You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please

Medieval Frisia. An area stretching from the river Vlie in the Netherlands to the river Weser in Germany. The title of this blog post was a verdict of around the year 1100, concerning the slaying of a man. The murderer had to pay a so-called ‘weregeld’. We shall explain in this post what the purpose of a weregeld was in a society that did not have a ruler or government. A society without a higher authority. Where everything revolved around honor and avenging those who had compromised your honor. Yes, in medieval Frisia everyone could be an avenger!

Avenging is still a very popular theme for television series and Hollywood movies. Apparently, we still very much like the idea of taking matters into our hands again and avenge bad people or aliens, or whatever nasty. Especially, if the avenger is a beautiful and strong woman.

Of course, we remember the ‘60s series The Avengers, with the elegant Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel, and its remake with Uma Thurman in 1998. In 2013 Diana resurfaced as the revengeful Lady Olenna in the Game of Thrones. Uma did the same. She resurfaced as ‘the Bride’, a very powerful avenger in Tarantino’s Kill Bill in 2003. But also the ‘70s series Charlie’s Angels. His darling angels were private avengers, with Farrah Fawcett being one them. The series was repeated and rebooted again and again in the decades afterwards, including with Hollywood stars like Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz. Although the list is far from complete, the last production we must mention is the superhero movie (yes again!) The Avengers in 2012, with Scarlett Johansson being superhero Black Widow.

So, if you want to be a successful producer in Los Angeles, we recommend to make sure you have ‘avenging beautiful women in black (or yellow) leather suits’ as plan B in your portfolio. Success guaranteed!

But what is a weregeld?

Weregeld, also wergeld or wergild, is a medieval Germanic word. The word wer(e) means ‘man’. Thus explaining too what a werewolf means, a ‘man-wolf’. The word geld means money. The German and Dutch word for money is still geld, just like in Old-Saxon. Also in current Mid-Frisian the word jild is derived from geld. In Old-Saxon, a weregeld was called a mangeld. In Old-Frisian a weregeld was often shortened to simply ield.

The principle of a weregeld is much older than the Middle Ages, and is not limited to the North-Sea area, or to Europe either. No, the principle of a more or less fixed price for slaying a man is much older and, in fact, a universal concept. For example, the mechanism of a weregeld in Frisia can be traced back to the Roman Period. Originally, the value of a weregeld was namely set at 50 golden Byzantine solidis, a Roman coin with a gold weight of 14,6 gram. This weregeld related to solidis probably survived in the southern parts of former West Frisia, namely the present-day provinces Zeeland and Zuid Holland south of the river Rhine, that were once part of the Roman Empire. It was, together with some other tribes, the territory of the Frisiavones. Read also our blog post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army. And, the concept of a weregeld is not limited to Germanic tribes, but can be found everywhere around the world (still). Further down below we will give an example.

The fact that the concept of weregeld can be traced back to the Roman Period, does not mean it started there and then. No. It certainly is much older than that. Before the Roman Period and the introduction of the money economy, weregeld, or blood money, was probably donated in livestock. The Continental Saxons, or Old-Saxons, expressed weregeld much longer in livestock, and only started to relate it to gold and currency after being conquered by the Franks. The Franks who had adopted currency from the Romans at the end of the eighth century, and slowly under their rule economic reforms were introduced. The Old-Germanic word for wealth is fehu. It means livestock. The Dutch word for livestock is (still) vee. In Italian language, as a legacy of the Lombards or Goths, you have the expression ‘pagare il fio‘, meaning to pay the penalty for wrongdoing, literally: paying the cattle. Beautiful, is it not? And still more is coming up.

In the Frisian feud society everything revolved around the honor of the members of a kinship. If this honor was compromised by someone because of a murder or because of a severe inflicted injury, the person affected, or his/her heir, had the right to avenge this deed. Not by making a phone call to Charlie to ask for the help of his Angels, but by doing it yourself. Take a sword or an ax, maybe have it quickly sharpened at the local smithy, and off you go. To kill or hurt the perpetrator, or one of his/her kin. It was completely legal in the formal sense of the word legal.

If, however, you were not a handyman or, even more, in order to prevent long-term and therefore potentially social destabilizing vendettas, the compromised honor or degraded dignity could be compensated with a payment as well. With a payment by the wrongdoer, the scores or honors could be balanced without the additional bloodshed. This actually was the preferred option. Within a feud society paying a compensation was considered a honorable thing to do. This is the ratio behind the figure of the weregeld: re-balancing honor on both sides, without additional bloodshed or further escalating violence. You avoided revenge and preserved or restored the peace within the community.

