Sunday, January 29, 2006

Swá we eác settað be eallum hádum, ge ceorle ge eorle

(So also we ordain for all degrees, whether to churl or earl - From the Laws of Alfred, translated in Bosworth-Toller).

Imagine my delight when some punk with some serious entitlement issues blog-published his evidence of "churlish feminism," to prove to feminists that their (our actually, although I'm not even mentioned. Damn it!) complaints would be better received by the patriarchy if they were dipped in chocolate, sprinkled with non-pareils, and presented on a satin pillow along with a suitably subservient apology for interrupting the important business of football season. Imagine how my delight became ecstasy as aforementioned punk claimed that he was not either suggesting to women that they be ladylike, like all those mean churlish feminists said. He was just trying to help n stuff. Gee!

There are very few moments that can reasonably be described as feminist medievalist heaven; this is one. In responding to this "nice guy," I get to talk about Anglo-Saxon society, words, and unintended irony. And I get to do all of this while asserting a feminist's right to use whatever damned tone she pleases. Christmas has been extended this year! Yay!

See, yonder punk, for all his protestations of rhetorical superiority, does not attend to language. If he did, he would know that the word churl (OE. ceorl m.) is historically, and currently, loaded with class distinction. In fact it was a class distinction. Just like the word lady (OE. hlafdige f.) was, and is. To oversimplify, there were three classes of free *men*(neither slave nor royal) in A-S England; ealdormen (later eorls, upper nobility), ðegns (petty nobility, they held less land, were most often warriors in a greater lord's service, and could rise to ealdorman status), and ceorls (small land-holders, primarily concerned with farming duties, although they were also permitted to carry weapons, participate in community gatherings, and redress grievances). Ceorl could also be used to simply denote "man." A single woman was ceorlleas (man-less), the verb denoting women marrying was ceorlian (literally, something like "to acquire a man").The adjective churlish (ceorlisc) however, carried with it then as now the distinction of being proper to the common man, i.e. vulgar. When it was applied to women, however, it meant that the women were behaving in a manly fashion, and that was unseemly. Unless it wasn't. One compound of ceorl was the word ceorlstrang (strong as a man), used to describe exceptional women and boys.

The wives and daughters of ceorls were not hlafdiges, they were simply wifs. To be a hlafdige, a woman would have to be attached in some way to a ðegn or better.

In using the word churlish to describe feminist behavior he doesn't like, this non-noble man who is admonishing Twisty, BitchPhD et al. is saying "be weaker," or "be less like men," or "be more like the wives and daughters of highly ranking men." In short, "be ladylike." To which I say, "no."

But perhaps Ancrene Wiseass' cries of "churl power!" are even better.


Dr. Virago said...

i *heart* you, HeoCwaeth.

I also thought immediately of you when I read Twisty's post and followed it to the punk using the phrase "churlish feminists." Glad you responded!

Anyway, this ceorlstrang Virago also joins in the cry of "churl power!"

Joanna said...

Word histories, yay! I'm a ceorlleas feminist, and proud of it.

Laurelin said...

I like to think of myself as churlish :)

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Thanks for writing this, Heo. I thought about posting something that referred to the word's etymology, but I would've had to haul out some dictionaries and things, and I was just too damn lazy.

And it is probably for the best that I was, because this is a far better post than I would've written.

I think we should make some "churl power" t-shirts. It's always good to wear t-shirts that confuse people and for which one can give etymological explanations.

Especially in bars.

HeoCwaeth said...

Dr. V. - I heart you, too! We have to thank punky, though. He picked such a great word to throw around and defend without understanding.

Joanna - Word Histories Rock! I do agree.

Laurelin - Me too! If you offend the right people, you're on track.

AW- Thanks! I'm totally on board with those T-shirts, too. I hope somebody artsy decides to get into business.

Holly said...

heocwaeth--news of this might already be circulating all through the world of medievalists, but I do contemporary lit and I just heard about it. Anyway, I wondered I had heard about a BBC program called "Balderdash and Piffle," and the website associated with it? I wrote it up on my blog--it's here:

I am so thrilled about all the links and features that I have to share.