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Thread: Wergeld - Your Opinion?

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    Senior Member Psychonaut's Avatar
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    Wergeld - Your Opinion?

    From Wikipedia:

    Wergeld (alternative spellings: wergild, wergeld, weregeld, etc.) 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. In early Germanic law, weregeld was a person's value in monetary terms, which was paid by a wrongdoer to the family of the person who had been injured or killed.

    The payment of weregild was an important legal mechanism in early Northern European societies, such as those of the Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons; the other common form of legal reparation at this time was blood revenge. The payment was typically made to the family or to the clan. If these payments were not made, or refused by the offended party, a blood feud would ensue. The word literally means "man price" (wer meaning man as in werewolf).

    The size of the wergeld in cases of murder was largely conditional upon the social rank of the victim. In early Anglo-Saxon Britain, an elaborate tariff was prescribed. An aetheling, or prince, was worth 1500 shillings. A yeoman farmer was worth 100 shillings. A laet, or agricultural serf, was worth between 40 and 80 shillings. Thralls and slaves technically commanded no weregild, but it was commonplace to make a nominal payment in the case of a thrall and the value of the slave in such a case. A shilling was defined as the value of a cow in Kent or elsewhere, a sheep. As the Northern European tribes were a nomadic people, great importance was placed on the survival of women and children, as they were integral to the propagation of the tribe. The killing of both women and children were also dealt with severely, usually bringing on the larger of the fines.

    Early Germanic law forms were very specific to differentiate between the wergelds for free people as opposed to bonded servants. Payment of the wergeld was gradually replaced with corporal punishment, starting around the 9th century and almost entirely replaced by as late as the 12th century throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

    A classic example of a dispute over the weregeld of a slave is contained in Iceland's Egil's Saga. Weregild was also known to the Celts, who called it ericfine in Ireland and galanas in Wales, and to Slavic peoples, who called it "vira" ("вира") in Russia and główczyzna in Poland.

    The word wergeld is composed of were, a word meaning "man" (as in werewolf) and geld, meaning "payment." Etymologically, were is related to the Latin vir. Geld is the root of English gilt and cognate with gold. Geld is still the Dutch, German, and Yiddish word for money. In Danish the word is gæld and means "debt".

    In the Story of Grettir the Strong, chapter 27, The Suit for the Slaying of Thorgils Makson, Thorgeir conveys to court Thorgils Arison's offer of weregild as atonement for killing Thorgils Makson.

    In The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, it is revealed that after the Last Alliance of Elves and Men had defeated the forces of Sauron, that Isildur claimed the One Ring as weregild owed to him for the deaths of Elendil his father and Anárion his younger brother, in protest to the insistence of Elrond and Círdan to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.

    In the epic poem Beowulf, at lines 456-472, Hroðgar recalls the story of how Ecgþeow (Beowulf's father) once came to him for help, for he had slain Heaðolaf, a man from another tribe called the Wulfings, and either couldn't pay the wergild or they refused to accept it. Hroðgar married Wealhþeow who likely belonged to the Wulfing tribe, and was able to use his kinship ties to persuade the Wulfings to accept the wergild and end the feud. Hroðgar sees Beowulf's offer as a son's gratitude for what Hroðgar had done for Beowulf's father.
    What do you all think of this idea and practice? I ask because although many of us profess a great deal of admiration for the ways of our ancestors, but at the same time many of us express support for a lex talionis type of punishment for murderers and rapists. I am in this camp myself. I do the best I can to live a life befitting of my ancestors' faith, but the very idea of putting a cash value on the lives of my family members strikes me as abhorrent. I cannot imagine settling the murder of my wife for an exchange of mere money.
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    Senior Member Patrioten's Avatar
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    I am undoubtedly influenced by my Christian heritage, of which Mosaic law is an important component. Cash settlements in murder trials is something I do not understand the meaning of. In part because the cash figure is used as a substitute for a real punishment, i.e lengthier prison time, in part also because the criminal never has the cash to pay for it. It is in reality a symbolic sum which does the victim no good, the victim's family no good while the criminal loses nothing for he owns nothing. If money is payed to the victim, it is payed for by tax money in the form of a victim fund.

