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Image of the murder of a minor and the subsequent paying of wergild, in Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel Cgm 165 fol. 11r. This is one of the only images of wergild payment from the Middle Ages.[1]

Weregild (also spelled wergild, wergeld (in archaic/historical usage of English), weregeld, etc.), also known as man price (blood money), was a precept in some historical legal codes whereby a monetary value was established for a person's life, to be paid as a fine or as compensatory damages to the person's family if that person was killed or injured by another.

Etymology and terminology

The compound noun weregild means "remuneration for a man", from Proto-Germanic *wira- "man, human" and *geld-a- "retaliation, remuneration".[2] In the south Germanic area, this is the most common term used to mean "payment for killing a man" (Old High German werigelt, Langobardic wergelt, Old English wer(e)gild), whereas in the North Germanic area, the more common term is Old Norse mangæld, with the same meaning.[3][2] Wolfgang Haubrichs argues that wergild is "undoubtably a West Germanic word" which spread throughout the various Germanic-speaking peoples, but which in the north was replaced with mangæld since the meaning of the element "wer-" had been forgotten; comparable replacement words such as wider-geld ("repayment") are known from the south.[4]

Several alternative terms are also found, such as leodis ("man") and leodardi ("violation of a man") in the Lex Salica,[5] and the short from wer(e) in Old English.[6] Both of these terms appear to derive from a word meaning the subject harmed taking on the meaning of the payment for that harm.[7]


A weregild or wergeld was a defined value placed on every man graded according to rank, used as a basis of a fine or compensation for murder, disablement, injury, and certain other serious crimes against that person. It was assessed from the guilty party, payable as restitution to the victim's family.[8][9]

The weregild was codified, for example, under Frankish Salic Code.[10]

Weregild payment was an important legal mechanism in early Germanic society; the other common form of legal reparation at this time was blood revenge. The payment was typically made to the family or to the clan. Similar to the way a payment was made to family, it was also a family or kin group responsibility to ensure the payment for the wrong committed, especially if the offender is unable to cover the cost of the offense himself.[11]

No distinction was made between murder and manslaughter until these distinctions were instituted by the re-introduction of Roman law in the 12th century.[12]

Payment of the weregild was gradually replaced with capital punishment due to Christianization, starting around the 9th century, and almost entirely by the 12th century when weregild began to cease as a practice throughout the Holy Roman Empire.[13]

Weregild from Norðleoda Laga:[14]

Rank Thrymsa
King 30,000
Archbishop/aetheling 15,000
Bishop/ealdorman 8,000
Hold/high-reeve 4,000
Mass-thegn/secular thegn 2,000
Prospering ceorl 2,000
Ceorl 200
Prospering Welshman 120s
Non-prospering Welshman 80s
Landless Welshman 70s


Wergild first appears in the European historical record in 500 AD in the Lex Burgundionum,[15] but the concept of paying blood-money is found widely in many pre-modern societies.[16] Scholars debate if wergild was a traditional Germanic legal concept, or if it developed from a Roman predecessor.[17] Christophe Gamby argued in 2013 that the entire institution was essentially derived from Roman law, whereas Harald Siems and Ralph Mathisen both rejected this concept in 2021, arguing that nothing comparable existed in Roman Law.[18] However, Siems and Mathisen both argue that Roman law still influenced the definitions of crimes and possibly legal procedures in the "barbarian law codes" that first contain wergild.[19]


The size of the weregild was largely conditional upon the social rank of the victim. There used to be something of a "basis" fee for a standard "free man" that could then be multiplied according to the social rank of the victim and the circumstances of the crime. The weregild for women relative to that of men of equal rank varied: among the Saxons half that of men.

In the Migration period, the standard weregild for a freeman appears to have been 200 solidi (shillings), an amount reflected as the basic fee due for the death of a churl (or ceorl) both in later Anglo-Saxon and continental law codes.

In the 8th century, the Lex Alamannorum sets the weregild for a duke or archbishop at three times the basic value (600 shillings), while the killing of a low ranking cleric was fined with 300, raised to 400 if the cleric was attacked while he was reading mass.

During the reign of Charlemagne, his missi dominici required three times the regular weregild should they be killed whilst on a mission from the king.

In 9th century Mercian law a regular freeman (churl) was worth 200 shillings[20] (twyhyndeman), and a nobleman was worth 1,200 (twelfhyndeman), a division established enough that two centuries later a charter of King Cnut's would simply refer to "all his people - the twelve-hundreders and the two-hundreders". The law code even mentions the weregild for a king, at 30,000 thrymsas, composed of 15,000 for the man, paid to the royal family, and 15,000 for the kingship, paid to the people. An archbishop or nobleman is likewise valued at 15,000 thrymsas. The weregild for a Welshman was 120 shillings if he owned at least one hide of land and was able to pay the king's tribute. If he has only 1 hide and cannot pay the tribute, his wergild was 80 shillings and then 70 if he was landless yet free.

