Wergild in Beowulf

Instructor: Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth has an MEd in reading and language arts and has written K–12 language and literature lessons for many major US textbook publishers.

The custom of wergild, using payment to compensate for injury or death, was important in medieval society and plays a role in 'Beowulf.' Read this lesson to understand more about the importance of wergild.

A Different Idea of Justice

Imagine you got hold a time machine and went back to Beowulf's time.

A time machine, courtesy of thethreesisters on Flickr.
a time machine

You landed in the land of the Geats, and started to look around when you realized that your time machine had landed on someone. Oops! You wonder what will happen to you. After all, it was an accident! On the other hand, the fellow is dead. Will you be sent to prison? Get forty lashes? Be put in the stocks?

A man in the stocks, courtesy of Peter Dutton on Flickr.
man in the stocks

The dead man's brother comes up to you. When he figures out you don't speak his language, he lets you know by gestures that he's not very happy with you. And he wants . . . what? He wants wergild. What the heck is that? Treasure. A pile of treasure, give it to him and kill you to avenge his brother. And his sword looks like he means business.

In an attempt to avoid almost-certain death, you dig in your pockets and go through your wallet. Your iPhone, a couple of twenty-dollar bills, some singles, and a handful of coins make a tidy pile. You act out that you're so, so, so sorry about his brother, and offer the guy your pile of . . . um . . . wergild. He's clearly intrigued. He's actually never seen anything like it. And while he's trying to figure out how the iPhone works, you make a get-away back to the present in your time machine.

Phew!

How Wergild Fit into Medieval Society

Nuclear families were not a thing in the Middle Ages. In medieval Germanic society, kinship relationships crossed generations, and carried rights and responsibilities, one of which was the payment of wergild, or the 'price of a man.' Kin had a mutual responsibility of avenging each other's deaths, either by collecting wergild from or prosecuting a feud against the killer. (That's right! Revenge was legal!)

So that's why the brother of the guy you squished with your time machine came looking for you. In addition, a person who injured or killed someone had a right to expect support from kin in paying wergild or carrying out a feud. According to some critics, feud also referred to wanton murders, like those committed by Grendel.

The amount of wergild was determined by the social status of the victim. An ordinary man's kin could expect less wergild if he were killed than a nobleman's kin. And, if the wergild wasn't paid, the family had the right to begin a feud, which gave the right to kill any member of the killer's kin group.

Gold coins from Sutton Hoo courtesy of IH on Flickr.
gold coins from Sutton Hoo

The kinship system and the wergild payments varied by culture, and changed over time. In simple terms, the purpose of wergild was to reduce the number of feuds. As you can imagine, when whole extended family groups led by sovereign rules got involved in feuds, it looked a whole lot like a war.

The wergild system emphasized the extended family and loyalties between people. But even with the concept of wergild in place, feuds weren't always prevented, though. Not everyone accepted the concept.

Whether or not it actually occurred, key actions in Beowulf are founded on the extra-family alliance formed when someone of one kinship group paid wergild on behalf of someone in another kinship group. Nevertheless, the rights and responsibilities connected with wergild are a central element of the poem.

Wergild in Beowulf

There are several references to wergild in Beowulf. The first refers to Grendel's feud with Hrothgar, and his refusal to pay wergild for the men he kills (line 156). Grendel had no interest in making peace. He is only interested in the free dinners he is getting from Heorot. Grendel's refusal to pay the wergild places him beyond the pale.

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