Wergild: Anglo-Saxon Social Structure in One Word

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1171

The code of laws given to us by Ethlebert, first lord of Kent and third overlord of Saxon England, introduced the term wergild, which was the amount of money a person or family could accept in place of vengeance if a man was killed.

The wergild went a long way toward delineating social class in Saxon England. In fact, it was the most common method of determining such classes. If you were a wealthy family, it was because you had a large wergild. Nobles, obviously, had the largest wergilds. Below the nobles were the ceorls, or free men who owned property independently but had smaller holdings than the nobles. Below the ceorls were chattels, or slaves, who had wergilds that were either very small or nonexistent.

On the surface, this might look like a common social system: Those with the most money were at the top of the social ladder, and the less money you had the less status you had. However, this social system had one important characteristic that distinguished it from other contemporary and future social class systems: It was based on money tha could be gotten. In other words, the money was anticipated and even spoken for, but it wasn’t a reality unless someone died. (This may very well conjure up images of killing off your family members to get their inheritance money, but as a Saxon you couldn’t claim the wergild if you were the guilty party.)

The other element of this social system that bears discussion is that it could be termed a deterrent to violence. If you were involved in a feud with a man who had a large wergild, you might very well take satisfaction in killing him and welcoming any challenges to more violence from his surviving kin. However, because the wergild idea allowed the man’s survivors to claim a sum of money from you instead of challenging you to a fight, they had power over you even though you might be physically stronger or a better fighter. This leveled the playing field in a way, enabling nobles and ceorls to spend more time on building their estates and making money and defending what they had earned against outside invaders, rather than constantly being on the lookout for trouble from within their own society. In this way, the wergild concept strengthened the bonds between Saxons and other Saxons, allowing them to present a united front against Britons, Picts, and (eventually) Normans.