1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Churl

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CHURL (A.S. ceorl, cognate with the Ger. Kerl and with similar words in other Teutonic languages), one of the two main classes, eorl and ceorl, into which in early Anglo-Saxon society the freemen appear to have been divided. In the course of time the status of the ceorl was probably reduced; but although his political power was never large, and in some directions his freedom was restricted, it hardly seems possible previous to the Norman Conquest to class him among the unfree. Some authorities, however, accept this view. At all events it is certain that the ceorl was frequently a holder of land, and a person of some position, and that he could attain the rank of a thegn. Except in Kent his wergild was fixed at two hundred shillings, or one-sixth of that of a thegn, and he is undoubtedly the twyhynde man of Anglo-Saxon law. In Kent his wergild was considerably higher, and his status probably also, but his position in this kingdom is a matter of controversy. After the Norman Conquest the ceorls were reduced to a condition of servitude, and the word translates the villanus of Domesday Book, although it also covers classes other than the villani. The form ceorl soon became cherl, as in Havelok the Dane (ante 1300) and several times in Chaucer, and subsequently churl. Taking a less technical sense than the ceorl of Anglo-Saxon law, churl, or cherl was used in general to mean a “man,” and more particularly a “husband.” In this sense it was employed about 1000 in a translation of the New Testament to render the word ἀνήρ (John iv. 16, 18). It was then employed to describe a “peasant,” and gradually began to denote undesirable qualities. Hence comes the modern use of the word for a low-born or vulgar person, particularly one with an unpleasant, surly or miserly character.

See H. M. Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge, 1905); F. Seebohm, Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law (London, 1902).