Word Definition


Word: Wergild



We are able to communicate effectively with each other because of the history behind our language and speech. Many of the words that we use today derive from earlier forms of English. In present day, we speak a form of English called modern English. Modern English derives from an earlier form of English called Anglo Saxon. Most words in our daily speech retain many concepts from Old English; one of the foremost of these is “wergild” or “man price,” which is seen in the literary text of Beowulf and is the basis on which all British and later American law is founded.


            Many scholars regard Beowulf as “the first important work of literature” and consider it to be the source of the English that we speak today. Historians and scholars are not sure when it was written but believe that Beowulf was written between 650 and 750 A.D. However, what is certain is that the text is written in Old English and that its story was composed in the Anglo-Saxon period.


Although Beowulf is written in Old English, many of the words and its concepts when translated are still used today. An example of this is evidently seen through the use of the word “wergild” in Beowulf. Wergild means “man payment.” The word was mainly used as a legal system:


It was the legal system of many Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxons. This tradition allowed an individual and his family to make amends for a crime by paying a fine known as ‘wergild’ to the family of another man whom he had injured or killed. The price varied depending upon the nature of the injury and the status of the injured man. It also included a varying price for each tooth knocked out during a fight. If an individual could not or would not pay the ‘wergild,’ the injured family was considered within its traditional rights to kill a member of the culprit's family of similar rank and status. This process often led to extended blood-feuds lasting several generations. (Kip Wheeler)


Simply put, it was a system in which a monetary value was placed on a person’s life. The price set for payment for a crime would also differ from upper to lower class: “A prince was worth 1500 shillings. A farmer was worth 100 shillings. A serf was worth between 40 and 80 shillings” (John Fosberry). The use of the word “wergild” is seen throughout Beowulf. When Beowulf's father Ecgtheow has killed the Wulfing Heatholaf but could not pay his wergild, he is forced to flee to Denmark, where the wergild is paid by Hrothgar, the king. This debt is later repaid by Beowulf himself when he comes to Heorot to save Hrothgar’s kingdom from the destruction and havoc that Grendel has created. Another example is again seen in Beowulf:


If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a special duty of either killing the slayer or exacting from him the payment of wergild. . . . The money itself had less significance as wealth than as proof that the kinsmen had done what was right. Relatives who failed either to exact wergild or to take vengeance could never be happy, having found no practical way of satisfying their grief. (Adams, citing Donaldson p 34)


Here we see an even clearer meaning and understanding of the term as it is used in the text. Here E. Talbot Donaldson says that by paying the wergild a man was seen as “doing the right thing” as “an honorable man,” and if the “wergild” was not paid, then that family’s grief for their lost one would not be satisfied.


Today, the world “wergild” is not used. However, to some degree, the meaning of the word has taken on a different context. “Wergild” meaning “man price” or “man payment” was used in the legal system of many Germanic tribes, including the Anglo Saxons. It was used when a family member of one family killed or injured the family member of another; when this occurs, payment or “wergild” was demanded as a way of retribution and making amends. In today’s society when a man or woman kills another, instead of paying for his crime, he or she is punished. The punishment varies with the degree of the crime which was also the case in Anglo-Saxon era – where the amount of “wergild” one must pay depended on the severity of the injury committed. Today, the guilty party’s punishment varies either by serving time in prison for his actions or in extreme cases by execution. Henceforth we see although the word itself is not used, its underlying meaning or rather the concept of the word is still used in today’s society.


Many of the words that we use today derive from an earlier form of English known as Old English, or more precisely Anglo Saxon. An example of how the words that we use today are rooted in earlier forms of English is evident in the literary text of Beowulf. Although Beowulf is originally written in Old English many of the words and its concepts when translated are still used today. An example of this is evidently seen through the use of the word “wergild” in Beowulf.