Thralls and slaves legally commanded no weregild, but it was commonplace to make a nominal payment in the case of a thrall and the value of the slave in such a case. Technically this amount cannot be called a weregild, because it was more akin to a reimbursement to the owner for lost or damaged property.

In literature


A classic example of a dispute over the weregild of a slave is contained in Iceland's Egil's Saga.

In the Völsunga saga or Saga of the Volsungs, the Æsir (Odin, Loki and Hœnir) are asked to pay weregild for killing Otr, son of Hreidmar. Otr is a "great fisherman" and resembles an otter. He is 'eating a salmon and half dozing' on the river banks of Andvari's Falls when Loki kills him by throwing a stone at him. Later that evening, the Æsir visit Hreidmar's house where they are seized and imposed with a fine. Their fine consists of "filling the [Otr] skin with gold and covering the outside with red gold." Loki is sent to get the gold and he manages to trick the dwarf Andvari into giving him the gold as well as a curse ring: "The dwarf went into the rock and said that the gold ring would be the death of whoever owned it, and the same applied to all the gold."[21]

In the Story of Grettir the Strong, chapter 27, "The Suit for the Slaying of Thorgils Makson", Thorgeir conveys to court Thorgils Arison's offer of weregild as atonement for killing Thorgils Makson.[22]

In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, lines 156-158 Grendel refuses to settle his killings with payment or recompense, and at lines 456-472, Hroðgar recalls the story of how Ecgþeow (Beowulf's father) once came to him for help, for he had slain Heaðolaf, a man from another tribe called the Wulfings, and either could not pay the wergild or they refused to accept it. Hroðgar had married Wealhþeow, who probably belonged to the Wulfing tribe, and was able to use his kinship ties to persuade the Wulfings to accept the wergild and end the feud. Hroðgar sees Beowulf's offer as a son's gratitude for what Hroðgar had done for Beowulf's father.


In the novel The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the journal of Isildur reveals that he justified taking the One Ring as a weregild for the deaths of his father (Elendil) and brother (Anárion) in battle. This fact is mentioned by Elrond during the council in chapter II: ‘Alas! yes,’ said Elrond (…) But Isildur would not listen to our counsel. “This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother,” he said. Appendix A of The Return of the King also mentions a rich weregild of gold sent by Túrin II, Steward of Gondor, to King Folcwine of Rohan, after the death of his twin sons, Folcred and Fastred, in battle in Ithilien.

In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novel Skin Game, Harry Dresden offers John Marcone a cashbox of diamonds as weregild for an employee murdered by Deirdre. Dresden says "That's for your dead employee's family. Take care of them with it. And leave my people out of it. It ends here."

In Rick Riordan's novel The Hammer of Thor, Hearthstone, an elf, must pay a wergild for his brother Andiron's death when they were children. Hearthstone, the older brother, was distracted and playing with rocks when a Brunnmigi emerged from a well and killed Andiron. Since Hearthstone was deaf, he did not notice until it was too late. Hearthstone was forced by their father to skin the large beast by himself, which was turned into a rug and placed on the floor of his room. To pay his wergild, he had to cover every single hair with gold earned from his father, generally by doing chores. Every meal and any free time, among other things, cost Hearthstone earned gold. This task was not accomplished until years later, and his father, Alderman, was reluctant to consider the debt paid, but finally conceded that Hearthstone was released from the debt.

See also


  1. ^ Esders 2021, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Haubrichs 2021, p. 94.
  3. ^ Schmidt-Wiegand 2010e, pp. 914–915.
  4. ^ Haubrichs 2021, p. 107.
  5. ^ Haubrichs 2021, pp. 96–99.
  6. ^ Schmidt-Wiegand 2010e, p. 915.
  7. ^ Haubrichs 2021, pp. 107–108.
  8. ^, retrieved 2011-02-06
  9. ^ "weregild". OED. Retrieved 2011-02-06.. Quoted in Elster, Jon (2004), Closing the Books: Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective, Cambridge University Press, p. 166, ISBN 9780521548540
  10. ^ Loyd, William H. (1914), "Executions at Common Law", University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 62: 355
  11. ^ Brown, Warren C. (2014-06-11). Violence in Medieval Europe. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-86621-3.
  12. ^ John Fosberry (translator [clarification needed]), Criminal Justice through the Ages. Mittalalterliches Kriminalmuseum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber (1990 Eng. trans. 1993), p. 49, pp. 99-101.
  13. ^ Fosberry, pp. 48-52.
  14. ^ Whitelock, Dorothy (1996). English Historical Documents, 500-1042. Psychology Press. p. 477. ISBN 978-0-415-14366-0. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  15. ^ Esders 2021, p. 3.
  16. ^ Esders 2021, p. 6.
  17. ^ Schmidt-Wiegand 2010e, pp. 922–923.
  18. ^ Esders 2021, p. 15.
  19. ^ Esders 2021, pp. 15–16.
  20. ^ A shilling was defined as the value of a cow in Kent or elsewhere, a sheep.
  21. ^ Byock, pp. 40-46.
  22. ^, The Story of Grettir the Strong: translation by Eiríkr Magnússon and Willam Morris (1869)