Earl is the counterpart of churl. It originally simply denoted a man of noble birth. The word appears in several Germanic languages. Its cognates include the Old Saxon erl and the Old Norse earl, which later developed into iarl or jarl.
Like many Old English words, its date of appearance cannot be determined with any precision. The earliest known English citation is probably from sometime before 616 in the Laws of Ethelbert:
Gif on eorles tune man mannan ofsleæhþ xii scillinga gebete.
(If, in an earl’s town, a man slays a man, [he shall] pay 12 shillings.)
Earl also had a poetic sense, denoting a warrior, a brave man, or even just a man generally. Beowulf lines 356-57 read:
Hwearf þa hrædlice, þær Hroðgar sæt,
eald ond unhar mid his eorla gedriht
(They quickly turn to where Hrothgar sat
old and hoary, with his company of earls)
Following the Norman Conquest, earl was formalized as a title, with a rank equivalent to that of a continental count.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton