Weregild – A Slayer’s Debt to the Kindred of the Slain

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Weregild was a monetary value placed on every being and every piece of property owned.

If property was stolen or someone was injured or killed, the guilty person would have to pay a restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property.  This was called, weregild.

Weregild (also wergild, wergeld, weregeld)  means ‘man price’, ‘man-debt’, or ‘man-money’. The noun ‘were-gild’ is composed of ‘were‘, meaning ‘man’; and ‘gild or geld‘, meaning ‘payment or fee.’  Weregild is an amount of money fixed as compensation for the murder or disablement of a person, computed on the basis of rank.

Weregild payment was an important legal mechanism in early Nordic-Germanic societies, because the other common form of legal reparation was blood revenge that was usually settled by Holmgang. Not everything could be settled by talks and negotiation. This is when justice demanded the blood of another.
Viking Duels – Disputes settled by Holmgang.” <Read Article>

Note: The results of a holmgang or duel was not considered murder and thus a weregild was not required to be paid by the victor. 

The price set upon a person’s life was on the basis of rank and paid as compensation by the family of a slayer to the kindred or lord of a slain person to free the culprit of further punishment or obligation and to prevent a blood feud. 

The size of the weregild was largely conditional upon the social rank of the victim.
<Read about: The Norse Social Class System>

The standard weregeld or weregild for a freeman appears to have been around 200 silver (solidus or shilling), an amount reflected as the basic fee due for the death of a ‘churl’ (karl or non-servant freeman) both in later Anglo-Saxon and continental law codes.

The weregild for a Welshman was 220 shillings if he owned at least one hide of land (hide is Old English unit of land about 120 acres) and was able to pay the king’s tribute. If he has only 1 hide and cannot pay the tribute, his wergild was 80 shillings and then 70 shillings if he was landless yet a freeman.

Thralls (slaves) legally commanded no weregild, but it was commonplace to make a nominal payment in the case of a thrall. The value of the slave was considered in such a case. The debt amount wasn’t exactly considered weregild, because it was more of a reimbursement to the owner for lost or damaged property. Thralls were property and the owner was compensated no differently than losing a cow or sheep.

The set value of weregild for women relative to that of men of equal rank varied.

The weregild of a women of equal social rank among a confederation of Germanic tribes called the Alamanni (Swabians) was double that of men. The value of an equal status woman was half that of men to the Saxons.

The weregild debt multiplied according to the social rank of the victim and also the circumstances of the crime.

In the 8th century the Lex Alamannorum (an early medieval law code of the Alamanni Confederation), the weregeld for a duke or archbishop was set at three times the basic value, equaling 600 shillings. The weregild for killing a low ranking cleric was set at 300 shillings and raised to 400 shillings if the cleric was attacked while he was reading mass.

During the reign of Charlemagne his missi dominici (envoys) required three times the regular weregild should they be killed whilst on a mission from the king.  This was an attempt to help reassure their safety, or at least make it more expensive as a deterrent from slaying his envoys while they were representing him.

In the 9th century, Mercian law stated that a regular freeman (churl or karl) was worth 200 shillings (twyhyndeman) and a nobleman was worth 1,200 (twelfhyndeman).

There was a class division wide enough that two centuries later, King Cnut would simply refer to ‘all his people’ as ‘the twelve-hundreders’ (nobles) and ‘the two-hundreders’ (karls) in a charter.

King Cnut (also Canute or Cnut the Great) was king of Denmark, England, and Norway. Together they were often referred to as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. 

The Mercian law code even mentions the weregeld for a king was set at 30,000 thrymsas (gold coin), which was 15,000 thrymsas for the man (paid to the royal family) and 15,000 thrymsas for the kingship (paid to the people). The life of an archbishop or nobleman was valued at 15,000 thrymsas.

Even the gods were obligated to pay a weregild.

The Völsunga saga tells us about three Æsir gods (Odin, Loki and Hœnir) that were required to pay a weregild in gold for killing Otr, son of the Dwarven King Hreidmar. <Read Story Here>

In Grettis saga (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.

In the Nowell Codex‘s epic poem of Beowulf, Grendel refuses to settle his killings with payment or recompense (weregild).  The poem also tells of Hroðgar recalling 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 could not 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.

To the Norse, the term was ‘killed’ and it didn’t matter how, there was a price to pay.

The concept of weregild was a long accepted practice. It was common law, folk law in most areas before the presence of centralized rule.

There wasn’t a distinction between murder and manslaughter until the re-introduction of Roman law by the Church during the Christianization of the Norse period (Ch 6, The Vikings by Njord Kane).  Weregild payments gradually began to cease as a practice during this time period. The debt due for murder or manslaughter was replaced by capital punishment. This helped give control of law to the church (Thou Shall Not Kill).

Examples of Weregild in 20th century literature:

  • “I knew that no weregild, as the Saxon calls it, would be enough to save mefrom the Cornishman.”
    A Prince of Cornwall (1904) by Charles W. Whistler
    A Story of Glastonbury and the West in the Days of Ina of Wessex (set 690-710 AD)
  • 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.

The concept of Weregild is not quite gone yet

The penalty or punishment for killing in modern days is controlled by the government of wherever the slaying took place.  Usually a penalty set by law makers that is enforced by a judge through the decision by a jury of peers.

Although there no longer is a real weregild, it is often still paid to a victim’s family through civil lawsuits. For example: after the O.J. Simpson trial, Goldman joined with the family of Simpson’s ex-wife in winning a $33.5 million wrongful death judgment in civil court. Then he began to seize anything of O.J. Simpson’s that he could get his hands on. He took furniture, sports trophies, even the royalties to Simpson’s movies.  In that case, a weregild was required to be paid – although, it wasn’t considered weregild, but reparations for the liability of a wrongful death.

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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