For many people, it will instantly bring to mind Hamlet’s famous To be or not to be soliloquy: “Who would fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat under a weary life, / But that the dread of something after death ...”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s editors more than a century ago must have thought that was too familiar to need citing and instead included another Shakespeare quotation, from A Winter’s Tale: “There lyes such Secrets in this Farthell and Box, which none must know but the King.”
A fardel was a bundle, a pack, a parcel or similar item. It came into English around 1300 from the Old French fardel, a diminutive of farde, a burden, which is still in use in the same sense in modern French, though in the form fardeau. It is said by some authorities, for example Le Petit Robert, that that derives from the Arabic fardah, half a camel load. Carrying that would be enough to make anybody grunt and sweat.
A fardel could also be a quarter of something; it’s from the Old English word that’s also the origin of fourth and of the name of the obsolete British coin, the farthing, one-quarter of an old penny. One use was as a measure of land — William Noy wrote in The Compleat Lawyer in 1651, “Two Fardells of Land make a Nooke of Land”, a nook being an old land measure of 20 acres in Northern England and Scotland.