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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Compensation Culture'
Dr Catherine Clarke
University of Oxford
July, 2006

Switch on daytime TV and, between the talk-shows, antique hunts and property makeovers, you’ll be bombarded with adverts for consumer credit, debt consolidation – and personal injury claims. It seems that, however you’ve been injured, and in whatever circumstance, there’s always a firm willing to consider your claim for compensation. Online, too, a huge number of competing firms offer legal assistance with accident and injury claims. The Mission Statement of the National Accident Helpline reads:

National Accident Helpline is dedicated to helping people claim the compensation they deserve for injuries suffered in accidents. National Accident Helpline endeavours to provide excellent legal advice and the highest levels of compensation through a nationwide network of personal injury solicitors. [www.national-accident.co.uk]

Websites of similar firms even offer guidelines to the amount of compensation which could be awarded for specific injuries. According to ‘You Claim’ [youclaim.co.uk], you could expect to receive up to £3000 for a dog bite, up to £5000 for lost teeth, and up to £10,000 for injuries to the eyes.

Many people would argue that these firms provide an essential service, ensuring that people who have been injured or badly treated through no fault of their own receive the financial support to help them cope with the consequences. Certainly, it seems that increasing numbers of people are willing to consider a compensation claim as a suitable response to any grievance. A Mori poll for the BBC in 2000 suggested that 78% of people would be happy to bring a compensation claim against their employer, for example, feeling that it was ‘socially and morally acceptable’. British travel agents apparently have an annual fund of £1m to deal with personal injury claims made by holidaymakers. One woman even attempted to sue Durex for £120,000 damages after she became pregnant due to a faulty condom. [1]

Yet despite these new attitudes, other voices in the media are criticising ‘ambulance-chasing’ legal firms and expressing concerns about Britain’s growing ‘compensation culture’. Is it right that schools and local councils feel they need to cancel long-running events through fear of potential personal injury claims? And should ‘no win, no fee’ compensation adverts continue to be allowed in hospitals? It’s often suggested that Britain is becoming more like the U.S., where litigation is rife, and that the growth of compensation claims is jeopardising the continuation of time-honoured British traditions. It’s even argued that there’s something fundamentally reductive and repugnant about calculating every injury and grievance in terms of pounds sterling. Yet despite these frequently-voiced concerns, there’s nothing so very ‘new’ about Britain’s ‘compensation culture.’ In fact, the Laws of King Alfred the Great, dating to the late ninth century, set out strikingly similar lists of injuries along with the compensation which should be paid for them. The laws include:

23  Gif hund mon toslite oððe abite, æt forman misdæde geselle VI scill.
If a dog tears or bites a man, 6 shillings shall be paid for the first offence.

49  Gif mon oðrum ðone toð onforan heade ofaslea, gebete þæt mid VIII scill.
If anyone knocks out another’s front tooth, he shall pay 8 shillings as compensation for it.

47  Gif mon men eage ofalsea, geselle him mon LX scill’ 7 VI scill’ 7 VI pæningas 7 ðriddan dæl pæningas to bote. [7 is a symbol used for ‘and’.]
If anyone knocks out a man’s eye, he shall give him 66 shillings, 6 pence and the third part of a penny as compensation.

It’s immediately clear that compensation payments form the basis of an Anglo-Saxon system of welfare and protection for injured individuals, as well as punishment for wrong-doers. Of course, in a society without third-party insurance policies, the prospect of paying a sum like 66 shillings would have been a real deterrent. The Laws of Alfred are typical of Anglo-Saxon law-codes in their emphasis on compensation and financial payment for crimes.

There are clear similarities, then, between the ‘compensation culture’ outlined in the Laws of Alfred and modern-day injury claims. But the Laws of Alfred go much further, prescribing financial compensation in contexts which we might well find inappropriate or even offensive. Compensation amounts are prescribed for serious assault, rape, and even murder. Perhaps most shockingly for a modern audience, the amount of damages to be paid (often termed wergild – literally ‘man-money’) varies according to the social status of the individual who has been injured. Across all Anglo-Saxon law codes, women consistently receive less compensation than men, and lower-status members of society (for example slaves) receive less again. In fact, in the case of injuries to a slave, the compensation money is often due to his or her master. These distinctions obviously jar with our modern sense of the innate worth of each and every individual. Clearly, Anglo-Saxon laws reflect different ideas about social status and rights. Interestingly, although these law-codes seem to be simply lists of compensation amounts and prescribed punishments, it may be that through their careful gradations of wergild they serve an equally important purpose in recording and maintaining proper social distinctions and order.