A weregeld could be expressed in cattle, in land, or in the precious metals gold and silver. Important to know is that a weregeld was not related to its purchasing power at the fish or slave market, or whatever market. Prices on the market could rise or deflation of silver could occur, but it did not really affect the weregeld amount. Its purpose was a gesture of atonement to balance the honor and dignity that was compromised by a previous homicide or an inflicted injury. In medieval Frisia a weregeld was therefore an over time remarkable stable amount of silver. This is also called the Henstra hypothesis (1999). We come back to the value later.

medieval silver hoard from Gotland

In Frisia, the central norm for a weregeld was the price to be paid for the slaying of a ‘free man’. In early-medieval Frisia you still had the castes of noblemen and serfs too, for whom, of course, different tariffs were applicable. But the price for killing a freeman was the central norm. In the High Middle Ages, the castes of noblemen and serfs disappeared from the legal texts altogether. This was a result of the total disappearance of feudal and government-like structures within Frisia in the centuries before. A deviant development, contrary to the rest of Europe, where state institutions arose and grew stronger and stronger, and developed into the effective and efficient machines they are now. If there is any irony in these words, it is the reader who hears it.

The weregeld for a ‘free woman’ was the same as that for a freeman, in Frisia that is. Both had the value of one weregeld. This was the same with the Anglo-Saxons. On the other side of the Channel, a weregeld was called a wergild or a leodgeld. Freeborns or coerls (compare the modern Dutch word ‘kerels‘) had a value of 100 shillings. The law code of Kent, of King Æthelberht, dating from the early seventh century, had extensive lists of injury tariffs too. Very expensive in the Kingdom of Kent were the injuries to the ‘generative organs’, whilst pulling someone’s hair was one of the cheapest tariffs. Bizar. The law code of Kent distinguished freeborn married woman and freeborn maidens, named friwif locbor(e), translated as ‘freeborn woman with flowing locks’. The weregeld for killing or hurting a friwif locbor was higher than that for a married woman (whose hair was apparently covered). But, more royal law codes or rulers existed in England, like those of Hlothhere, Eadric and Wihtred, all with similar tariff lists.

The Scandinavian tribes, however, calculated a higher weregeld for a free woman than that for a freeman. Especially, if the woman had reached fertility already. The same was true for the Franks. Killing a women before fertility or after the menopause, cost 200 shillings. In between, the fine was 600 shillings. If she was pregnant, 700 shillings. Some tribes in Kenya, till recently at least, calculated a weregeld for the slaying of a woman less than that for the slaying of a man. By the way, the weregeld of certain Kenyan tribes was/is expressed in cattle instead of in silver.

We avoid in this blog post to draw any conclusions on these differences regarding the different values of women and men. We do note that these differences can been seen from different angles, in terms of hierarchy and/or in terms of economic value. For the rest, it is too hot stuff to touch. Although, we do say something about it in our earlier post Women of Frisia: free and unbound? Dare to read it!

Another early-medieval law is the Ewa ad Amorem, law codified around 800. The title Amorum might refer to the little river Ammor. The jurisdiction of the Ewa is (therefore) thought to be in the central river area of the Netherlands, namely Batavia (viz region Betuwe), the river Meuse and river Waal and the pagus/ shire Teisterbant more to the west and covers mostly present-day region Neder-Betuwe. The initial ratio for killing a slave, a serf, a freeman and a homo Francus was 1/2 : 1 : 2 : 3. After a review of the law in 837 the ratio of a freeman and a homo Francus was set at 2 : 6.

Furthermore, against the central norm of the weregeld for a freeman, all other death and injury tariffs were related. For example, blowing out an eye of a person was sanctioned with a half weregeld in Frisia. Cutting off two ears did cost you a third weregeld. And, to answer the question in your mind: indeed, what a jolly society it was. Very lengthy tariff lists have existed in Frisia from the Early to the High Middle Ages.

Of course, it had to be determined how serious an inflicted injury actually was and hence which compensation, which tariff had to be paid. From the thirteenth century onward, the functionaris medici appears in sources. He not only treated the wounds but also established the extent of it in terms of compensation.

For your entertainment here a report of a medici in the First Emsingo Codex:

Weltu blod sketta, sa weth enne rer inna blode and scrif dit ord umbe tha unde: consummatum est

If you want to stop the blood, then dip a [writing] reed in the blood and write this text around the wound: consummatum est (‘it is finished’)

The value of a man

Quite extensive research has been done into (early) medieval weregelds and injury tariffs in Mid-Frisia, including region Ommelanden, and Ostfriesland. The lists of tariffs are amazingly extensive and detailed. The most important sources are the Lex Frisionum, dating from the end of the eighth century, and the many Old-Frisian legal texts from the eleventh until the fifteenth centuries.

