Murderers in medieval Ireland were given to the deceased’s family as slaves

Murderers in medieval Ireland were given to the deceased’s family as slaves if they fail to pay a hefty fine to buy their freedom. The family could then legally kill the murderer themselves.

Murder and avoidance of capital punishment

Early Ireland has the distinction of being one of the first areas to shun capital punishment. While a murderer might be killed for his/her crime, this was the option of last resort. Instead the murderer typically had to pay two fines. One is the fixed éraic or cró, that is either a “body fine” or a “wergild”, and the other is the Log nEnech, an honour price owed to the kin of the victim that varied according to the status of the kinsman to whom it was owed and the closeness of his relationship to the victim. Should the murderer be unable to pay by himself, his family was normally responsible for paying any amount the murderer could not pay. Should the family be either unable or unwilling to pay, the victim’s family took custody of the murderer. At this point, the victim’s family had three options. They could await payment, sell the murderer into slavery, or kill the murderer. Even then, the monetary possibilities may have discouraged capital punishment in some cases. In certain cases, though, where the murderer and victim were relatives, capital punishment could not be carried out as it would make the executioner commit fingal or kin-slaying.

Another situation where the murderer could be killed was when the murderer was at large and the fines had not been paid. The victim’s family apparently was responsible to launch a blood feud. It is, of course, unclear how often capital punishment was carried out in situations where it would be licit without any records other than the legal tracts. However, it is clear that that punishment could be avoided in most cases.

The origin of this particular legal provision is as unclear as the rest of Irish law. However, the so-called “Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már”, a late introduction to the main collection of Irish law, makes a claim on how this came about. It declares that prior to the coming of St. Patrick, Irish law demanded capital punishment in all cases of murder. However, Christianity was supposed to preach forgiveness. The two fines are apparently a compromise so that the murderer is both punished and forgiven. However, it is at least dubious whether or not this is a valid historical account, given the lateness of the story (originating hundreds of years after Patrick’s time).