Wergild or weregeld was money paid to compensate victims of crimes in Saxon culture. In the case of murder victims, the money was paid to the victim's family or lord. By paying wergild, guilty parties could discharge any obligations related to the crime and the matter would be considered settled. Under Saxon law, the amount of wergild paid varied depending on the victim's social status and the nature of the crime; money was generally paid for murders, serious injuries, and major property theft. The system became quite complicated over time, providing interesting insights into how people and goods were valued in Saxon culture.
When the culprit of a crime was identified, that individual would be offered an opportunity to pay wergild in an amount determined by the code. Crimes committed against high ranking members of society came at a literally higher price, while some members of society were not entitled to wergild at all because of their low social status. In some cases, money was due not only to the victim, but the victim's lord.
If the guilty individual could not pay the money or refused to pay, the family of the victim had the right to retaliate. This right was often an obligation, as people could not allow crimes to go unremarked or unpunished. In many cases, this devolved into a blood feud spanning multiple generations as families took vengeance on each other and awaited vengeance for their actions.
This term, which translates as “man gold,” reflected important concepts and values in Saxon society. The ability to compensate victims as a form of punishment was common in many societies and is still used in some regions of the world today. Documentation involving cases where wergild was paid is used by scholars to learn more about how Saxons valued members of their society along with their belongings. These records also offer interesting information about the types of crimes people committed, and their frequency.
Eventually, this concept was phased out. In cases where people might once have paid compensation, capital punishment because the preferred method of punishment. In many instances, societies adopted the practice of both compensation and capital punishment, as seen in medieval England where people who committed certain crimes could have their property confiscated by the Crown in addition to being sentenced to death. Not incidentally, this allowed the Crown to concentrate power and wealth in addition to providing a strong disincentive for engaging in crimes like treason, where forfeiture of all assets was an automatic punishment. Even if people were willing to face the death penalty, most were reluctant to leave their families destitute.