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Basic Information

Weregild1 (also wergeld and similar spellings) was a system of reparation for the death or injury of people (and sometimes extended to the damage or destruction of property and the lives of domestic animals) based on payment of a pre-determined sum of money. This payment was intended to represent a full and permanent settlement of any conflict (thus removing the justification for any vendetta that might otherwise arise), accepted by both sides by virtue of payment and receipt. Whilst weregild is the Anglo-Germanic name for the system, the same concept occurs in many cultures worldwide.

The amount of weregild payable (sometimes known as the person's "blood price") was mostly dependant on his social status - astronomic for a king, relatively modest for a commoner. Typically, the full amount, payable in case of death (and frequently in case of significant disablement), was intended to support the dead man's dependants for roughly as long as he would have been expected to; reduced amounts were payable for less severe injuries. Most systems made no distinction between manslaughter and murder - nor took account of intent in the case of lesser injuries. Weregild for a woman could be less than that of a man - or more, depending on the system (historical variations seem to be between half that for a man of the same status and twice as much), payments for children varied as well. Foreigners were often heavily discounted, if paid for at all, and slaves, of course, were paid for as the owner's property or livestock rather than as people in their own right.

In the modern era, this concept is mostly relegated to the civil courts in the form of compensation for loss of earnings (where those on a higher salary are still paid more for the same injury than those on a lower wage) and no remission of criminal charges results from its payment - except in various parts of the Arab world where weregild (known as Diyya) remains a significant part of the justice system.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • PCs may be agreeably surprised that payment in cash can allow them to escape charges up to and including murder - and somewhat annoyed when they are expected to accept it. Especially if the court places a low value on their fallen comrade.
    • That low value is especially likely for a character whose player has made no effort to develop their background and social status - vagabonds and wanderers, "masterless men", were often considered to have a mostly negative social value so a murderhobo PC might well have a token blood-price at best.
  • It might be worth considering that the blood-price is meant to end the matter and avoid a vendetta or blood-feud.
    • Where law is weak, blood-prices might have more to do with the ability and willingness of the victim's heir to take revenge than the value of the victim.
    • This would play into the (possibly exaggerated) trope of the rich and powerful killing off the poor and making a derisory payment by way of blood money. Usually a habit of the evil aristocrat.
    • At least part of the enforcement mechanism might end up with (or comprise) outlawing anyone who does not conform to the settlement … and an outlaw has no blood price (except, possibly, a negative one).
  • Note that weregild was generally only for direct acts - the modern concept of negligent homicide was not well developed outside a few defined cases (usually to do with maintaining unsafe bridges, lending an unsafe tool or animal or leaving uncovered pits lying about) and so payment was often not due2. A particularly egregious example (possibly unreliable - can't recall the source) from medieval England involved a serf, set to working on the roof of his Lord's manor as part of his labour service. The unfortunate man fell off and died, at which point the Lord not only required heriot (essentially an inheritance tax) from his heir, but also passed onto him the fine for not completing the work…
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