It is difficult to pinpoint the precise age of the Sabbath stew recipes that have come down to us, but certain themes recur universally: a base of grains, beans, or chickpeas is embellished with locally available meats, vegetables, and spices. The earliest mention of the Ashkenazi cholent is found in the once vastly popular halachic work, Or Zarua, written around 1260. Its author, Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, usually known as Isaac (or Yitzkhok) Or Zarua (which means "light is sown [for the righteous]"), was a Bohemian–Czech, not beatnik–who studied in France and Germany. Toward the end of a rather involved discussion of permitted and forbidden ways of keeping food warm, he mentions being in the home of his teacher, the eminent Tosafist Judah Sir Leon, in Paris and seeing Rabbi Judah's non-Jewish servants light a fire and place the cholent pots near it to make sure that the food would be warm enough. Rabbi Isaac explains the reasons for allowing the servants to do so on shabbes–the Germans and Bohemians were much stricter about such things and did not accept this line of reasoning–but falls short of recommending such a procedure himself. He is not really concerned with the cholent's ingredients and never mentions if it was grain- or bean-based; he does, however, say that it contained chicken and eggs, and also mentions that apples were included in cholents in Champagne, which gives us some idea of how long Jews have been eating baked apples.
Isaac, who frequently glosses Romance terms with their Slavic equivalents, does not seem to feel that the word cholent itself, lonely as it is in the middle of a sea of rather technical rabbinic Hebrew, needs any explanation at all; his readers' familiarity with it is taken for granted. Judah Sir Leon, his teacher, died in 1224; Isaac is thought to have studied with him before 1220 and the Or Zarua, as mentioned above, was written around 1260. No matter how you look at it, the term cholent was well-established by the early thirteenth century at the latest, and was current, at a minimum, from France to Bohemia. Isaac was living in Vienna when he wrote his book, and was obviously not worried about Austrian Jews' familiarity with the word cholent or the nature of the thing itself.
There are a few folk etymologies for the name: it comes from shul ende, because it is eaten after shul, synagogue, has let out; that it's a combination of the French chaud et lent, hot and slow; and my favorite, that it's onomatopoeic, meant to echo the thud of the cholent as it storms your empty stomach five hours after awakening on a Saturday: tshulnt (as it's pronounced in many dialects of Yiddish)–the tsh is the sound of its descent, the ulnt of the crash.
The truth is a lot less fun. "Cholent" is a simple translation of khamin, and comes ultimately from the Latin calentem, the present participle of a verb meaning "to be warm," as filtered through Jewish versions of Old French that pre-date Yiddish. Less scientifically, imagine the Spanish caliente with a ˆ over the c.
As the name indicates, the dish that we know seems to have originated in France, with the fava beans at its base suggesting a Spanish, and ultimately Arab, influence. No one is sure if cholent was adapted from cassoulet–unnecessary, in view of cholent's Sephardi forebears; or if cassoulet developed from cholent–its porkocentricity and relentlessly non-festive associations would imply one hell of a psychic journey–or if they developed independently. Stumbling upon the secret of slow-simmering beans with meat is not quite the same as discovering the circulation of the blood and–especially when we recall the importance of porridges, paps, gruels, and stews in medieval European cuisine–there is no reason to assume that different communities could not have come up with the same idea independently.
Both dishes were originally made with fava beans, the broad beans that have been cultivated in Europe for at least eight thousand years. These were so thoroughly replaced in the sixteenth century by haricots brought over from the Americas–kidney beans, French beans, and the like–that the Latin term for beans of this type, phaseolus vulgaris, is the ultimate source of fasolye, the standard Yiddish word for such standard Yiddish foods as green beans, white beans, kidney beans, and lima beans. The Sephardi adafina, thought by many to be the immediate ancestor of cholent, is still made with fava beans and chickpeas, though it uses oil instead of shmaltz.
Beans are the most common base; in some areas, though, barley kasha was preferred. Unmodified kashas in Yiddish are generally assumed to be made from toasted buckwheat, but the word can refer to virtually any kind of porridge or cooked cereal. Barley was quite cheap and tended to be used to bulk out soups, stews, and cholent. The barley soup called krupnik (also known in some areas as kolish or kulish) was as widely consumed among east European Jews–to call it popular might imply that they felt they had a choice–as similar dishes were in Scotland. During winter, it was sometimes eaten every day. Adapted from a similar Polish dish, the Jewish krupnik dispensed with the bacon that was often added for flavor and made do with mushrooms, the inevitable onions and garlic, and shmaltz for those who weren't planning to garnish it with sour cream. A potato could lend extra bulk. Although there are recipes for krupnik with meat, the reality seems to have been that such meat as wound up in it tended to be scraps. As people used to say, "If we could afford meat, we wouldn't have been eating krupnik." It was a humble food for humble folk, most of whom didn't seem to have much good to say about it. And as the proverb has it, "Krupnick is food like Handrivke is a Jewish center;" substitute Moose Jaw for Handrivke and you'll get the general idea.
The basis of the beef and barley soup that still looms large in kosher and Jewish-style restaurants, krupnik isn't mentioned much these days. It pops up, though, in the "W.A. Mozart, Superhero" section of Daniel M. Pinkwater's Young Adults in "the ancient formula by which the mild-mannered genius composer is transformed into the greatest crime fighter and champion of justice the 18th century has ever known...Kakamun und pishdertzee und mach a krupnik in der früh"; that is, "Shit on him and also pee and make a krupnik in the morning." Mozart then turns into–Beethoven.