    Murder as is understood in the text you submitted, would have been a matter between members of wealthy families and not that of thralls or serfs. People who could pay restitution to the victim's family in a form which would greatly benefit them (livestock or money with which to buy more land). They must also have had a different understanding of what justice is, a concept which I could never adopt for myself, I am stuck with my Mosaic Christian concept of justice, and I feel comfortable with it.

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    Senior Member Soten's Avatar
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    I agree that settling the murder of a family member with a sum of money may seem disrespectful to the murdered person. I couldn't imagine having to try to literally put a price on the life of any of my family members. However, I am sure the system had some very practical reasons for it.

    I would say that we have to remember these were probably small tribes and not the large societies of today. This system wouldn't make much sense in today's world. The tribe or clan would not want itself torn apart by constant blood-feuds between families. This would only lead to the entire tribe dissolving. By creating a custom (and I'm sure this custom took a while to develop) where everyone would accept wergeld payment instead of murdering the murderer or murderer's family the tribe could contain much of the ill-will of one part of the clan towards another. At first it might seem that if your father is killed by one of the other men in the tribe you should dole out the same punishment. However, in the long run this would only serve to weaken the tribe or clan and therefore it would have the effect of destroying all and not only the murderer or the families involved.

    Murder certainly wasn't taken lightly but the Germanic tribes had enough common sense to know not to let these unfortunate events get out of hand so much as to destroy the entire tribe.

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    Senior Member Thrymheim's Avatar
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    I don't mind the idea, if the price is high enough that the only effective way of paying it is to enter the service of the victims family or clan
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    For the one who is able to achieve it.

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    Senior Member Maelstrom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Soten View Post
    I would say that we have to remember these were probably small tribes and not the large societies of today. This system wouldn't make much sense in today's world. The tribe or clan would not want itself torn apart by constant blood-feuds between families. This would only lead to the entire tribe dissolving. By creating a custom (and I'm sure this custom took a while to develop) where everyone would accept wergeld payment instead of murdering the murderer or murderer's family the tribe could contain much of the ill-will of one part of the clan towards another. At first it might seem that if your father is killed by one of the other men in the tribe you should dole out the same punishment. However, in the long run this would only serve to weaken the tribe or clan and therefore it would have the effect of destroying all and not only the murderer or the families involved.

    Murder certainly wasn't taken lightly but the Germanic tribes had enough common sense to know not to let these unfortunate events get out of hand so much as to destroy the entire tribe.
    I agree with this. A redistribution of wealth within the tribe does not diminish the tribes power, obviously a murder does. In that sense it's extremely practical that the murderer is in turn not murdered himself.

    After a murder in a tribe/clan I believe one of three things would happen after the Wergild is paid:

    1) The person loses much face within the tribe, is shunned by everyone and would rather be dead than living such a life.

    2) The person that committed the murder did so for the overall good of the tribe and his status is increased, or at least not diminished. The Wergild would still have to be paid as a sign or respect and with upholding the laws of the tribe.

    3) The deceased was a serf or of such lower prestige than the murderer that the gold is not a problem to pay. If the deceased was plotting against his superior his family and friends would most likely be evited from their land too, since blood fueds would exist.

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    It's still in use to some degree in the US in the form of 'wrongful death' lawsuits in which the damages are to the family based on an estimation of the future lifetime earnings of the individual.

    It's not really workable in modern times, since most murderers aside from disputes within families are career criminals with no money or source of income.

    Also in ancient societies, they couldn't afford to lose skilled fighters, we don't have this issue today.

    Quote Originally Posted by Thrymheim View Post
    I don't mind the idea, if the price is high enough that the only effective way of paying it is to enter the service of the victims family or clan
    I thought about this, but most murderers are socially dysfunctional with little or no useful skills, and most people are unprepared and have no use for an unruly unskilled laborer. The ancestors of most murderers in the US were slaves 150 years ago, and getting even the most menial work from them was a chore.
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    First of all - whoever first used the word "restitution" for this? Restitution is a remedy that property or the value thereof be physically given back, and last time I looked, persons - whether living or dead - were incapable of being owned or possessed, unless there was some preparation of the carcass involved. One would reward damages in that type of causa.

