Fines and compensation

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Crimes in the early medieval world were generally punished with fines (OE wite, ON lahslit); only the most serious crimes – usually ones involving the king – received physical penalties.

Every person had a wergeld (blood-price), based on their status (inherited from their mother):

  • Slaves – 60 shillings
  • Free men – 200 shillings
  • Thegns/higher status men – 1200 shillings
  • King – unpayable!

If you were fined, you would generally have to pay the equivalent of your wergeld. If you killed someone else, you would need to pay their wergeld or else face a feud. If you injured someone, the compensation due might be a proportion of their wergeld.

If you killed or injured someone else, there were two options: both kindreds could get together and agree compensation… or they could start a full-blown feud of mutual killings. The anarchy threatened by a feud was very dangerous, and the wider population would generally try to avoid it by forcing both sides to talk and agree compensation.

  • The amount of compensation was based on the dead/injured party’s wergeld.
  • Wergeld could be paid by the offender’s kindred (i.e. the extended family chips in to avoid becoming targets in a feud).
  • In 10th-century England, a tenth of the wergeld was paid at the dead man’s grave and went to his immediate family (the healsfang group, ie children, brothers, parents’ brothers). Twenty-one days later, a tenth went to the dead man’s lord in compensation (manbot); after another twenty-one days, another tenth went to the king as a fine for fighting (fihtwite). The remaining tenths were paid to the deceased’s immediate family in instalments.

If you couldn’t pay compensation, you could be penally enslaved – i.e. became a slave and worked to pay off the debt. You might well be freed at some point in the future.

Credits: with thanks to Benedict Coffin

If your kindred couldn’t wouldn’t pay compensation and opted to disown you, you would become an outlaw. Someone outside the law had no protection, and anybody could kill them without fear of feud or penalty.