hrabanus conveyed in his commentary, but there may be inaccuracies in the translation here and there and some of the wording may prove awkward to read.
The next phase of this project entails completing a todo list of some cleanup work including such things as formatting the bibliography and footnote entries correctly, thoroughly rereading the whole book, and probably quite a bit of rephrasing, especially of earlier chapters. My Latin skills improved immensely during the course of this project and later chapters are much better than earlier ones. I’ll take what I learned back to the earlier chapters to make them flow better and improve accuracy. I will also need to write a decent introduction to the author of the original work as well as a guide on how to use the book.
Finally, I do plan to self-publish. The book will continue to have a Creative Commons license and be available freely online. But I plan to make a printed edition and an eBook edition for those who prefer a physical copy or a copy formatted nicely for an ereader, as well as for those who would like to support further work of this nature through purchase.
In the course of translating ancient documents, I have found that there are numerous detours. A case in point is a bit of a dispute about what a timbrel actually is. What, after all, is a timbrel? Have you ever seen one? In his commentary on the book of Judith, Hrabanus raises this issue, since the book of Judith does mention a timbrel in Judith’s song.
Certain people say that a timbrel (tympanum) is a musical instrument, “like two cones with only the points joined together; the sonorous reverberation is from the hide stretched over them. Musicians play it rhythmically with repeated resonance, beating with a measure of discipline.”  Others, however, say that the timbrel is a very small thing, by the fact that it can be carried in a woman’s hand, as it is written in Exodus, “So Mary the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand” (Ex 15:20); and also to be formed into a trumpet (tubam) with a single small pipe at the narrow end through which it is blown into, mystically signifying that the knowledge of the ancient law in the hand of the synagogue of the Jews from ancient times is the minimum, which was enlarged in the hands of the Holy Church only through Christ.
The first quote is from Cassiodorus’ commentary on the Psalms (PL70 1052D). Cassiodorus seems to be describing what is now called a goblet drum, which has been in use since ancient times in the middle east.
The second description was a bit more puzzling to me. Not only had I never imagined a timbrel to be a wind instrument, but a brass wind instrument was even further from my mind. The critical edition by Adele Simonetti that I am using is generally quite good at indicating citations of other works, but in this case it was unclear to me who “others” was.
It turns out that a pupil of Hrabanus Maurus, Walafrid Strabo, mentions this very thing (hat tip to Diego), noting that Jerome says that a timbrel is a type of trumpet: “According to Jerome it is a type of trumpet (tubae) having a reed or pipe on top, through which it returns a sonorous sound” (PL113 232C-D).
Jerome was the clue I was looking for. With a little googling, I came across a short letter to Dardanus from Saint Jerome on musical instruments. Modern scholars don’t believe this letter was actually written by Jerome himself and is thus falsely attributed to him. The author is generally referred to as Pseudo-Jerome. (At least one scholar argues that Hrabanus himself wrote the letter). It is pretty clear to me that our Hrabanus was referring to a passage from this letter and was not likely its author. A translation of the relevant passage follows:
The timbrel (tympanum) can be explained in a few words: it is a very small thing, by the fact that it can be carried in a woman’s hand, as it is written in Exodus, ‘So Mary the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand’ (Ex 15:20). And it is the minor wisdom of the ancient law in the hand of the Jews of the synagogue in ancient times. It was also a bagpipe (chorus), a single hide with two brass pipes, and through the first it is blown into; through the second it emits sound. It is a type of the earlier people who had received a narrower understanding of the law, and through the narrow purpose of the proclamation feebly proclaimed all. If, however, I were to look back on earthly things wisely and diligently, they should be understood both spiritually and mystically.
And here is where things got fun. This letter may be the earliest source we have describing what is probably a bagpipe (chorus).
Now the way that Hrabanus (and also possibly Walafrid Strabo) reads the passage is, I believe, the way I have translated it. But from what I can ascertain by just looking at the pictures, a later document may have read it differently, possibly breaking the above paragraph into two. It provides illustrations of two different instruments, one for each of the two words mentioned above. It is an illuminated manuscript called “Instruments of Hieronymus” (Hieronymus is Jerome’s name in Latin) and is based at least in part on this letter to Dardanus. I have included the two illustrations, one for tympanum and a separate one for chorus.
I assume that Hrabanus and Strabo inferred tuba (trumpet) from the description. Tuba generally refers to a metal wind instrument, usually a long straight war trumpet. But it could also refer more generally to a tube.
