In England, at least as early as the 14th century – 16th century, a unit of mass, 3 or 4 hundredweights, or possibly some form of packaging. Also spelled carke, and in Anglo-Norman karke.
The word has a curious later history that demonstrates beautifully how an error propagates through successive generations of glossaries. In 1607, Cowell wrote:
Carke. Seemeth to be a quantity of wolle, whereof thirtie make a Sarpler. 27. H. 6. cap. 2. See Sarpler.
A Law Dictionary, or the Interpreter of Words and Terms Used Either in the Common or Statute Laws...
London: Printed by E. and R. Nutt, and R. Gosling..., 1727.
Unfortunately we do not have access to the original, 1607 edition, but we are told the wording is identical.
However, at least according to Statutes of the Realm (1816), vol. 2, page 349, the word “cark” does not appear in the law to which Cowell refers. Instead, it reads “Wools to the number of xii. Sarplers, each containing xxx. sackes.” The word “sack” is used in both the English and Anglo-Norman versions of the statute; the word “cark” does not appear in either. The two words look very much alike, especially in poor printing. It would be very easy to mistake a “c” for an “r”, and go on to misread “s” for “c”.
Cowell was a very influential source, and the idea that a cark was a thirtieth of a sarpler of wool has been picked up and repeated for four centuries¹, without, so far as I know, any evidence other than Cowell. One of these pickups is especially telling:
Carke seems formerly to have been the Word for a certain Quantity of Wool, whereof Thirty made a Sarpler. 27. H. 8. c. 2.
Lexicon Technicum, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences....
London: Printed for D. Brown, et al, 1723.
Notice that Henry VI has morphed into Henry VIII.
1. E.g., Thomas Blount (1656), Phillips (1706), Nathan Bailey (1764), Ronald Zupko (1985)...
Other articles mentioned as imported from abroad in the time of Henry III, by the “Kark” or “Karke,” a cubic measure probably, weighing from three to four hundredweight, are the following:— brasil, quicksilver, vermilion, glass, cubebs, shumac, sulphur, ivory, frankincense, orpiment, turpentine, cotton, and whalebone.
Henry Thomas Riley, editor.
Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis; Liber Albus, Liber Custumarum, et Liber Horn.
Vol. I, Liber Albus.
Pages xciii & xciv.
That the weights of any one “cubic measure” of two substances whose densities differ as much as quicksilver's and cotton's could both fall within the range of three to four hundredweight is simply impossible.
A list of more than 30 commodities for which merchants were charged a fee, by the kark, for the privilege of showing their wares, is given on pages 223 and 224 of Riley's edition of the Liber Albus, under the heading “De Scawanga,” and a further list on page 230.
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Last revised: 21 October 2011.