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Carolingian Curiosities

Some have claimed that the names Carl, Karl and Charles all derive from the Anglo-Saxon word ceorle or churl, meaning "freeman" or "non-servile peasant". The term ceorle is said to have referred specifically to free persons not of noble birth. And, in contrast to the freemen in the direct service of a king who were known as thegn or degan, the ceorle were said to have been of the lowest classes of free persons.

If that claim were true, however, it would seem rather odd that kings anywhere would ever have wanted to be named Charles. Clearly kings universally regard themselves to be royalty not peasants. Why then would they or members of the nobility give such a name to their children? Could they have been completely ignorant of the origin of the name, one of the most popular names of the European aristocracy? Or could it be that the Anglo-Saxon term churl derived from Charles, rather than the other way around, and was actually intended as a disparaging term that was propogated in later times, possibly bred by resentment over the usurpation of the Merovingian dynasty?1

To answer those questions, we need to return back to that time and look for some clues incorporated in the names of Anglo-Saxons living in Britain.

In the 9th century, one finds many Anglo-Saxon names in England beginning with the prefix Aethel- or Aedel-. Perhaps that should not be too terribly surprising given that the Anglo-Saxon term Aethel, in fact, is understood to have meant "noble". However the prefix Aethel- or Aedel- was generally not found associated with kings and their heirs; rather, the prefix was generally applied to persons serving in the role of that period known as an ealdorman. And if one examines closely the word ealdorman, one hopefully can see that the title appears possibly to be a concatenation of the prefix eado- (or aedo-, aedel-, aethel-) and man, the combination of which can be understood to translate as "nobleman".

The job of the ealdorman (or, as one might argue, "nobleman") was to govern a territory on behalf of their king. They typically headed a paramilitary police force and served as the chief magistrate for their assigned territory, which was called an ealdormanry. While they may or may not have been closely related by blood to the king, it appears that many were at least distantly related, probably because blood relatives were more likely to be loyal than those who were not related to the king. The fact that the position of ealdorman was typically inherited also tends to support the idea that the ealdorman was distantly related.

Interestingly, the role the ealdorman played actually appears to have possibly been a carryover from the days when Britain was ruled by the Romans. The Romans would typically station two or more legions within an occupied territory and would designate a single general to command the legions and govern the territory. The chosen general was known as a dux (which appears to have been a composite of du, meaning "two", and x, meaning or symbolizing "legion"2). While the occupied region was effectively ruled by the emperor in Rome, the dux acted as a combination sheriff and magistrate within their assigned region, much like the ealdorman of the ninth century.

Eventually, the Latin title dux evolved into the title duke. Despite some significant differences in the roles, it is also commonly believed that the role of ealdorman eventually evolved into what we now refer to as an alderman. However, while that may be true, I would argue for a different origin. The title alderman clearly derived from the phrase "elder man" and referred to an older man who participates in a town council, jury or similar regulating body. But the role of the ninth century ealdorman was actually quite difference; it was purely an executive role that was typically inherited, not a legislative role acquired through seniority.

There is, however, another word that appears to be very closely related both conceptually and phonetically to the word ealdorman: earldom. The word earldom can be seen to be a concatenation of earl and dom, where earl is a title and dom refers to the territory overseen by the earl. Curiously the two words have very different origins. The title earl is of Anglo-Saxon origin while the word dom appears to derive from Latin dominium, meaning "property" (the origin of the English word domain).

The word ealdorman appears to possibly have derived, like earldom, from earl domain. In fact ealdorman appears to have originally meant "earl of the domain", and it is clear that the role of the ealdorman was virtually the same as the role of the earl: both titles referred to someone who ruled a territory on behalf of a king.

It also appears likely that the Anglo-Saxon title earl derived from the Scandinavian form of the title: jarl. Note that replacing the j in jarl with an i or y yields iarl or yarl, either of which easily could have evolved over time into earl.