What exactly was a timbrel? I’m not sure I can say with any certainty. But let’s just say that I’m really skeptical that it was a bagpipe…
In this chapter the people of Bethulia and of Israel slaughter the Assyrians and put the remaineder of them to flight. They collect massive spoils from their camp, giving very generous portions to Judith. Joachim the high priest comes from Jerusalem to meet with Judith and offers her much praise, as do all the people.
Hrabanus talks quite a bit about how the Israelites who pursued the Assyrians represent the preachers and those of the faithful who war against the enemy. I would like to highlight how these spiritual warriors, and Mother Church herself, treat the spoils of war. In speaking about the spoils (verse 12), Hrabanus says the following;
It is appropriate to consider that it says that those who had remained inside the city bore off the plunder of the Assyrians, moreover, those who returned conquerors from the slaughter of the enemy took a multitude of cattle, beasts and all movables. This is because, although the work of Christ’s soldiers may be inordinate, yet the intention and devotion should be one and the same: that they might convert whatever they are able to tear away from the unjust possession of the enemy to the adornment and riches of the Holy Church, that is the gold of wisdom, the silver of eloquence, the gems of morality and the virtues, and furthermore the people given to carnal sensuality who were captured in idolatry and guilty of slavery to vices, to the extent that all these things that the arrogant Assyrian and prince of this world used to unjustly possess, are returned to the honor of the divine religion through the soldiers of Christ.
Not only are the soldiers of Christ reclaiming the lost people who were captured in idolatry and enslaved to the vices, but also the good practices and wisdom that were embedded in those cultures. Further on he reiterates this idea (verse 26):
What does it mean that it says that all those things that were the peculiar goods of Holofernes, the people gave to Judith, if it does not mean that all of the faithful who carry out the war of Christ, seize everything from the dominion or possession of the enemies, collectively reckon all to the praise and endeavor of Holy Mother Church, and hasten to collect it for her spiritual adornment, so that she herself might gleam with the gold of wisdom, shine with the brilliance of eloquence, radiate with the gems of precious virtues and be clothed with the ornaments of the various disciplines? All this, namely any of the good things that the iniquitous possessor was unjustly possessing, she herself rightly appropriates for her own adornment.
This is an important point. The Church does not simply reject things out of hand that come from other cultures or religions. It seeks out the good things that are found in these cultures, and “baptizing” them, makes them her own.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov explains more clearly why the Church takes this approach with “pagan” cultures:
Though not with the same power as in the people of God, nevertheless the presence of the Spirit of God also acted in the pagans who did not know the true God, because even among them, God found the chosen people. For instance, there were the virgin-prophetesses called Sibyls who vowed virginity to an unknown God, but to God, the Creator of the universe, the all-powerful ruler of the world, as He was conceived by the pagans. Though the pagan philosophers also wandered in the darkness of ignorance of God, yet they sought the truth which is beloved by God. Because of this God-pleasing seeking, they could partake of the Spirit of God. It is said that nations who do not know God, practice by nature the demands of the law and do what is pleasing to God (cf. Rom. 2:14). The Lord so praises truth that He says of it Himself by the Holy Spirit: Truth has sprung from the earth, and justice has looked down from heaven (Ps. 84:11) … both in the holy Hebrew people, a people beloved by God, and in the pagans who did not know God, there was preserved a knowledge of God…
My usual approach during the Judith project is to focus on the devotional aspects of Hrabanus’ commentary. That is after all the main purpose of the book. However, today I’d like to look more closely at the life of the Blessed Hrabanus himself.
Back in chapter 10, I discovered a discrepancy between how the Douay-Rheims translation rendered a word and what Hrabanus himself thought a word meant. Today my primary purpose is not to discuss the correctness or incorrectness of either (though we might as well explore that a little while we’re here). What I find most interesting is that we can see a little piece of the world of Hrabanus’ times.
In chapter 10 verse 11, we find the following paragraph. I have highlighted the word of interest in bold.
Of course this maid—that is to say, a multitude of corporeal ones—does bear things, the Holy Church giving her a bottle of wine and a vessel of oil, parched corn and bread, whenever she reverently observes the holy sacraments prepared in grain, wine and oil, clearly the body and blood of the Lord and the anointing of unction.  She also bears pottage and cheese whenever she stores up the verdure of faith and the richness of love in her heart. For they say that pottage is food made with vegetables and cheese is curdled milk, which can each represent, in faith and in love, food for souls.