    It is an interesting idea that I devoted much thought to and I must say it is not too bad an idea per se. Most of the times, especially in harsh circumstances, a murdered person would not only have meant nervous distress for the family/clan involved, but also financial stress because there was one less to work the farms, or because the main bread winner was suddenly no longer amongst the living.

    As such, it would be a good idea that a payment is made to the family of the victim - maybe in addition to serving a sentence? Often enough a person will see all the satisfaction at seeing the murderer of their wife/husband/child locked away for life, but in the long run they suffer again because on a single income they might often be unable to afford the previous matrimonial home, etc. etc. etc. - for most of the times, in those cases where a lump sum to be paid for murder, the deceased did not have much to inherit.

    The only trouble with mixing a sentence and a payment to the family is the actual management of litigation: Whilst sentencing is a matter of the criminal courts and their jurisdiction on monetary sums extends only to fines - which are payable to the state, it is only in civil courts that damages can be awarded. And to see murder or any other "capital crime" tried in a civil court is something that shall only happen over my corpse ... call me conservative.

    The problem with Wergild however might be, as Patrioten pointed out correctly that in this day and age most criminals tend not to have the money to pay, in which case it would fall back on the taxpayer - and surely it is not my responsibility to pay any cent towards the ill deeds of my neighbour. If I still wish to help the suffering family for their loss as an uninvolved third party, that is my choice, but I shouldn't have to.

    I do wonder whether it might work in conjunction with the old practice of outlawing - where anyone could legally kill a criminal that was outlawed without having to fear punishment. A bit martial, but in the end it is sort of fair since the murderer would only live as long as they could protect their guts.

    Finally, the other huge problem with Wergild in this day and age is again a procedural one. Following the maxim of volenti non fit iniuria, you might have a bit of an issue brewing in cases where we aren't actually talking about murder, but instead manslaughter/culpable homicide by virtue of negligent behaviour.

    Quote Originally Posted by SwordOfTheVistula View Post
    I thought about this, but most murderers are socially dysfunctional with little or no useful skills, and most people are unprepared and have no use for an unruly unskilled laborer.
    Chances are actually, that as far as somewhat "capital crimes" such as murder, rape or paedophilia are concerned, that murderers can be the least "socially dysfunctional" of the three.
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    Senior Member Psychonaut's Avatar
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    It seems quite apparent that the wergild system did function well within the contexts of the societies it existed in. My question, however, is less pointed in the direction of the wergild's functionality than it is it's ethicality in relation to our current valuations of human life. It would of course be right and proper to monetarily compensate a widow, but the meaning of the wergild was more than that. It was not representative of the money a person would've brought to the home in the future, rather it was their value in gold. I'm wondering if any of you see anything wrong with the idea of saying that a family member's life can be equated to a sum of money. If that is the case, then the payment of the wergild would absolve the murderer of any further guilt. If a member of your family were murdered and you were payed a million dollar wergild, no doubt, you would want for little in material things, but how could you stand the fact that the murderer would be walking free? Something just seems inherently wrong about letting a murderer buy his way out of it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Psychonaut View Post
    "...but the very idea of putting a cash value on the lives of my family members strikes me as abhorrent. I cannot imagine settling the murder of my wife for an exchange of mere money..."
    I shouldn't say this as I do abhor reprisals and revenge in cold blood, but why not accept the weregild and then kill the man who killed your loved one, and use the money to pay off the debt?
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    Quote Originally Posted by BeornWulfWer View Post
    I shouldn't say this as I do abhor reprisals and revenge in cold blood, but why not accept the weregild and then kill the man who killed your loved one, and use the money to pay off the debt?
    So, you would consider the matter settled after the payment? Would you be fine, seeing a murderer wealthy enough to pay the wergild just go back to living his life after committing the crime?
    "Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time."
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