Hopefully, at this point, one can begin to also recognize a relationship between the title jarl (which, during the middle ages, was eventually replaced by duke within Scandinavia) and the names Charles and Carl. The j and the ch sound are essentially the same. So jarl easily evolves into charl or Charles. And even more imortantly, one needs to recognize exactly what the title Jarl or Charl meant: someone who rules on behalf of or in the place of a king.

One can also trace the title jarl back to its origin. It appears likely to have derived originally from gerwald, where ger was a Germanic word meaning "spear" (origin of the English words garrison and guard) and wald was a Germanic word for "hold" or "rule" (origin of the English verb wield). Specifically,


Thus gerwald, jerald and jarl all refer specifically to someone who wields or rules by a spear . Again, one should recall that the roles of the dux and the ealdorman were effectively that of military governors.

Putting what we have learned together, we can now see the possible evloution of the word ealdorman:

ger wield domaingerwaldomanyerwaldomanyearldomanyealdomanyealdormanealdorman

However, that is not the only possible evolutionary path that the term ger wield domain may have traveled. Another rather interesting evolutionary path also presents itself:

ger wield domaingerwaldomangeraldomanjarldomanjarlomancharlomancharlemagne

Now if one is at all familiar with Charlemagne, who is considered the founder of the French and German monarchies, one probably has been told that his name translates as "Charles the Great". But perhaps Charlemagne was not his name afterall. Perhaps, instead, it was a Latin mistranslation of his true inherited Frankish title. Charlemagne's father Pippin, before claiming himself king of the Franks, was supposedly called the "Mayor of the Palace" or "Mayor of the House"; he was the Duke of the Franks and he initially ruled on behalf of the Merovingian king. In other words, Charlemagne's father was originally a jarl domain.

One should also take a long hard look at the name of the position that Charlemagne's ancestors supposedly held. In Latin, the name of the office is generally believed to have been maior domus ("mayor of the house" in English), and, like the name Charlemagne, it appears quite possible to have been a misinterpretation of another title: mah earl dom -us (where mah translates as "great" and is related to Welsh mahr, Latin mas, Persian mah, Hindustani maha and English majesty). If so, then his ancestors were known, not as "mayor of the house" or "mayor of the palace", but rather as the "great earl of the domain" or "principal earl of the domain".

Finally it also appears extremely likely that the name Charles Martel, who was supposedly Charlemagne's grandfather, was very likely originally known as jarl martial, the "warring earl", rather than "Charles the hammer" as is traditionally claimed.

If these things are true, then serious questions arise with regard to what we believe we know about European history both before and after the usurpation of the Merovingian dynasty. History invariably belongs, not to the loser, but to the victor; and even more so, it often belongs to the gifted writer and the torrents of time. What truths then can we say are known with any certainty about that period in history?

1 The word charlatan is precisely such a reference. The word refers to a pretender, such as a pretender to a throne, which is what Pepin of Herstal and his descendants were seen to be. Note that the word charlatan is given some rather odd etymologies in dictionaries related to quacking ducks and/or the town of Cerreto, Italy—which exposes the degree to which scholarship on the subject has fallen.
2 The etymology usually given for the Roman title Dux is that it derived from Latin ducere, meaning "to lead". I suspect though that the reverse was true. The meaning "to lead" derived from the fact that the Dux was the name given to the military governor assigned to a province. The word Dux easily can be seen to decompose as du-x, where du means "two" and X refers to a legion. Note that in the time that the word became used (late Empire period), a Roman legion was divided into 10 (corresponding to X in Roman numerals) cohorts. Thus the Dux lead an army of two legions, representing a total of 20 (2 tens or XX) cohorts. Given that the term dux referred to a specific rank in the Roman legion and that virtually any commander could have been called a "leader", the probability that the term evolved from a general term to a specific term is near zero. Instead, it seems clear that the specific term dux over time came to be used more "general"-ly (forgive the shameless pun/example) to refer to any leader. Add the fact that the term very conveniently, when broken into components, describes the nature of the command, makes the traditional etymology even more doubtful.