A churl in its earliest Old English (Anglo-Saxon) meaning, was simply "a man", but the word soon came to mean "a non-servile peasant
A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally tend to be poor and homeless-Etymology:The word is derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.- Position in society :Peasants typically...

", still spelt ċeorl(e), and denoting the lowest rank of freemen. According to the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

it later came to mean the opposite of the nobility
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

 and royalty
Royal family
A royal family is the extended family of a king or queen regnant. The term imperial family appropriately describes the extended family of an emperor or empress, while the terms "ducal family", "grand ducal family" or "princely family" are more appropriate to describe the relatives of a reigning...

, "a common person
Common People
"Common People" is a song by English alternative rock band Pulp. It was released as a single in 1995, reaching number two on the UK singles chart. It also appears on the band's 1995 album Different Class. The song is about those who were perceived by the songwriter as wanting to be "like common...

". Says Chadwick
Hector Munro Chadwick
Hector Munro Chadwick was an English philologist and historian, professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Cambridge . He helped develop an integral approach to Old English studies. With his wife, Nora Kershaw Chadwick, he compiled a multi-volume survey of oral traditions and oral poetry,...

This meaning held through the 15th century, but by then the word had taken on negative overtone, meaning "a country person" and then "a low fellow". By the 19th century, a new and pejorative
Pejoratives , including name slurs, are words or grammatical forms that connote negativity and express contempt or distaste. A term can be regarded as pejorative in some social groups but not in others, e.g., hacker is a term used for computer criminals as well as quick and clever computer experts...

 meaning arose, "one inclined to uncivil or loutish behaviour".

The ċeorles of Anglo-Saxon times lived in a largely free society, and one in which their fealty
An oath of fealty, from the Latin fidelitas , is a pledge of allegiance of one person to another. Typically the oath is made upon a religious object such as a Bible or saint's relic, often contained within an altar, thus binding the oath-taker before God.In medieval Europe, fealty was sworn between...

 was principally to their king
A monarch is the person who heads a monarchy. This is a form of government in which a state or polity is ruled or controlled by an individual who typically inherits the throne by birth and occasionally rules for life or until abdication...

. Their low status is shown by their werġild ("man-price"), which over a large part of England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 was fixed at 200 shillings (one-sixth that of a theġn). Agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

 was largely community-based and communal in open-field systems. This freedom was eventually eroded by the increase in power of feudal lords
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the...

 and the manorial system
Manorialism, an essential element of feudal society, was the organizing principle of rural economy that originated in the villa system of the Late Roman Empire, was widely practiced in medieval western and parts of central Europe, and was slowly replaced by the advent of a money-based market...

. Some scholars argue however that anterior to the encroachment of the manorial system the ċeorles owed various services and rents to local lords and powers.

In the North Germanic (Scandinavian) languages
North Germanic languages
The North Germanic languages or Scandinavian languages, the languages of Scandinavians, make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages, a sub-family of the Indo-European languages, along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages...

, the word Karl has the same root as churl and meant originally a "free man". As Housecarl
In medieval Scandinavia, housecarls and sometimes spelled huscarle or houscarl) were either non-servile manservants, or household troops in personal service of someone, equivalent to a bodyguard to Scandinavian lords and kings. This institution also existed in Anglo-Saxon England after its...

, it came back to England. In German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

, Kerl is used to describe a somewhat rough and common man and is no longer in use as a synonym for a common soldier (die langen Kerls
Potsdam Giants
The Potsdam Giants was the Prussian infantry regiment No 6, composed of taller-than-average soldiers. The regiment was founded in 1675 and dissolved in 1806 after the Prussian defeat against Napoleon...

of Frederick the Great of Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

). Rígsþula, a poem in the Poetic Edda
Poetic Edda
The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems primarily preserved in the Icelandic mediaeval manuscript Codex Regius. Along with Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most important extant source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends, and from the early 19th century...

, explains the social class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

es as originating from the three sons of Ríg: Thrall
Thrall was the term for a serf or unfree servant in Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age.Thralls were the lowest in the social order and usually provided unskilled labor during the Viking era.-Etymology:...

, Karl and Earl
An earl is a member of the nobility. The title is Anglo-Saxon, akin to the Scandinavian form jarl, and meant "chieftain", particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king's stead. In Scandinavia, it became obsolete in the Middle Ages and was replaced with duke...

 (Þræl, Karl and Jarl). This story has been interpreted in the context of the proposed trifunctional hypothesis
Trifunctional hypothesis
The trifunctional hypothesis of prehistoric Proto-Indo-European society postulates a tripartite ideology reflected in the existence of three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners —corresponding to the three functions of the sacral, the martial and the economic, respectively...

 of Proto-Indo-European society
Proto-Indo-European society
Proto-Indo-European refers to the single ancestor language common to all Indo-European languages. It is therefore a linguistic concept, not an ethnic, social or cultural one, so there is no direct evidence of the nature of Proto-Indo-European 'society'. Much depends on the unsettled Indo-European...


The word ceorle in a corrupted form is frequently found in place names, throughout the Anglophone
English-speaking world
The English-speaking world consists of those countries or regions that use the English language to one degree or another. For more information, please see:Lists:* List of countries by English-speaking population...

 world, in towns such as Carlton and Charlton, meaning "the farm of the churls". Names such as Carl
Carl (name)
.Carl is a popular given name as well as the name of various places. The most popular male variations are Karl, Charles; the popularity stems from the long lines of historical nobility using these names. There also exist many female variations such as Charlotte and Carla...

 and Charles
Charles is a given name for males and is borrowed from the French form of the Latin Carolus Charles is a given name for males and is borrowed from the French form of the Latin Carolus...

 are derived from cognates of churl or ċeorle.

While the word churl went down in the social scale, the first name derived from the same etymological source ("Karl" in German, "Charles
Charles is a given name for males and is borrowed from the French form of the Latin Carolus Charles is a given name for males and is borrowed from the French form of the Latin Carolus...

" in French and English, "Carlos" in Spanish etc.) remained prestigious enough to be used frequently by many European royal families - owing originally to the fame of Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

, to which was added that of later illustrious kings and emperors of the same name. Król, the Polish
Polish language
Polish is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, used throughout Poland and by Polish minorities in other countries...

 word for "king", is also derived from the same origin.

Current use

In the Dutch Low Saxon
Dutch Low Saxon
Dutch Low Saxon is a group of Low Saxon, i.e. West Low German dialects spoken in the northeastern Netherlands. In comparison, the remainder of the Netherlands speak a collection of Low Franconian dialects.The class "Dutch Low Saxon" is not unanimous...

 dialects Tweants, Sallaans and Achterhoeks, which evolved from Old Saxon
Old Saxon
Old Saxon, also known as Old Low German, is the earliest recorded form of Low German, documented from the 8th century until the 12th century, when it evolved into Middle Low German. It was spoken on the north-west coast of Germany and in the Netherlands by Saxon peoples...

, the word kearl ([kɛː(r)l]) is still commonly used to refer to man.
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