SO ANNOYING: Lothgar Is Paying the Blood Ransom in Farthings
It shall take fore’er to count these thinges
In our day and age—where all manner of modern payment methods be available—one wouldst think people wouldst no longer make large ransom payments in farthings. ‘Tis a mighty inconvenience to carry four hundred sacks of copper coinage to a hostage negotiation, let alone count them.
But Lothgar apparently is ignorant of this fact: After his brother Æthelbert wast taken captive in battle, rather than pay his blood ransom in something convenient like silver ingots or jasper, he decided to pay in farthings. Farthings!
Already there be a whole line of nobles building up behind him waiting to pay blood ransoms for their own captive siblings, or man pryces for enemy knights they accidentally murdered. “Is this fellow serious?” one can hear them mutter. “He couldst have paid the whole ransom with a single sapphire-encrusted golden brooch, and yet he decides to count out thousands of farthings one-by-one like a ceorl.”
Whoso hath the tyme for such trivialities?
‘Tis not like he’s ransoming someone cheap like a squire or a womyn either. Æthelbert is an Earl. That’s like 200,000 farthings! No one in the Kingdom even knows how to count that high!
Honestly, one is surprised his brother’s captors still accept farthings a’tall. Mineself didst not even realize the Royal Mint still struck such a diminutive specie. Sure, some lords pay blood ransoms in small denominations like sceats or even thrymsa on occasion. But farthings? Unspeakable!
Mayhaps Lothgar thinketh he’s “sticking it to ye man” by paying in farthings. But the only man he’s sticking it to is his brother, who is being stuck with hot iron rods in a dungeon whilst his ransom is counted.
Oh great, now the ransom-counter is saying he lost count at 91,472 and hath to start over. We shall be here well past Compline on Lothgar’s account. If thou haddest any plans of paying thy kinsman’s blood ransom today, then thou best be prepared to wait in line.
The “wergild”—“man price” or “man payment” in Old English—was a value established for a person’s life based on their social status, which would be paid as compensation to their family or their lord if they were killed or injured.
The pre-10th-century Norðleoda Laga(Laws of the Northumbrians) lists prices for people of various social statuses at that time in Northumbria. Translated here by Dr. Christopher Monk:
Among the English, the king’s wergild is, according to folk-right, 30 thousand thrymsa: 15 thousand thrymsa the man’s, 15 thousand the kingdom’s. The wer[gild] belongs to the family, and the ‘king-bot’ to the people.
An atheling’s wergild is 15 thousand thrymsa.
A bishop’s and an ealdorman’s, 8 thousand thrymsa.
A hold’s and a high-reeve’s, 4 thousand thrymsa.
A priestly thegn’s and a worldly thegn’s, 2 thousand thrymsa.
A ceorl’s wergild is 266 thrymsa, which is two hundred shillings according to the law of the Mercians.
And if a Welshman thrives so that he has a hide of land, and can bring forth the king’s tribute, then his wergild is 220 shillings. But if he thrives only as far as half a hide, then is wergeld is 80 shillings. And if he does not have any land, but he is nevertheless free, one must compensate him with 70 shillings.
And if someone of ceorlish rank prospers so that he has five hides of land, as king’s warland, and someone kills him, that one should compensate him with 2 thousand thrymsa. However, though he may prosper to the extent that he has a helmet and a byrnie and a gold-hilted sword, if he does not hold such land, he is a ceorl. And if his son and his son’s son prosper so that they hold much land, thereafter the offspring will become gesith-born kin with [a wergild] of two thousand thrymsa. And if they do not have that nor are able to prosper, one should compensate according to the rank of ceorl.
Here’s all of that broken down into a chart from Wikipedia.
Wow, no respect for Welshmen. Basically, if you were rich in medieval Northumbria, you could kill as many Welshmen and non-prospering ceorls as you wanted as long as you could afford to pay a few thrymsa after.
The thrymsa was a gold coin minted in Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century. Wikipedia says it ceased to be minted by about 675, which leads me to believe this text might be from even earlier than the 10th century; or maybe thrymsa were still in use for centuries after they stopped being minted. While the shilling later became a coin, during Anglo-Saxon times it was a unit of account but not an actual coin. In this situation 1 shilling = 1.33 thrymsa.
I considered writing the story Why You Should Murder a Prospering Ceorl Before the Pryce of the Wergild Goes Up, but it seemed a little too esoteric. If you did have plans to murder a prospering ceorl, better do it soon before inflation causes those prices to skyrocket.
This is different from the practice of capturing knights and holding them for ransom, which became more widespread later in the Middle Ages and was more of a way to prevent knights from being killed. This was a good way for a wealthy or high-status noble to escape death: Why kill them if you could make a lot of money by selling them back? Alas, regular soldiers weren’t so lucky.