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ceorl is one of the terms used in the early (7th- and 9th-cent.) English laws for the lowest class of freeman. Thus in Wessex his blood-price was 200 shillings: that of other free classes was 600 and 1,200. In Kent his relative status was higher. Even the West Saxon ceorl appears as the head of a free peasant household, owing military service, capable of owning slaves, and with significant legal status. At the same time such men could be in a condition of economic dependence. In the later period the term is one of several used for free peasants, though it occurs in the laws only as meaning ‘husband’. An early 11th-cent. tract on status envisages the possibility of such a man's prospering to attain the rights of a thegn. Nevertheless in the 11th cent. the status of free peasants often fell. It is indicative that by 1300 the word was acquiring its modern sense of disparagement.

James Campbell

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