The Limits of Wergeld

I am currently wrestling with a problem and I would very much value any advice as to where I might find the answer.

In theory, as I understand it, when someone was killed, there was a price on their life which varied with their social status. The killer and their kin were responsible for paying this to the kin of the victim. In the law codes, the amount is usually given in shillings (200 for a free ceorl, for instance). There was very little coin in early seventh-century Britain, so I assume that compensation was paid in kind, in cows for instance. So far so good.

But in working out how to incorporate this practice into my novel, I have encountered two problems.

1: what sort of killings could lead to compensation (or the alternative which compensation was designed to avoid: blood feud)? In particular, given the number of small kingdoms in early seventh-century Britain, when were the kin of anyone killed in battle entitled to any form of compensation? Presumably, during skirmishes between neighbouring lords, the answer was yes, whereas for skirmishes between ‘kings’ the answer was no. That seems to have been at least partly what the regulations concerning wergeld were about: enforcing ‘royal’ power and confining the right to kill to kings. But has anyone written about this? I would really value more information.

2: Who was entitled to receive the wergeld? Was it only male kin, or did female kin qualify? And to what degree? Father’s brothers yes? But what about mother’s brothers? Sons and brothers yes, but what about sisters and daughters? And if there were no surviving kin of the right degree, who got the wergeld? The king? A more local lord? Or were the killer and their kin home free?

Can anyone help with this? I have done my best, combing through various translations of the surviving seventh century law codes, but they don’t seem to hold the answers.

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9 Responses to The Limits of Wergeld

  1. Karen Jolly says:

    Hi Sally,
    Good questions. The tricky bit about early law codes (and other documents like medical texts) is they only write down the bits they need to reference (the amounts) and the procedure is assumed.
    A quick look at the Blackwell Encyclopedia of ASE under wergild points to II Edmund 7 for how the procedure is done in stages, with payment for the kings peace, and divisions to children, brothers, and paternal uncle of the deceased. 10th century is late for you, but might still give you some clues.
    The entry also lists some articles that might be of help. Let me know if you want those references.

  2. Karen Jolly says:

    Hah. If you put into Google books Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England wergild, and follow the first link to the book itself, you will be able to navigate to the pages with that entry (pp. 489-90).

  3. Sally says:

    Thanks Karen Very helpful, as always!

  4. Karen Jolly says:

    Maybe try Richard Fletcher’s Bloodfeud. I just came across a reference to it while doing my own researches into Anglo-Saxon warfare.

    • Sally says:

      Thanks Karen. I actually own this book (although I cannot find it at the moment. That is the trouble with having so many books! Google has a much better filing system.) Anyway, it is good; I enjoyed it; but it is almost exclusively about a particular long-running blood feud in the north of England in the 11th century. There might well be lots in it for your research on warfare, as in skirmishes, raids, ambushes, reprisals and betrayals between various northern lords, but I don’t recall any discussion of the more peaceful ways of settling disputes. I will find it though, and check!

  5. For the 7th century there are several examples. One of the most famous is the weregeld paid of the death of King Aelfwine of Deira in battle. Archbishop Theodore negotiated that and it may have been a novel resolution to prevent war. Queen Eanfled demanded the foundation of Gelling in from her husband for the killing of her cousin King Oswine of Deira and her and Oswine’s kinsman was made abbot. I think Gelling became a family monastery for kinsmen of King Oswine (and the ended Deiran dynasty). Minister-in-Thanet is founded as weregeld given to the sister of two Kentish princes slain in a political killing. So for people with land, land seems to be a common weregeld – though these are all kings. I would think livestock would be appropriate for lesser folk. Could also potentially be paid in slaves (to replace the lost labor of the deceased)?

    • Sally says:

      Marvellous Michelle, thank you. I will chase up those examples. Am I right in thinking that the involvement of the church appears to be crucial in providing pressure from above and beyond individual kings?

  6. Paul Hyams says:

    I only just discovered this blog, as a result of searching for information about women’s WERGELDS. My worry was that if OE ‘wer’ exclusively means ‘man’, then what was the value of a woman’s life? I don’t see a problem about the participation of maternal kin in peace negotiations etc. They, the ones who counted, were men too, if you see what I man. I have written about peacemaking a few years ago ina book called RANCOR AND RECILIATION IN MEDIEVAL ENGLAND. If you are still interested in the subject, Sally, you might try the A-S chapter there. Just now I am especially interested in all this, because I have to comment on a conference at the end of the month in Berlin on Wergeld. And I am now trying to quickly educate myself on the subject!

    I should love to hear from you Sally. I am sorry that we have not bumped into each other before. Any friend of Karen Jolly’s… I am now retired and living in Oxford, England, but am ‘doctorpr’ on Skype, and you have my email address above.

    • Sally says:

      Hi Paul
      Thank you for that. Unfortunately I am I western china with very wonky internet. I hope this gets to you. Email failed. Try googling early seventh century Kentish law codes and Wikipedia should give you a link to a full text translation. There were different amounts listed for different social classes, men and women. I’m afraid the internet here won’t let me do anything much.

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