There is a word in Hrabanus’ writing, lapates, which in the Clementine Vulgate is palathas. Palathas was basically borrowed from the Greek παλάθη, and through metathesis (i.e. the transposition of sounds or letters in a word) seems to have evolved into a homonym of lapates. (It’s not too hard to imagine our contemporaries transposing a few letters to turn Pilates into lipates.) The Douay-Rheims translates this word (from the Clementine Vulgate) as dried figs whereas Hrabanus seems to interpret it as pottage. The fact that he talks about it as food made from vegetables and uses it as a metaphor for the verdancy of the faith is a good indicator.
Out of curiosity, I looked up Judith 10:5 and found it in the oldest extant manuscript of the Vulgate (p. 715v), which was produced around 700 AD. In this Codex Amiatinus, we find lapates as I have underlined above. Consequently, it is clear that there were editions of the Vulgate at that time that provided lapates where the Clementine edition provides palathas.
The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources provides both definitions for lapates, noting that, as I said above, the second definition came from metathesis of the Greek word. So, while Hrabanus was probably just following the most common definition of the word, it is probably anachronistic in the Book of Judith. It is, after all, hard to imagine the poor maid carrying a pot of green soup across the no man’s land between Bethulia and the camp of the Assyrians. On the other hand, scholars consider many other things in the book to be anachronistic, so this would not be the first.
I find medieval times to be fascinating and this is just a tidbit that helps me get into the mindset. The following video, produced by Modern History TV, is a delightful exploration into what a peasant might have eaten in the middle ages. Keep in mind that the middle ages are a fairly lengthy span of time and that Hrabanus Maurus lived very early in this span. What is shown in the video is probably close to what might have been true during the middle or later middle ages. But what you see here probably evolved from what was true in Hrabanus’ time. Be sure to watch for the peas pottage (or maybe “peas porridge hot”) at about 3.5 minutes into the video.
Through the process of figuring all of this out, I also took a fun detour to learn a little more about the Codex Amiatinus. Khan Academy has the following brief introduction to it. The miracle of the internet has made it possible for amateurs like myself to access these treasures from the comfort of our own homes.
This particular chapter is rather short, so the highlights are scant. In the previous chapter, Judith exhibited the head of Holofernes to the inhabitants of Bethulia. Bolstered by this defeat over one of the most powerful men in the world by a “mere” woman, the citizens are primed for a confrontation.
Likewise, the Church, also a woman, has overcome the ancient enemy. Rabanus helps us to flesh out the impact of this defeat on the citizens of heaven.
The Church, with maternal affection as well as magisterial authority, teaches her children how they should pursue the spiritual enemy: clearly that as soon as the sun rises they should hang the head of their enemy upon their walls. That is, as soon as the serenity of divine reconciliation and supernal solace have illuminated them, the believers should, with the Gospel teaching by which they are strengthened, disclose the wounded pride of the ancient enemy to everyone. And clothed with celestial weapons, that is with the shield of faith, the breastplate of justice, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God, they should—not sluggishly, but vigorously—pursue the flying wedge of enemies.
The flying wedge is a traditional offensive military formation used by the Romans and still in use today in the military and even in the game of football. Rabanus likes to make the story real.
In chapter thirteen, the deed is done. Holofernes loses his head. (Chapter thirteen does seem apropos for the loss of one’s head). The Blessed Rabanus Maurus finds this event and its setting to be to be a veritable treasure trove of practical object lessons, rich with allegory.
As Holofernes lies completely sloshed in his bed, Rabanus crafts an image in which each object in the tent takes on an allegorical meaning. In verse 5 he says:
The pillar that was at the head of Holofernes’ bed signifies the hardness of the depraved heart that generated the error of faithless complacency. The sword that hung tied upon it is the malice of evil intention; the hair of the head: the exaltation of an arrogant mind; the neck, in truth: the stubbornness of evil action; and the canopy, which is a net for flies, signifies the snares of deceitful thought.
Recall that Judith represents the Holy Church. Rabanus now takes this symbolism and applies it to the way in which the Holy Church works even today in verses 6 and 7:
She goes to the pillar and looses the sword, by which she might cut off the head of the most wicked enemy; with the malice of a hard heart stripped away, she cuts off from the enemy the opportunity for fierce temptation [or attack].
She removes the canopy because she uncovers his deceptions, with which he strives to entangle the guileless and incautious, and in the same way she is “rolling away the headless body of the enemy” whenever she shows the enemy himself to be infirm and debilitated in every part, with the result that the easier the soldiers of Christ think the most wicked enemy himself can be overcome, the more thoroughly they learn that he will be weak and conquerable.
