The medieval Latin term capitate denoted ‘property, principal stock of wealth’. It was the neuter form of the Latin adjective capitalis (the source of English capital) which meant ‘chief, principal’, being derived from the noun caput,‘head’. Capitate was borrowed into Old French as chatel and from there passed into Old Northern French and then into Anglo-Norman as catel, a term denoting ‘personal property’. Since, under the feudal system, the only property that could properly be termed personal consisted of movable goods, and since domesticated animals represented wealth, cattle was increasingly understood to mean ‘livestock’. A late thirteenth-century manuscript includes under the term horses, asses, mules, oxen and camels. It might also apply to cows, calves, sheep, lambs, goats and pigs. Over several centuries even chickens and bees were included.
In Plaine Percevall (c 1590) Richard Harvey warns “Take heed, thine owne Cattaile sting thee not,”
While as late as the 1830s Thomas Carlyle was writing of bovine, swinish and feathered cattle (Critical and
Miscellaneous Essays, 1839).The term did not begin to apply more specifically to ‘domesticated bovine animals’ until about the mid-sixteenth century:
A charm to find who hath bewitched your cattle. Put a pair of breeches upon the cow’s head, and beat her out of the pasture with a good cudgel upon a Friday, and she will run right to the witch’s door and strike thereat with her horns. (Reginald Scot, The Discovery of Witchcraft, 1584)
Meanwhile Old French chatel had been borrowed directly into Anglo-Norman as a legal term denoting ‘personal property’ and in this context soon superseded the Norman form catel. By the sixteenth century, since cattle was tending to denote ‘livestock’, chattel passed from legal into everyday language to refer to ‘a piece of movable property’ in general. Today chattel is most commonly found in the phrase goods and chattels which refers to personal property of all kinds. In legal English chattel still denotes ‘an article of movable property’ and, in past centuries, was used as an emotive term for ‘a slave’ .