Thus from a document of uncertain date, possibly about the time of Alfred the Great, and translated by Stubbs (Select Charters) as "Of people's ranks and laws," we learn:--"And if a ceorl throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat, and special duty in the king's hall, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy."
Already in ZEthelberht's legislation we find characteristic fines inflicted for breach of the peace of householders of different ranks - the ceorl, the eorl, and the king himself appearing as the most exalted among them.
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.
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.
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."
The gafolgelda or tributarius (tribute-payer) seems to have been a ceorl who possessed at least a hide, while the gebur was without land of his own, and received his outfit as a loan from his lord.
It is characteristic in this connexion that the West Saxon laws do not make any distinction between ceorls and laets or halffreemen as the Kentish laws had done: this means that the half-free people were, if not Welshmen, reckoned as members of the ceorl class.
It does not mean, of course, that their condition was practically the same, but in any case the fact testifies to the gulf which had come to separate the two principal subdivisions of the free class - the ceorl and the thane.
In 851 Ceorl, with the men of Devon, defeated the Danes at Wigganburg, and AEthelstan of Kent was victorious at Sandwich, in spite of which they wintered in England that year for the first time.
The document which defines their duties and privileges sets forth that every ceorl who throve so that he had fully five hides of land, and a helm, and a mail-shirt, and a sword ornamented with gold, was to be reckoned gesithcund.