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Weregild (also spelled wergild, wergeld, weregeld, etc.) was a value placed on every human being and every piece of property in the Salic Code (Salic Law). If property was stolen, or someone was injured or killed, the guilty person would have to pay weregild to the victim's family or to the owner of the property.

The payment of weregild was an important legal mechanism in early Germanic society; the other common form of legal reparation at this time was blood revenge. The payment was typically made to the family or to the clan.

No distinction was made between murder and manslaughter until these distinctions were instituted by the Holy Roman imperial law in the 12th century.[1]. Payment of the weregild was gradually replaced with capital punishment, starting around the 9th century, and almost entirely by the 12th century when weregild began to cease as a practice throughout the Holy Roman Empire.[2]

Etymology and related concepts

The word weregild is composed of were, meaning "man" (as in werewolf), and geld, meaning "payment or fee", as in Danegeld. Geld was the Old English term for money, and still is in Dutch and German. In Danish the word is gæld means "debt".

The same concept outside Germanic culture is known as blood money. Terms include ericfine in Ireland, galanas in Wales, "vira" ("вира") in Russia and główczyzna in Poland.

Amount

The standard weregeld for a freeman appears to have been 200 solidi (shillings) in the Migration period, an amount reflected as the basic amount due for the death of a ceorl both in Anglo-Saxon and continental law codes. This fee could however be multiplied according to the social rank of the victim and the circumstances of the crime. For example, the 8th century Lex Alamannorum sets the weregeld for a duke or archbishop at three times the basic value (600 shillings), while the killing of a low ranking cleric was fined with 300, raised to 400 if the cleric was attacked while he was reading mass.

The size of the weregild was largely conditional upon the social rank of the victim. A regular freeman (churl) was worth 200 shillings in 9th century Mercian law (twyhyndeman), a nobleman was worth 1200 (twelfhyndeman). The law code even mentions the weregeld for a king, at 30000, composed of 15000 for the man, paid to the royal family, and 15000 for the kingship, paid to the people. An archbishop is likewise valued at 15000. The weregild for a Welshman was 110 if he owned at least one hide of land, and 80 if he was landless.

Thralls and slaves technically commanded no weregild, but it was commonplace to make a nominal payment in the case of a thrall and the value of the slave in such a case. A shilling was defined as the value of a cow in Kent or elsewhere, a sheep. The weregild for women relative to that of men of equal rank varied: Among the Alamanni, it was double the weregild of men, among the Saxons half that of men.

In literature

A classic example of a dispute over the weregild of a slave is contained in Iceland's Egil's Saga.

In the Story of Grettir the Strong, chapter 27, The Suit for the Slaying of Thorgils Makson, Thorgeir conveys to court Thorgils Arison's offer of weregild as atonement for killing Thorgils Makson. [3]

In the epic poem Beowulf, at lines 456-472, Hroðgar recalls the story of how Ecgþeow (Beowulf's father) once came to him for help, for he had slain Heaðolaf, a man from another tribe called the Wulfings, and either couldn't pay the wergild or they refused to accept it. Hroðgar had married Wealhþeow, who probably belonged to the Wulfing tribe, and was able to use his kinship ties to persuade the Wulfings to accept the wergild and end the feud. Hroðgar sees Beowulf's offer as a son's gratitude for what Hroðgar had done for Beowulf's father.

In the novel The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the journal of Isildur reveals that he justified taking the One Ring as a weregild for the deaths of his father (Elendil) and brother (Anárion) in battle. Appendix A of The Return of the King also mentions a rich weregild of gold sent by Túrin II, Steward of Gondor, to King Folcwine of Rohan, after the death of his twin sons, Folcred and Fastred, in battle in Ithilien.

See also

References

  1. Fosberry, John trans, Criminal Justice through the Ages. Mittalalterliches Kriminalmuseum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, (1990 Eng. trans. 1993) p. 49, pp. 99-101
  2. Fosberry, pp. 48-52.
  3. The Story of Grettir the Strong: translation by Eiríkr Magnússon and Willam Morris [1869]

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