By Danièle Cybulskie
It seems like just about every depiction of the Middle Ages – especially the so-called Dark Ages – involves people swinging weapons around willy-nilly and lopping off body parts, blood flying everywhere. While there’s no arguing with the fact that the medieval period was a violent time, daily life wasn’t quite as crazy as all that. People actually appreciated their body parts and wanted to keep them, so they had a bit of restraint when it came to chopping off someone else’s. Blood feuds were a real thing, which meant that a person had to be careful who he harmed, lest the bloodshed come back on him.
Recognizing that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, medieval lawmakers believed that justice could be satisfied by aggressors making financial compensation to victims. In The Dooms of King Alfred, Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great (871-899 CE) lays out very specific laws and punishments for people who injure others, among other crimes. Although writing laws down doesn’t necessarily mean enforcing them, Alfred’s Dooms give us some insight into how the body was valued in early medieval England.
When it comes to outlining fines for injuries, Alfred starts with the head and works down, specifying fines for broken bones, amputations, and wounds. Sometimes, fines are according to the seriousness of the injury, such as law 63:
If the skin is pierced beneath the knee, the compensation shall be 12 shillings; if [the bone] is broken beneath the knee, let 30 shillings be paid [the victim] as compensation.
Sometimes, though, the fine seems to be based on appearance, as in law 45:
If within the hair there is a wound an inch long, let 1 shilling be given as compensation. If outside the hair there is a wound an inch long, 2 shillings as compensation.
Every body part mentioned is valued in terms of its worth to the amputee, including (as this example bears out) the beauty of the face. For instance, the fingers are valued depending on how much they are used: the amputation of a thumb is 30 shillings; index finger, 15 shillings; middle finger, 12 shillings; ring finger, 17 shillings; pinky finger, 9 shillings (laws 56-60). The ring finger is worth more than the index or “shooting” finger, probably because rings were an important part of this gift-giving culture. Even toes are valued individually, and specifically: a big toe is worth 20 shillings, while a pinky toe is only worth 5 (law 64). Incidentally, striking off the nail of any finger carries its own individual fine, but there are no specific fines for toenails.
Beyond just the amputations themselves, though, the long-term effects of deliberate injuries are also calculated into The Dooms. If a person loses an ear, the fine is 30 shillings, but it is double if he loses his hearing with it (law 46). A person whose “great sinew” is cut (like Burger, I would guess this means the Achilles tendon) and is now lame is to be compensated 30 shillings; the fine is only 12 shillings if the wound is able to heal (law 75). When it comes to blindness, if a person loses an eye, the fine is 66 shillings, but if his eye “remains in the head”, the compensation is less (law 47), perhaps because of the danger of infection from the loss of an eye, or what might be considered damage to the person’s appearance.
The greatest fines for physical wounds in The Dooms are for those that the Anglo-Saxons felt would have damaged a man for life in ways that would be incredibly difficult or impossible to work around. The fine for cutting off an arm above the elbow or the leg at the knee was 80 shillings, more than the fine for just the hand or foot (laws 66, 71, 72). A shoulder wound, Alfred says, also requires a fine of 80 shillings, “if the man is alive” (law 68). Chances are, the man would never use that arm again. The same fine is applied to “a man [who] is so severely wounded in the genitals that he cannot beget a child” (law 65), as he will not be able to secure his future in terms of physical help in old age, or inheritance. The Dooms end with the fine for paralysis, which is the largest fine of all:
If a man ruptures the tendons on another’s neck, and wounds them so severely that he has no power over them, and lives despite such wounding, let 100 shillings be given him as compensation, unless the witan [council] decrees to him a greater and more just compensation. (law 77)
Even though Alfred states a fine of 100 shillings, his law is left open-ended, because he recognizes that the cost of paralysis for someone in that time and place is truly incalculable; individual circumstances must be taken into account.
What I haven’t mentioned so far is the fact that right behind these fines for injury was the wergild: the value of a person if he was killed. The fines above applied to people who survived their injuries. If they didn’t, the killers were obliged to pay their wergild. This meant that, even if you felt justified in cutting off another person’s body part and felt you could afford to risk the fine, if that person died as a result, you could owe a whole lot of money. This was yet another reason to think twice before swinging that sword.
The very fact that these laws on individual injuries exist in such detail suggests that there was a lot of brawling going on in Anglo-Saxon England, but it also speaks to the fact that people were interested in putting a lid on it. Rather than being able to slash and bash at will, Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred had to consider whether they could afford to be violent.
For a fascinating read, I recommend checking out the rest of The Dooms of King Alfred in Michael Burger’s Sources for the History of Western Civilization.
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