composition, in ancient and medieval law, a sum of money paid by a guilty party as satisfaction to the family of the person who was injured or killed. Failure to make the payment might justify retaliation in kind against the offender or his family. In earliest times, the payment was made as a result of a mutual agreement between the parties, but later it was imposed by law. In many societies the amount paid varied according to the rank of the person injured or slain. Composition reflected a transition from a system of feuds or blood revenge (see vendetta) to one where socially dangerous acts are primarily a concern of the state rather than of private persons and their families alone. The exaction of the payment recognized the outrage to the person and the family as the prime offense, but it tended to discourage disorder by providing a substitute for retributive killing or other violence. When, in addition to composition, a fine had to be paid to the state, the dangerous act approached the modern conception of a crime (see criminal law). This institution was known in all Germanic cultures, including Anglo-Saxon England, and was widespread in many parts of the world. It is still practiced in certain Middle Eastern countries. An example of composition is wergild [Old Eng., = man's price], the payment made by a murderer to the family of a murdered person. Wergild was often paid to the king for loss of a subject and to the lord of the manor for the loss of a vassal as well as to the family of the deceased. The term composition is also used to refer to an agreement between an insolvent debtor and his creditor, whereby the creditor for some consideration, such as an immediate payment of a portion of the debt, waives the remainder and considers his claim satisfied.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.