The Medieval Man Price


‘There was no distinction between civil and criminal law. All legal processes came down to one man making an accusation against another and demanding retribution. Criminal law, in which the state detects the offense, takes the accused to court and demands and imposes punishment, simply did not exist in early medieval society. Every householder had his own ‘peace’, and a breach of this (a theft or act of violence) was followed to an appeal to the local court, demanding cash payment in recompense.

[…] Every life had a cash value (the wergild, or ‘man price’). An aristocrat’s (thegn’s) life, and his oath, were worth six times that of a common man (1200 shillings as against 200).

Anglo-Saxon law codes read like modern insurance policies. For example, the list of compensation payments set out in the laws of Ethelbert, King of Kent from 560 to 616, include:

If an ear be struck off, twelve shillings.
If the other ear hear not, twenty-five shillings.
If an ear be pierced, three shillings.
If an ear be mutilated, six shillings.
If an eye be (struck) out, fifty shillings.
If the mouth or an eye be injured, twelve shillings.
If the nose be pierced, nine shillings.
If the nose otherwise be mutilated, for each six shillings.
For each of the four front teeth, six shillings; for the tooth which stands next to them four shillings; for that which stands next to that, three shillings; and then afterwards, for each a shilling.

And so the list went on, painstakingly costing fingers and toes, nails and skin, bruises and bones. This, naturally, gave everyone a great interest in the law. If the offender refused to pay up the victim was entitled to conduct a private war, with the support of his hundred (local district).’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 67-68

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