Some of the personal injury circumstances described by the Laws of Alfred also stand out in terms of their oddity. In one law we are told what should happen if one man kills another unintentionally by felling a tree on top of him. In another we are told:

36  Gif mon hafað spere ofer eaxle, 7 hine mon on asnaseð, gielde þone wer butan wite.
If a man has a spear over his shoulder, and anyone is transfixed thereon, he shall pay the wergild without the fine.

Looking through the formal language of the translation here, this law actually prescribes the necessary compensation due if you accidentally impale someone on your spear. Did this ever actually happen? We can only guess, though a sudden unexpected ‘halt!’ for a marching, spear-carrying army might well have had disastrous consequences... 

Although the compensation payments set out in the Laws of Alfred prescribe the amounts to be paid in terms of ‘shillings’ and ‘pennies’ – units of monetary currency – wergild could also be paid in other forms, including goods approximating to the necessary value. A silver Anglo-Saxon finger ring, recorded by historians in the nineteenth century and now unfortunately lost, had the word DOLGBOT carved inside the band. This inscription puzzled many historians: Anglo-Saxon jewellery is often marked with the owner’s name, but no record exists of an Anglo-Saxon name ‘Dolgbot’. However, if not read as a name, the word ‘dolgbot’ actually means ‘compensation for a wound.’ Could it be that this beautiful, costly ring was made, or given, as compensation for an injury or crime? There is no evidence that this was a common practice, but other sources hint at potentially similar cases. The ‘Harford Farm Brooch’, discovered recently in Norfolk, carries an inscription which might give further clues about the payment of wergild or compensation. The inscription – in runes – reads: ‘Luda gibœtæ sigilæ’, which could mean ‘Luda repaired this brooch’. It has recently been suggested, however, that the inscription could be translated instead as ‘Luda made reparation by means of this brooch’. [2] This alternative translation would again suggest that this beautiful, highly-wrought disc brooch was either made or given as compensation for a wrongdoing. The famous belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial [3] weighs 300 shillings – exactly the same value prescribed in the law-codes as the wergild for the life of a nobleman. Could this buckle have been given as compensation for murder? Or was its very exact, symbolic weight designed to represent the noble status and worth of the wearer? These artefacts raise intriguing questions about the payment of wergild and the use of valuable art and craftsmanship in Anglo-Saxon England. How many other well-known works of Anglo-Saxon art may have been produced or changed hands as part of compensation transactions? Does that reduce these beautiful artefacts to mere financial currency, rather than art?

The emphasis in the Anglo-Saxon law-codes on financial compensation, even in the most extreme cases of injury or attack, might seem inappropriate to modern readers. Is it reductive to view everything – including the most serious traumas – in terms of monetary cost? Is it possible set a compensation amount adequate for rape or murder? Clearly this system extends far beyond the limits of any conventional ‘compensation culture’ today. But although the Anglo-Saxon laws may seem stark, even brutal, their prescription of monetary compensation represents an important move away from pre-existing practices of physical vengeance and requital in matters of personal injury or death. The law-codes replace the literal ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ with financial penalties. Nevertheless, Patrick Wormald has described the Anglo-Saxon legal system as ‘feud-centred’ law, commenting that ‘its primary aim is compensation of injured by injuring party’. [4]

Beyond the Anglo-Saxon laws, however, other Old English literature shows that old beliefs died hard, and that revenge was still seen as a fitting response to injury or grievance. The Maxims, statements of proverbial wisdom, in the Exeter Book (compiled in the late tenth-century) announce:

Wræð sceal wunden,   wracu heardum men.
For the wound there must be a bandage; for the hard man, vengeance.

The maxim here still clearly sets up revenge as the necessary response to injury or attack. In Beowulf, after Lord Hrothgar’s friend and counsellor, Æschere, is decapitated and killed by Grendel’s mother – a monster from the marshes – Beowulf advises him that:

Selre bið æghwæm
þæt he his freond wrece,   þonne he fela murne.
It is better for every man that he should avenge his friend, rather than mourn greatly.

