[Dream Gate] [Poet Glas]

Counting the Cost of a Man's Life in the England of Alfred the Great

This essay examines the worth of a man or woman's life, insofar as Medieval Englishmen saw it. I wrote this essay years ago, for class, and signed it acrostically.

UNTO my friend and tutor, Jarl Asgeirr Gunnarsson, do I, Gelasius, send greetings. I have recently perused the lawcodes of the Sassanach king Alfred; his treaty with the Lochlannach king, Gythrum, who rules the Danelaw; and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[1] . I have found what follows.

English tradition holds that Saxons first came to the British isles in anno Domini 494 to 495, when the chieftain Cerdic and his son Cynric led five ships from the Saxons' homeland to the southern coast of England[2]. Soon the trickle of Saxon mercenaries became a flood of settlers, come with their families to conquer the land. he Britons fell back into Wales, while the Saxons, Jutes, and Angles divided the land between themselves. Three centuries later the Saxon kingdoms suffered in turn the scourge of the Danes, whom we Scots call Lochlannach; the English, now Christian, began to fall before pagan Viking invaders. The Wessex kingdom retained its independence under king Alfred, called "the Great," and forced a treaty with the Danish ruler Guthrum sometime around the year 886[3]. Under this treaty the English lands lay to the south and west, while the Danelaw lay to the northeast; the Thames, the Lea, the Ouse, and the Roman road called Watling Street marked the boundary between the two lands[4] Not long afterward Alfred published his laws, affixing to them the laws of Ine, king of Wessex from 688 to 725[5]. Both the treaty and the laws of Alfred describe in detail both the fine owed the king and the weregeld owed the family when one man injures another.

A Saxon's worth to society is based on his weregeld, the money owed his family upon his death. Alfred's laws call a wellborn Saxon with a weregeld of 600 scillings a "syxhynde mon," or "six-hundred-man."[6] The highest weregeld is that of a king's thegn or of an ealdorman, who administers a shire; the lowest is that of a slave. While the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum specifies only two weregelds, the 200 scillings of a Saxon commoner or Danish freedman or the eight half-marks of gold ascribed to all other men, Ine's laws base weregeld upon a Saxon's station in life or the property owned by a Briton, whom the Saxons call a Welshman[7]. The Saxon law values a Briton's weregeld as less than that of a Saxon of equivalent wealth, though a rich Welshman's weregeld is more than that of a Saxon commoner.

Status of Man or Woman  Weregeld (scillings)   Reference
Ealdorman or king's thegn   1200 scill.       Ine, cap. 19
Saxon with 5 hides of land  1200 scill.       Attenborough[8]
Saxon, unspecified          600 scill.        Alf., cap. 27
Welshman with 5 hides       600 scill.        Ine, cap. 23
Saxon commoner              200 scill.        Ine, cap. 34
King's Welsh horseman       200 scill.        Ine, cap. 32
Welsh "taxpayer"            120 scill.        Ine, cap. 23
Son of a Welsh "taxpayer"   100 scill.        Ine, cap. 23
Welshman with 1 hide        120 scill.        Ine, cap. 32
Welshman with a half-hide   80 scill.        Ine, cap. 32
Welshman with no land       60 scill.        Ine, cap. 32
Slave                       50-60 scill.        Ine, cap. 32

While a weregeld will ostensibly placate the angry kith and kin of a slain man, Saxon law further levies a fine for breaking the peace. This fine is sometimes owed the king, sometimes a local authority, based on where the offense occurs.

Fighting occurs in       Fine              
King's residence:          Offender forfeits property, possibly life
Archbishop's presence:     150 scill. to archbishop (Arthur, cap. 15).
Bishop's presence:         100 scill. (as above).
Ealdorman's house:         Ine: 60 scill. to king, 60 scill. to
                           Ealdorman (cap. 6).
                           Alfred: 100 scill. to ealdorman, unless during
                           a meeting, then 120 scill. (cap. 15, 38).
Monastery ("mynster"):     120 scill. to monastery (Ine, cap. 6).
Meeting:                   30 scill. to king (Alfred, cap. 38).
Open:                      120 scill. to king (as above).    
The house of--             
A "1200 scill." man:       36 scill. to owner and 120 scill. to king      
                           (Alfred, cap. 38).
A "600 scill." man:        18 scill. to owner and 120 scill. to king   
                           (as above).
A taxpayer or peasant:     6 scill. to owner and 120 scill. to king  
                           (as above).
While drinking:            30 scill., if only one person fights (Ine,     
                           cap. 6). 
Note that the fine is halved for merely drawing a weapon in someone's house, so long as that person is not an ealdorman.

The average Saxon must find weregelds and fines quite heavy; in comparison the value of a lamb and its ewe is 1 scill., the value of a sword and a byrnie only 40 scill., and that of a slave equal to the slave's weregeld[9]. This high price discourages taking a man's life. Moreover, it enables Saxon law to reckon insult or injury; Alfred's law specifies that the punishment for rape is an amount equal to half of the woman's weregeld while likewise specifying the penalty for taking another's eye as one third of a commoner's weregeld.[10]. Saxon law is merciful, compared to Moses, and yet not a law lightly ignored.

As it establishes the value of a man or woman by a weregeld, Alfred's law provides a frame for society. As it levies penalties for injuring another, it strengthens the sinews of kinship and friendship, or at least avoids divisive bloodfeuds. As it provides for an equal justice for all Saxons under Alfred, it legitimizes his reign and kingdom. Like Mosaic Law and Israel, like the laws of Rome and the Empire, so does Alfred's law define Wessex and England.

NOTES FOR Counting the Cost of a Man's Life in the England of Alfred the Great

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