Before I go any further in my series on the different parts and classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon society, I thought I should pause for a moment and tackle the subject of weregild.
I don’t blame you if that term is unfamiliar to you, but it is vitally important in this whole discussion of Anglo-Saxon society.
In previous posts I have written about the various levels of that society, starting with the kings and queens and working on down to the ealdormen and thegns, and then to the church. It’s pretty obvious that the king would be the top, right? After that, though…how exactly is class measured? How do we measure it today? Generally, in terms of wealth, I suppose, at least here in North America. It’s an interesting topic once you start to think about it. In terms of the Early Middle Ages, wealth is certainly part of the equation. But with a bit of a different twist.
In my post on the church, I stated that a priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an ealdorman. How can we be that precise? Well, it’s relatively simple, and it all ties back to the concept of weregild.
Before we discuss that in too much detail, let your imagination do some work for a moment and think about a society that had no police, no courts, no jails, and in many ways, no laws. At least not any that were written down. What would keep that society from devolving into anarchy? What would happen if someone stole from someone else, or worse, murdered someone else? Well, likely, revenge of some sort would be in order, don’t you think?
In the early 7th century, King Ethelbert of Kent recognized that the blood feud, a practice inherited from Anglo-Saxons Germanic forebears, was a problem. These feuds could go on for generations, and got more and more bloody as the years and generations passed. So, he introduced the concept of weregild, basically, “man-payment”. This was a fine that was levied on those who committed crimes, to be paid to the victim or the victim’s family in compensation. This applied to the crime of murder at first, but eventually expanded over the centuries to include other crimes such as theft or injuring another, or even adultery or desertion from the army. In some instances part of the payment would also go to the king or the lord, in recompense for the loss of the victim’s service.
These fines were not equal, though. They varied according to your rank in society. So, the king’s weregild was the highest, of course, and then the payments decreased the lower down in society you were situated. All classes in society were protected by weregild, except for slaves. However, even in the case of slaves, a nominal payment was made to the slave’s owner, but more as a recompense for lost property than as a valuation placed on their lives.
It is also interesting to note that the weregild itself varied among the kingdoms which made up England in the Early Middle Ages. So in the seventh century, the weregild for a nobleman in Kent was 300 shillings, and that of an ordinary freeman (a coerl) 100 shillings. In West Saxon, the corresponding sums were 1200 shillings and 200 shillings. However, the value of a shilling was not standard across the kingdoms, so these sums are not necessarily equivalent.*
There were precise rules set out for the payment of weregild, which covered the time period over which the payment would be made, as it was not a lump sum given all at once, but rather a series of payments over time. In theory, if the weregild was not paid, the victim’s family could then resort back to the blood feud or to taking revenge in whatever way they saw fit. This did happen on occasion, but in general it seems like the weregild was the preferred method to compensate people for the various crimes committed against them.
The concept of weregild served to not only provide a way for victims of crimes to be compensated without resulting in the shedding of blood or other vendettas, but it also cemented the person’s rank in society. It was gradually replaced by capital punishment starting around the ninth century, and disappeared entirely by the twelfth.
*For example, in Kent, a shilling was the equivalent of the worth of one cow. Other kingdoms gave the shilling the same value as one sheep.
Want to know more about Anglo-Saxon society? Here’s my previous posts in this series:
Featured image: copy of a gold coin from the reign of Offa, King of Mercia, from Wikicommons. (If you look closely you will see the coin has Arabic writing on it…there is a story behind that, and maybe I’ll tell it one day!)