Beowulf advocates a more traditional form of redress for injuries received: literally ‘paying back’ the attacker with violence. In order to avenge Æschere’s death, Grendel’s mother is killed. The irony here is that Æschere, too, was killed as an act of vengeance, as Grendel’s mother paid Beowulf and Hrothgar back for the murder of her own son, the monstrous Grendel. In fact, when Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, he also takes the head from the corpse of Grendel in direct retaliation for Aeschere’s decapitation: a head for a head. The problem with vengeance is that it potentially never ends. As the Maxims remind us:

wearð fæhþo fyra cynne,  siþþan furþum swealg
eorðe Abeles blode.
There has been feuding among mankind ever since the earth first swallowed Abel’s blood.

The reference here is to the biblical Old Testament story of Cain, who killed his brother Abel. The Maxims suggest that feuding and vengeance are as old as mankind itself. It’s impossible for us to know whether Anglo-Saxon law-codes, such as the Laws of Alfred, ever managed to enforce a complete move away from the culture of physical vengeance and violence towards financial compensation. The literary texts suggest that physical revenge is still a powerful and compelling idea, even in late Anglo-Saxon England.

Our modern-day ‘compensation culture’ certainly has some similarities with Anglo-Saxon law-codes. Beyond the realm of private litigation and compensation claims, the modern British legal system also makes use of fines as a form of punishment – but only in the case of relatively minor offences. The prospect of a convicted murderer receiving only a financial penalty would surely shock most people today. Yet even now, the borders between justice or punishment, and personal compensation, are blurred – and are becoming even more unclear. In the U.S., the family of Ronald Goldman successfully brought a civil action for damages of $8.5 million against O.J. Simpson, after Simpson was acquitted in a criminal trial of murdering both Goldman and his own ex-wife. [5] In the U.K., the father of Stuart Lubbock, who died at a party hosted by the TV personality Michael Barrymore, is bringing a high-profile civil suit against Barrymore after the crown prosecution decided not to pursue a case. [6] In these cases, claims for financial compensation are replacing conventional justice and are measuring the most extreme kinds of injury and grievance in monetary terms.

At the more mundane end of the spectrum, a concern commonly voiced today regarding fines and compensation pay-outs is that they barely penalise those who can afford to pay them. It’s often said that the rich can afford to park on double-yellow lines, and that firms or individuals who can buy good insurance don’t need to worry about claims. We see a similar concern in the Laws of Æthelstan, a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon king. Obviously, in a legal system based on fines and compensation, rich members of society could easily afford to act ‘above the law’. Æthelstan sets out a drastic course of action.

And if anyone is so rich or belongs to so powerful a kindred, that he cannot be restrained from crime or from protecting and harbouring criminals, he shall be led out of his native district with his wife and children, and all his goods, to any part of the kingdom which the king chooses, be he noble or commoner, whoever he may be – with the provision that he shall never return to his native district. And henceforth, let him never be encountered by anyone in that district; otherwise he shall be treated as a thief caught in the act.

This ultimate punishment of exile is reserved for those who cannot be deterred with financial penalties. Clearly, there’s no equivalent for today’s super-rich!

So, anxieties about Britain’s ‘compensation culture’ may be founded in evidence of growing trends and changing attitudes. But the idea of claiming redress for injuries or ill-treatment through monetary compensation is hardly new, and existed in a far more extreme form in Anglo-Saxon England. In the Anglo-Saxon law-codes, we see a kind of economics of justice, enacted via transactions between individuals and without the involvement of the Crown unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps what we see today, in the growth of litigation and the increasing use of civil suits instead of conventional justice, is a trend which ironically brings us closer to the Anglo-Saxon attitudes set out in the Laws of Alfred.

[1]       http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1024540.stm
See also http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3752503.stm


For the possible translation of the runic inscription, see


[3] See the direct entry on the BM's COMPASS site.

[4] See Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, Volume 1, Legislation and its Limits (Oxford, 1999), p. 105. Wormald’s book is a good place to begin further reading on this topic.



Further reading:

F.L. Attenborough, The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge, 1922)

The Old English Maxims and Beowulf, translated in S.A.J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London, 1982)

Dorothy Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents c. 500-1042, (London, 1979, reprinted 1996)

Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, Volume 1, Legislation and its Limits (Oxford 1999)

S. Rubin, ‘The Bot, or Compensation in Anglo-Saxon Law: a Reassessment’, Legal History 17 (1996), 144-54

For broader economic / social theory and discussion of the commodification of the body, see Juergen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT Press, 1991) – a difficult study, but worth a look if you’re interested in a theoretical approach.

Or for more suggestions visit Simon Keynes’ bibliography at http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/research/rawl/keynesbib/bibliom.htm#14 and look under Legislation and litigation.

Catherine A M Clarke


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors