What Is A Wergild?





Beowulf was composed between 650 and 750 A. D.; therefore, its stories are set in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Anglo-Saxon tribes were Scandinavian and German. There were several tribes of raiders, who were also members of the warrior class. The culture of this time period differed greatly from our current culture. One difference was there was a much greater difference class gap: people were sophisticated and aristocratic or barbaric nomads or freeman or slaves. Beowulf states, “Fate often saves the undoomed man if his courage is good” (Donaldson 34). This statement is illustrating the belief that Beowulf had in fate. Regardless of the action of the individual, life will always take course as it had planned. The secret to life therefore is to not be afraid. The second difference between time periods is the language of Beowulf in Old English, which was spoken during the seventh through the tenth centuries. For example, “hwaet” means “hear me.” This is considered relevant material because of the importance to preserve history. Another word from this period, which occurs in Beowulf, is “wergild.”

Wergild is the value of a man’s life, payable to his family by his murderer. The individual does not always have to be sentenced to death as a consequence for his guilt in a murder. It suffices if economic sanctions are paid to the court. For a noble man the payment was 300 shillings (equivalent to 300 oxen), and a ceorl was valued at 100 shillings. The Norton Anthology defines “wergild” as a ‘man price.’ Beowulf states, “The share of the rich treasures became Beowulf’s, paid for by death: each of the two had journeyed to the end of life’s loan” (Donaldson 47). In this scene the dragon and Beowulf have killed each other. Beowulf wins the dragon’s treasure. He dies, but with honor. The price for the dragon is death for his murders. Beowulf, who is also responsible for the killing of Grendel, is killed as well. The dragon and the trolls, as well as Beowulf, are responsible for their actions. They are all killed: “He would repay Grendel for the many attacks he made on the West-Danes . . . devouring Danish” (Donaldson 28). This is another example of “wergild” being applied.

Wergild was a part of the warrior code. After the death of Aeschere, Hrothgar’s great advisor and friend, Beowulf says to his lord, “Sorrow not, wise warrior. It is better to avenge his friend than much mourn” (Donaldson 25). Beowulf was composed during the most noble of times and we enjoy it for what it is. The greatest treasure Beowulf has to offer us is the escape from our reality into our history.




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