What could Wergeld cost you in Anglo-Saxon England?
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
An eye for an eye? Nope. An eye for 50 cows.
Unless you've been living in the Stone Ages, you wouldn't have heard of Wergeld. Even if you've been living in the Iron Age, it's also unlikely - since Wergeld was a Saxon thing. And is Medieval.
Before law and order and CCTV and Chinese credit only available to pliant citizens, there were blood feuds. The problem with blood feuds was that they were bloody. And feudy. And before you knew it nobody was the bigger man and everybody was dead. And that was where Wergeld came in.
What was Wergeld again?
Wergeld literally means "man money." It was a system to avoid everybody dying, whereby there was a set rate of compensation to the family for the death of their kin from their killer. Everyone had a different rate. A nobleman might have a grand price attached to his neck whereby a slave would be a far thriftier murder. There were also charges specific to damages in non-murders, called Bot.
Whilst Bot could apply to a damaged possession, it also applied to injuries. The rate card was worked out in shillings. One shilling was the price of a cow in Kent and a sheep elsewhere. Kent must have had a surfeit of cows, since they seemed to be worth very little when compared to a limb.
But how many cows would you get for losing a toe, or getting your ear mutilated? Fear not. The Countries That Don't Exist Anymore Injury Lawyers 4 U are here to help...
Menu de Bot
Mutilation of ear - 6 shillings
Six cows for horrifying injury of an ear. Career Boxers take note.
Piercing of nose - 9 shillings
Nine cows for a piercing that would these days cost you a few quid in shopping arcade? Well, we can take it as read that nose piercings probably had more to do with clipping off the nose (a relatively common practice) or having a spear shoved up there.
Loss of big toe - 10 shillings
Lose a toe? Get 10 cows. That's the weirdest ever Chance card in Anglo-Saxon Monopoly. In a society where mobility was prized, losing a big toe could be the difference between putting your best foot forward and Moonwalking everywhere for the rest of your life.
Poking out of eye - 50 shillings
It's the priciest loss on the menu - having your eye poked out could net you fifty cows. Apparently, cows can recognise at least 50 other individual cows. So at least they'll all know each other while you stumble around bumping into them with your lack of depth perception.
Severed foot - 50 shillings
Forget about "an arm and a leg" check out the cost of a severed foot! Losing a foot could put your livelihood in jeopardy, so 50 cows would at least be compensation for hopping everywhere.
Learn more about Wergeld with our chat to comedian and historian Mike Shephard about Mercia.