In England in the 12th to 15th centuries, a franklin was a member of a certain social class or rank. In the Middle English period, a franklin was simply a freeman; that is, a man who was not a serf, in the feudal system under which people were tied to land which they did not own, in bondage to a member of the nobility who owned that land. The surname "Fry", derived from the Old English "frig" ("free born"), indicates a similar social origin.
The meaning of the word "franklin" evolved to mean a freeholder; that is, one who holds title to real property in fee simple. In the 14th and 15th centuries, franklin was "the designation of a class of landowners ranking next below the landed gentry".
With the definite end of Feudalism, this social class disappeared as a distinct entity, the legal provisions for "a free man" being applied to the general population. The memory of that class was preserved in the use of "Franklin" as a family name.
According to the OED, the term "franklin" is derived from Middle English franklen, frankeleyn, francoleyn, from Anglo-Latin francalanus a person owning francalia, "territory held without dues". Collins mentions the Anglo-French fraunclein, "a landowner of free, but not noble birth", from Old French franc free + -lein, "-ling", formed on the model of "chamberlain"; all these go back to Late Latin francus "free" or "a free man", from Frankish *Frank, "a freeman", literally, "a Frank"; cognate with Old High German Franko.
The social class of franklin, meaning (latterly) a person not only free (not in feudal servitude) but also owning the freehold of land, and yet not even a member of the "landed gentry" (knights, esquires and gentlemen, the lower grades of the upper class) let alone of the nobility (barons, viscounts, earls/counts, marquis, dukes), evidently represents the beginnings of a real-property-owning middle class in England in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Note that the land and property owned by this English middle class might well be in the country, one factor distinguishing it from the mainland European bourgeoisie which term means "town-dwellers".
Magna Carta gave rights to free men and the peasantry. "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him. Except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice." 
Appearance in literature
- A franklin is one of the characters in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
- Cedric of Rotherwood, a character in the historical novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, is a franklin.
- Georgette Heyer uses the term in her 11th century novel, published in 1931, The Conqueror based in Falaise, Normandy
- The English translation of Sigrid Undset's The Master of Hestviken tetralogy, about medieval Norway, names the books' protagonist "a franklin". While not precisely identical to the English class, the Norwegian equivalent was also a class of landowners, often enjoying substantial properties and prestige, but no title of any kind.
Several English surnames are thought to derive from this class of people and developed in the Middle Ages as a status surname indicating a 'free man', from the Old French feudal term franchomme; composed of the elements 'franc' (in its original meaning 'free') and 'homme', man, from the Latin 'homo'. The various spellings gradually altered because of association with such common English placename suffixes such as '-combe' and '-ham'. The modern surname is found as Francombe, Frankcomb, Francom, Frankcom and Frankham and others.
- "The Franklin's Prologue and Tale"
- Free tenant
- Middle class
- Social class