Tariffs to be paid were quoted in numerous currencies over time. When these tariffs over an amazing period of nine centuries are converted into the weight of silver, a weregeld turned out to be surprisingly stable, and amounted around 1,664 gram of fine silver. There were only some limited deviations that ranged between 1,560 and 1,768 gram. In this context it is interesting to mention that a ninth-century silver hoard was found at the former island of Wieringen in the Netherlands, possibly containing a weregeld. Its total weight of silver namely was 1.7 kilogram. Read our blog post Foreign Fighters returning from Viking war bands). Whether the owner (a Viking?) received a weregeld or had to pay one, we will never know.

If we relate 1,644 gram of fine silver with the current silver price (date of this blog post, October 2020) and convert this value into the most successful, modern currency ever of our planet, the value of a Frisian man today would be around 1193 US dollar. We leave it to the reader if this is an appropriate value for a Frisian.

“That’ll be 1,193 dollar, please”

And, this Frisian is not be confused with a Friesian, the elegant black horse which will cost you around 30,000 US dollar anyway. We are now talking simply humans. Those creatures who sit on a horse.

But more silver had to be paid

If someone had slain a person, then both the heirs of the victim and the kin of the victim had to be compensated. The perpetrator had to pay weregeld to the heirs of the victim. This share was called riocht ield. The kin of the perpetrator, however, had to pay weregeld too. But in this case to the victim’s kin. This share was called meentele or meytele in Old-Frisian. Under normal or standard conditions, the slayer had to pay one weregeld (riocht ield) to the heirs, and the slayer’s kin had to pay half a weregeld (meentele) to the victim’s kin. So, the standard ratio was two-third riocht ield and one-third meentele.

Hence the whole community was involved and was held responsible. Good luck with trying to figure out who on both sides belonged to the kin and the heirs, and who did not. Now how complex is all that! However, that is the way you do it when you have no government institutions or prisons in place, and people still have matters in their own hands. Maybe a new guiding principle for policy makers how to curb the decreasing social cohesion in modern societies; enlarging the circle of responsible people?

So, slaying a man would cost the slayer and his kin normally one and a half weregeld which was equivalent to 2,496 gram of fine silver.

“That’ll be 1,790 dollar, please”

There could be conditions that functioned as a multiplier. If, for example, you killed or raped a widow, a judge or a pilgrim, a multiplier would be applicable and thus you had to pay additional weregelds. You hit the jackpot because these categories were considered vulnerable people who could not protect themselves as well as others.

An other factor that was relevant, was whether or not a peace was applicable. A proclaimed peace was assumed to be broken when someone was killed or injured. During the Early Middle Ages in Frisia this was the so-called frede, and was to be paid to the count or lord. This word means ‘peace’ and is comparable with the German Frieden and the Dutch vrede. With the aforementioned disappearance of feudal structures in Frisia, people themselves had to impose a peace. Instead of a feudal frede it was called a liudfrede. The word liud is related to the Mid-Frisian lju or the Dutch lied or lui, meaning (common) people. So, the ‘common people’s-peace’. During the Crusades, the Catholic Church declared the Pax Dei ‘the Peace of God’ and again a multiplier was applicable if you killed or injured someone. Of course, this Pax Dei was not broken when you decapitated Moors in the Levant or Cathars in southern France, or infidels in Livonia in the name of the Cross. You did not have to pay any weregeld. You could even take their silver. Then you also had the Treuga Dei or Truce of God. With this Pax Dei truce, the church tried to halt acts of war at least during holy times of the year. Contemporary critics argued, however, that the church had no business with war whatsoever, and should refrain from everything that had to do with it, including truces.

When slaying a man and a peace was in place, the one and a half weregeld above was multiplied by -for example- two times.

“That’ll be 3,579 dollar, please”


Note: If you could not pay the weregeld with land, goods or precious metals (whether or not through coin), you paid with your neck. Just so you know and there is no misunderstanding.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Bremmer, R.H., Hir is eskriven. Lezen en schrijven in de Friese landen rond 1300 (2004)
  • Brooks, S. & Harrington, S., The Kingdom and People of Kent AD 400-1066. Their history and archaeology (2010)
  • Green, D.H. & Siegmund, F. (ed), The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century. An Ethnographic Perspective; Ausenda, G., Jural relations among the Saxons before and after Christianization (2003)
  • Henstra, D.J., The evolution of the money standard in medieval Frisia. A treatise on the history of the systems of money of account in the former Frisia (c.600-c.1500) (1999)
  • Klerk, de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Ewa ad Amorem (2005)
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Lex Frisionum. Introduction (2010)
  • Nijdam, H., Lichaam, eer en recht in middeleeuws Friesland. Een studie naar de Oudfriese boeteregisters (2008)
  • Siems, H., Studien zur Lex Frisionum (1980)
  • Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de Oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)
  • Vries, O., De taal van recht en vrijheid. Studies over middeleeuws Fries1land (2012)
  • Willemsen, A., Gouden Middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld, 400 – 700 na Chr. (2014)

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