A churl (etymologically the same name as Charles / Carl and Old High German „karal“), in its earliest Anglo-Saxon meaning, was simply "a man", but the word soon came to mean "a non-servile peasant", still spelt 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". Says Chadwick:
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. Their low status is shown by their wergild ("man-price"), which over a large part of England was fixed at 200 shillings (one-sixth that of a thegn). 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 ceorles owed various services and rents to local lords and powers.
In Scandinavian languages, the word Karl has the same root as churl and means "man". As Housecarl, it came back to England. In German, 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 of Frederick the Great of Prussia). Rígsþula, a poem in the Poetic Edda, explains the social classes as originating from the three sons of Ríg: Thrall, Karl and Earl (Þræl, Karl and Jarl). This story has been interpreted in the context of the proposed trifunctional hypothesis of Proto-Indo-European society.
The word ceorle in a corrupted form is frequently found in place names, throughout the Anglophone world, in towns such as Carlton and Charlton, meaning "the farm of the churls". Names such as Carl and Charles are derived from cognates of churl or ceorle.
While the word churl went down in the social scale, the first name derived from the same etymological source ("Karl" in German, "Charles" 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, to which was added that of later illustrious kings and emperors of the same name. Król, the Polish word for "king", is also derived from the same origin.
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