Don’t be churlish

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In April 1830 a Saxon burial place was discovered at Malling Hill to the east of Lewes. Dr Gideon Mantell penned an account of it for the local newspaper. He expressed his disappointment only a spearhead and dagger were found when the grave was dug up and a number of skeletons were uncovered.

He wrote: “These Saxon churls must have lived on acorns and other hard pulses or their teeth could not have been worn down as much as they are. Even the young fellows have the teeth worn down like those of the Iguanodons.” The latter being a reference to his celebrated discovery of a fossil dinosaur jawbone in the Sussex Weald near Cuckfield.

Intrigued by “churl” I looked it up and found in Anglo Saxon it meant “a man”. For the Vikings it was more specific and meant “a free man”. I also learnt the highly respectable names “Karl” (German), “Charles” (French and English) and “Carlos” (Spanish) derive from “churl”. I now believe those elite “Housecarls” who fought to the death alongside Harold at the Battle of Hastings got their name for being free men choosing to serve the King.

Over time the meaning of the term in English became corrupted; in the 15th century it was used to describe a “common person”. By Mantell’s day it had been debased further and “churl” described a person “inclined to uncivil or loutish behaviour”. We can only assume it reflects his view of our Saxon forebears. It requires no great leap of the imagination to see how “churl” leads to our modern “churlish”.