A Lifeʼs Worth: Reexamining Wergild in the Anglo-Saxon Royal Law Codes (c. 600-1035)
By Braden Sides
The Expositor: A Journal of Undergraduate Research in the Humanities, Volume 15, 2017
Introduction: In the wide and growing world of Anglo-Saxon scholarship, wergild has an at once ubiquitous and spectral presence. While compensation, blood-money, and the place of the body in “barbarian” law more generally continue to be subjects of much scholarly interest, it is harder to find even a single piece of scholarship dedicated to the topic, let alone specifically as it appears in the Old English material.
What follows is meant to offer a survey of wergild as it appears in the surviving legislation of England’s Anglo-Saxon kings, as well as an attempt to deconstruct the logical underpinning of wergild, with the goal finally of tying these various aspects together in order to reach a more nuanced definition for this concept as it exists within these texts and the legislative imaginations of their compilers. Rather than seeing wergild as representing a number of different forms of payment linked together only by the name and sums involved, it is intuitively more likely that the compound represents a more limited and exact concept which could be used, rationally, as we find it in these law codes.
This search has so far yielded three major points about the inner workings of wergild: that it is an essentially unchanging part of Old English legal vocabulary and so probably a true reflection of Anglo-Saxon customary law, that it functions as an alternative to loss in a highly general sense, and, more tenuously, that it is calculated based on an individual’s role in preserving the public peace (frið).