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Churl

A churl, in its earliest Anglo-Saxon meaning, was simply "a man", but the word soon came to mean "a non-servile peasant", still spelled ceorle, and denoting the lowest rank of freemen. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it later came to mean the opposite of the nobility and royalty, "a common person". 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 meaning arose, "one inclined to uncivil or loutish behaviour".

The ceorles of Anglo-Saxon times lived in a largely free society, and one in which their fealty was principally to their king. Agriculture was largely community-based and communal in open-field systems. This freedom was eventually eroded by the increase in power of feudal lords and the manorial system. Some scholars argue however that anterior to the encroachment of the manorial system the ceorls owed various services and rents to local lords and powers.

The word ceorle in a corrupted form is frequently found in British place names, in towns such as Carlton and Charlton, meaning "the farm of the churls".



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