Wergild - An essay on the concept of"wergild in BEOWULF

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Smith 1 Lesley Smith English 380- Response #2 Dr. Gwara 15 March 2011 ‘Cause We Are Living in a Material World Our society did not invent materialism. Sadly, its existence has been a part of most civilizations since objects were assigned monetary value. While at first it was a practical way to exchange goods and services, people took it to the extreme and like most practices in excess, it transformed into a vice. Thus it comes as no surprise that the societies in Beowulf fall victim to this way of thinking as well. It is not far-reaching to say that treasure and monetary compensation permeate every aspect of the poem, from the language to the actual plot. The kings are called “treasure-givers,” which evidently the poet finds more suiting than introducing them with royal titles (2311). These names are not the only area infused with the importance of wealth; the customs of their societies are equally centered on money. From how to properly give thanks to their funeral rites the notion wealth is shown in each aspect of Germanic life in the 6 th century A.D. These traditions are all centered on the custom of wergild, meaning the worth of man’s life. Wergild allows the human life to have a marked value, which is practical if you’re a king with loads of wealth, but not favorable if you happen to be someone who has to pay this death price. This idea mingles life and wealth to the point where they are so intertwined that they become an essential part of one another. I suspect that the poet does not look upon this idea favorably; the way in which he describes the actions of the royal court and the ending of the
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Smith 2 poem make that fairly obvious. Through the motivations of the characters the poet shows the consequences of creating a society whose focus revolves around wealth. Monetary compensation is one of the major motivating forces in Beowulf . While this goes mostly unmentioned in the text of the poem it is clear that compensation in the form of wealth is expected for good deeds in the Germanic tradition. After killing Grendel, Beowulf is presented with treasure from Hrothgar for job well-done. He is given “tokens of honour,” including a banner, a helmet, horses and sword (1020-1024). Just after these lines the poet goes on to mentions in reference to Hrothgar and Beowulf that, “A fair witness can see how well each one behaved,” (1048). Conduct is dictated by how well each side is rewarded because their society is
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