Weregild was a reparational payment usually demanded of a person guilty of homicide or other wrongful death, although it could also be demanded in other cases of serious crime.
Weregild was an important part of early feudal legal society. It was especially prevalent amongst the Northern European nations, including the Anglo-Saxons and Viking cultures.
Weregild typically replaced the other important legal feature of these early societies – the blood feud. The payment of the weregild was made to the family or the clan as reparation for their loss and to appease the victim's family. If payment were not made or was refused, justice was not seen to have been carried out. Then the victim's family could commence a blood feud (which typically could last for many generations). In some cultures, the penalty would be administered by the victim's family or clan upon a member of the offender's family or clan.
The actual amount of weregild was determined by a persons social status or rank, and this was expecially important in cases of murder. The lower down the social scale (slaves, etc) the lesser the value was placed upon life. The amount was also determined according to the type of injury (loss of limb, etc); and also upon the sex (ie: gender) of the victim, for men were considered of more value then women. In some cultures, the amount was also determined upon religious lines.
Payment varied from culture to cutlure – in the early medieval period, when the monetary system as developing, cattle were still highly valued rather than coinage. Payment could also be made in the form of hostages, slaves, silver, or precious jewels. At times, alliances through marriage were considered in conjunction with the payment.
How the exchange of payment took place was entirely dependent upon the culture – was it done at an annual gathering of clans; or during a specially called gathering by the clan chief and elders; or immediately after the offense was proven. Many clans and societies had their own legal structure that would be overseen by the clan chiefs, elders or religious figures (ie: druids).
During the reign of Alfred the Great, for example, part of the weregild would be paid to the monarch himself for the loss of a lord, or to a lord for the loss of his vassal. Alfred the Great was responsible for a set of codified laws for the Anglo-Saxons of England, whilst Hywel Dda of Wales was also renown for his laws, and the Carolingians for their re-development and enlargement of the laws of the Merovingians.
An example from Gregory of Tours (Book XXXI – Feudal Laws
):it was a privilege belonging to a king's vassal, that whoever killed him should pay a composition of six hundred sous. This privilege was established by the Salic law … … … they gave but two hundred sous for the murder of a person freeborn, if he was a Frank or Barbarian, or a man living under, the Salic law; and only a hundred for a Roman.........
An example from the Annals of the Four Masters
for the year 1168:twelve score cows were given to Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair [High King of Ireland] by the people of Desmond [Munster], as eric for the killing of Muircheartach Ua Briain
Weregild was known to other culture and other names:
- Ireland - ericfine or eric (also eineach – honor price).
- Wales - galanas,
- Slavs - glowczyzna.
- Iran – diyeh.
- Islam – blood money.
- Native America – blood law.
In some modern day cultures, the notion of weregild or blood money has been incorporated into law.