Later on in verse 24, Rabanus connects this remarkable defeat with the prophesy made in the book of Genesis, and also God’s enabling of the apostles (the founders of the Church) with power over the enemy. He says:
…the Lord says to the cunning serpent in the beginning, “She shall crush thy head” (Gn 3:15). And the Truth Himself says to Her in the Gospel, “Behold, I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy” (Lk 10:19).
But not only does God, through the Church, overcome the devil. The Church also uncovers what the devil and his minions are up to so that he is easily seen through. In Bethulia, Judith presents the head to her people in triumph. Rabanus likens this demonstration to the Church’s exposition of the devil’s deceptions in verse 27:
Judith is bringing forth the head of Holofernes in the view of the people and showing them “his canopy, wherein he lay in his drunkenness,” whenever the Holy Church exposes in lucid discourse the ancient enemy’s arrogant mind and plainly uncovers for them his deception, in which the majority wickedly believed, so that they might know how perverse their enemy is and the magnitude of the omnipotent God’s righteousness, by which, under the authority of faithful spirits, he was overcome and driven back.
This is a useful image. Judith holding the head of Holofernes is an image worth imagining every time the devil’s schemes are exposed by the Church. And what are we to do with this knowledge? Rabanus gives that answer very clearly in verse 28:
Divine protection preserves these unharmed from every fraud of the enemy and the contamination of error, so that, with all these things having been fully understood, they give proper thanks and they unceasingly give back devoted praises to their creator and redeemer in return for this.
In this chapter Holofernes stashes Judith in his treasure chamber with the rest of his treasure. This seems quite symbolic. The good Abbot, Rabanus, comments on it in verse 3, noting that it symbolizes the secular leadership holding preachers of the Gospel in high regard:
What does it mean that Holofernes instructed Judith to stay in the place “where his treasures were laid up,” unless it means that the leadership of this age consents to hold a very great position for the preachers of the Gospel among those who have a mind that is both intelligent and a recipient of sound faith? For the intensification of a virtuous will is the most valuable treasure of the heart, where the figurative Judith stays, because the Holy Church steadfastly resides there.
The rest of the story is focused on Holofernes’ attempt to draw Judith into his revelry and to seduce her. He is absolutely smitten by her and can’t stand the thought of having her in his camp without having her in his bed. He tries to talk her into eating his food and drinking his wine, but she insists on eating the food that she has brought with her and that is prepared by her maid, so that she won’t be defiled by his food.
Holofernes is a bit put off by this and looks for a way to draw Judith into his feasting. He sees that she has meager provisions and hopes that by this he can draw her into consumption of his victuals. Her food symbolizing her religion, Rabanus observes that this event represents the fact that among secular leaders ,”the worship of the Christian religion is seen to be of little value and they strive to draw its practitioners into the filth of images or the seductions of the carnal pleasures” (verse 4).
Then, alluding to a means of escape from these traps, he describes a practice that aligns closely with the practice of some Orthodox countries or Jurisdictions even today. In preparation for receiving the Eucharist, many Orthodox faithful fast and pray during three days of confession leading up to Holy Communion. Recall that Rabanus Maurus was an Abbot in what is present day Germany. Consequently, it seems plausible that the practice we find in many Orthodox countries today was also found in eighth century western Europe. The blessed abbot describes it this way (verse 5):
But those with a faithful soul and a sure hope assure themselves that divine grace quickly comes to help, persist in prayers the entire night of this world, and baptize themselves with a fountain of tears; they wash the bed of their heart with a psalm throughout each night and water the couch of their thoughts with pious tears (cf. Ps 6:7); and in this manner during the three days of Catholic confession, completing their prayer through faith, hope, and love, (cf. 1 Cor 13:13) they finally on the fourth day, that is in the scintillating light of the Gospel, prepare for themselves victory over the enemy, and the author of death and darkness himself, blinded by his own malice, they convict as guilty, with eternal liability.
The key for Rabanus is that the Holy Church and her members remain pure in spite of living in the secular world. Consuming her own food, she is “in no way polluted by the idolatry or superstition of the Gentiles,” but has, as the Lord Himself said to his Disciples, “meat to eat, which you know not … My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, that I may perfect His work.”
UPDATE (8/7/2019): After more research, it seems that the above description of a penitential practice may instead be alluding to the quarterly penance practiced by all Christians during a period now known as Ember Days or Embertide. The three Ember Days were always on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the same week. On the fourth day, Sunday, the faithful would celebrate Holy Mass. These days were widely observed throughout the Frankish empire by the time of Rabanus Maurus, having been enjoined by Charlemagne in 769. Embertide does not seem to have ever been observed in the eastern Church.