Wergild In Beowulf
How does the poet present wergild in Beowulf?
Wergild, which literally means "man price" or "man payment," was a method by which the family of a man murdered or killed by accident could be made whole by the guilty person. In a culture inundated by family and tribal struggles, wergild allowed tribes and families to avoid going to war over a man's death.
In Beowulf, the first mention of wergild involves Grendel himself, and the poet uses the concept to point out that Grendel is not to be considered part of mankind--as a descendant of Cain, the Christian world's first murderer, Grendel is forever an outcast. Grendel's isolation leads him to envy of mankind and a desire to destroy men, and Grendel has no interest in paying a "man price" in order to make peace:
. . . hate-feuds he waged [against Hrothgar]/crimes and murders, for many seasons . . . he wanted no truce/ with any man of the Danish forces . . . nor any of the wise men needed expect/a handsome reward at the slayer's hands (ll. 152-158).
Among Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon tribes, "crimes and murders" could, and often would, be solved by the payment of wergild to the aggrieved party, but the Beowulf poet makes sure his listeners and readers understand that Grendel is outside the world of men and is not interested in abiding by the laws or customs of man. Because the poem essentially recounts a pagan tale, but framed in a Christian context, Grendel must be viewed as an outcast from the Christian world, and his failure to honor the concept of wergild is further proof that God rightly cast him out.
The second example of wergild involves Ecgtheow, Beowulf's father, who killed a Wilfing chief named Heatholaf. Ecgtheow's tribe, which could not or would not supply wergild (probably because they couldn't afford to pay for a chieftan's death) cast Ecgtheow out, who then sought refuge with Hrothgar, who paid Ecgtheow's debt to the Wilfings:
Afterward the feud with a fee I settled,/I sent to the Wilfings, over watery ridges [that is, waves],/old treasures: he swore me oaths (ll. 470-471).
The importance of this example of wergild is that Hrothgar and Beowulf have a special relationship based on Ecgtheow's debt to Hrothgar, and Hrothgar is subtly pointing out to Beowulf that he owes Hrothgar his allegiance by virtue of Ecgtheow's debt to Hrothgar. In other words, Beowulf may think he is generously offering his services to Hrothgar, but Hrothgar is reminding him that the bond between Hrothgar and Beowulf's family is based on an allegiance created when Beowulf's father was saved by Hrothgar.
Wergild is one of many forms of a legal tradition that allows a killer to pay money to the family of the person he murdered in order to stave off retribution. It is seen as early as the Mesopotamian law codes (e.g. Hammurapi's) in which payment was on a graduated scale, with the highest payments being exacted for death of a healthy male noble and the least for unskilled unhealthy slaves.
Wergild is an important ongoing theme in Beowulf. Before the start of the story, Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow had been forced to leave his own country because he could not pay wergild after he killed the Wulfing Heatholaf. Hrothgar welcomed him to Denmark and paid the wergild, creating an obligation that extended to Beowulf.
The monster Grendel not only ravaged the country of Denmark but refused to pay wergild, thereby adding insult to injury. Refusing to pay wergild was seen as dishponorable, and provoking blood feud. Beowulf’s taking Grendel’s head seems extraction almost of post-mortem wergild.
There is some ambivalence though about paying wergild if you consider that the killing was justified; in that case paying it rather than accepting blood feud is seen as craven.