Weregild

Weregild

[wur-gild, wer-]
Weregeld (alternative spellings: wergild, wergeld, weregeld, etc.) was a reparational payment usually demanded of a person guilty of homicide or other wrongful death, although it could also be demanded in other cases of serious crime. In early Germanic law, weregeld was a person's value in monetary terms, which was paid by a wrongdoer to the family of the person who had been injured or killed.

Overview

The payment of weregild was an important legal mechanism in early Northern European societies, such as those of the Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons; 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. If these payments were not made, or refused by the offended party, a blood feud would ensue. The word literally means "man price" (wer meaning man as in werewolf).

The size of the weregild in cases of murder was largely conditional upon the social rank of the victim. In early Anglo-Saxon Britain, an elaborate tariff was prescribed. An aetheling, or prince, was worth 1500 shillings. A yeoman farmer was worth 100 shillings. A laet, or agricultural serf, was worth between 40 and 80 shillings. 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. As the Northern European tribes were a nomadic people, great importance was placed on the survival of women and children, as they were integral to the propagation of the tribe. The killing of both women and children were also dealt with severely, usually bringing on the larger of the fines.

Early Germanic law forms were very specific to differentiate between the wergelds for free people as opposed to bonded servants. Payment of the wergeld was gradually replaced with corporal punishment, starting around the 9th century and almost entirely replaced by as late as the 12th century throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

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

Weregild was also known to the Celts, who called it ericfine in Ireland and galanas in Wales, and to Slavic peoples, who called it "vira" ("вира") in Russia and główczyzna in Poland.

Etymology

The word weregild is composed of were, a word meaning "man" (as in werewolf) and geld, meaning "payment." Etymologically, were is related to the Latin vir. Geld is the root of English gilt and cognate with gold. Geld is still the Dutch, German, and Yiddish word for money. In Danish the word is gæld and means "debt".

In literature

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.

In The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, it is revealed that after the Last Alliance of Elves and Men had defeated the forces of Sauron, that Isildur claimed the One Ring as weregild owed to him for the deaths of Elendil his father and Anárion his younger brother, in protest to the insistence of Elrond and Círdan to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.

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 married Wealhþeow who likely 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 Popular Culture

In the Dresden Files, Harry Dresden demands weregild from Lara Raith for the families of the dead after the war against the Vampire Courts. Similar fantasy texts that incorporate medieval or roman figures may also contain weregilds.

See also

References

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