The media likes to tell us that we live in an age of unprecedented litigiousness, with Americans suing just to collect cash payouts. But the practice of asking for money in exchange for an injury or a family member’s death is very old indeed: we have records of ancient legal systems that codified the practice of paying restitution to victims for accidental or intentional injuries and deaths.
Vikings had a system for paying damages after a loss of limb or life
The Vikings aren’t typically thought of as cultures that placed a high value on human life. But their legal system was all about financial value: criminals had to pay a fee called weregild if they injured or killed someone. These reparations took the place of an earlier, bloodier system of vengeance in which families might feud for generations, with each new act of vengeance creating a new need for violent retribution.
The exact amount of money owed to a victim varied from culture to culture, and was determined in part by a person’s social status. Although gild generally refers to gold, the price might have been paid in cattle, slaves, hostages, precious metals and jewels, or even advantageous marriage contracts. While our legal system doesn’t pay out less for women or thralls, there’s still a parallel to modern times here: American courts do still consider a person’s projected earning potential while deciding how much to pay out for a wrongful death suit. Weregild could also cover injuries, like the loss of a limb; we have a remarkably similar system in place today for determining impairments caused by industrial accidents.
Blood money laws prevented more bloodshed
These legal systems were put in place to prevent bloodier methods of justice, in which surviving family members might take on the burden of doling out violent revenge in order to even the score. Sagas detail the bloody process of righting a wrong: one famous tale shows a feud spiraling out of control after a murderer refuses to pay the customary weregild to a bereaved family.
The Vikings weren’t the only ancient culture to come up with a legal code that substituted restitution for revenge. Ancient Irish law records gifts of cows for ericfine (murder or wrongful death) as well as eineach (injury not just to a man’s body, but to his honor or his standing in the community). A medieval Islamic law called diyya made punishments for unintentional deaths a civil rather than criminal issue, and set out an elaborate financial ranking system for the losses of various limbs. The Japanese practice of mimaikin still makes the news in modern times.