Around 1200 years ago, about the time Beowulf was written, life centered on the warrior code. Raiding and enslavement were typically practiced. Revenge was also a business in itself. Once a crime was committed, there was an obligation to have that crime avenged (to make a person “pay” for his wrongs). Untimely death within someone’s family was not uncommon, and when this happened, the family and kinsmen of the slain person had a duty and a right to seek compensation for their loss. This resulted in many “tit-for-tat” killings and caused the already chaotic warrior state of society to explode with fatal violence, along with a lack of fear of punishment among the people (Underwood).
Due to this expanding problem, the law of a wergild was imposed in order to subdue these situations from growing too large. Translated from Anglo-Saxon, wergild literally means “man-price,” and it marks one of the first attempts in society to institute laws As in many societies, Anglo-Saxon culture had its own breakdown of society according to wealth and power. These three classes consisted of the rulers (lords), warriors, and slaves. The more money and power that a man or a woman had, the more his or her wergild was worth. But what exactly is a wergild? Say that Hromite is the lord of a tribe, and a drunken man at the local mead-hall (let us call him Hraga) murders Hromite’s nephew, Unrath. It was not only his right, but it was his duty to receive some sort of “payment” for this man’s wrongdoing (either with his life or otherwise). The “otherwise” could have been that Hromite would force Hraga to pay him what Unrath was worth according to society (wergild). Unrath’s family could have demanded anything from a particular amount of money or livestock, to another life that would have equaled Hromite’s nephew’s worth (Abrams, et al., 30).
Seeking compensation for a kinsman’s death was more than just personal. If a family did not attempt to obtain the wergild that they were entitled to, then they would be regarded as shameful and shunned. It was the family’s duty to execute and demand justice against those that would kill others. The most significant aspect of the law of the wergild was not the amount of money that was received, but the idea that a family had “done right” in enacting justice from the killer was most important (Abrams, et al., 30).
According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Hrothgar (Beowulf) is disturbed by the murders committed by Grendel not necessarily only because he has lost his men, but also because he is embarrassed and “shamed” that he is unable to receive payment for their deaths (30). Beowulf states, "Ne sorga, snotor guma; selre bið æghwæm þæt he his freond wrece, þonne he fela murne" (Underwood): “Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” is the translation into modern English (Abrams, et al., 63).
Although the wergild could not bring the lost family member or friend back to life, it served as a kind of reconcilement for the fallen person’s kinsmen. Although a wergild’s amount was determined by a person’s placement in society, and it was not always as high as the wergild’s belonging to the higher “class” if a man was of the lower part of society, not receiving the wergild was just a shameful whether or not a person was a slave or lord.
Abrams, et al., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, 7th ed.
Underwood, Richard., The Ravens Warband: The Social-Context of Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England.
www.millenia.demon.co.uk/ravens/context.htm , Downloaded January 27, 2002.