Wergeld: Crime and the compensation culture in medieval England
Lecture by Anthony Musson
Given on 5 October 2009 at Gresham College
Introduction: Compensation for victims of a crime is nothing new. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board (now the CIC Authority) was set up in 1964, but way back in Anglo-Saxon times tariffs of appropriate compensation (known as ‘bot’ and ‘wer’), payments to a victim or his family for wrongs perpetrated against them, were enshrined in the law codes of the period. Rather than representing something being newly imposed (or re-imposed) through legislation, the fact they were written down at this time, the earliest appearing in the leges of the sixth and seventh-century Kentish king, Aethelbert, suggest they were already integral to a customary process, part of a culture, which may itself have had its antecedents in Roman law. We must remember, though, that this culture of actively seeking compensation as retribution for a ‘wrong’ (normally death or injuries caused to a person) was embedded in medieval society at a time when the experience of courts and of what we think of as ‘going to law’ itself was very different. Now you will be pleased to learn I do not intend to devote this lecture to a history of the development of the legal system from earliest times to the present day, but in order to approach that world on the correct terms it is necessary to understand how that society functioned and how the legal system operated and to consider how both society and the legal system that served it changed and evolved over the lengthy period that constitutes the Middle Ages.
We should start from the premise that the ideals and duties associated with royal rule were to do justice, promote peace, restrain disorder, punish the wicked and deter violence. We tend to think in terms of the modern state’s power to achieve obedience through coercion and its ability to punish criminals for wrongdoing. The medieval state did not have the degree of centralised authority and coercive power that we take for granted. There was no police force or standing army, no CCTV cameras nor CID. The extent of criminal activity is difficult to measure at the best of times, yet historians of the early and later Middle Ages have noted recurrent failures in the capacity for peace-keeping and regarded an apparent toleration of feud and acts of retribution as signs of weakness in royal authority and failure on the part of the legal system. Measuring by absolute standards and modern day notions of criminal behaviour, no doubt both fail spectacularly.