The plebs: a brief history

Brodie Waddell

How, in the 21st century, can the word ‘pleb’ lead to a prominent MP resigning his government post and to a £2 million libel lawsuit? The recent conclusion of this ridiculous saga has reminded us that this seemingly obsolete term of social description still has bite, but why?

The BBC has offered its own little history lesson on ‘pleb’, focusing on its classical origins. However, they leap straight from the Latin source to its use in 19th century public schools. What the BBC misses, perhaps justifiably, is the re-emergence of this Latinate language in the early modern period and the fraught use of the term by historians studying that period. Yet for those of us interested the history of social relations and social conflict, the terminology is more than an anachronistic oddity.

Rugby School, beloved by the plebs

Rugby School, beloved by the plebs

The abbreviated version – ‘pleb’ – used by Andrew Mitchell seems to have been an invention of the late 18th century. I haven’t found it in any of the thousands of transcribed texts on Early English Books Online except in Latin passages, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first example in 1795. It is, by this time, derogatory Westminster School slang for ‘the son of a tradesman’. Mitchell, who attended the equally exclusive Rugby School, probably picked it up through this route though he might have learned a bit more about it when studying history at Cambridge. This explains why, in a moment of angry condescension, he spat out a term that most of us would regard as obscure and a bit silly. Nonetheless many other versions of the term have been circulating for at least a couple thousand years.

As the BBC piece noted, the word has its origin in classical Latin, when ‘plebs’ (rather than ‘pleb’) was a somewhat pejorative term for the common people as a whole. In the medieval period, according to my colleague John Arnold, the term was relatively rare. ‘Plebs’ was occasionally used in Latin texts by British writers to denote the ‘people of a parish’ from the 12th century onwards. Here, however, it was employed to contrast the lay ‘plebs’ with the literate clerics, rather than ‘common’ with ‘elite’. When the powerful referred to ordinary people, they were much more likely to use terms like ‘populus’, ‘rustici’, ‘illiterati’, ‘idiotae’ or ‘simplices’. In other words, ‘plebs’ was not used very often and nearly always in a rather restricted ecclesiastical sense.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, variants of the word were known and used by more than a few English authors. According to the OED, it was in this period that the words ‘plebeian’ (first recorded in 1533), ‘plebe’ (1582) and ‘plebs’ (1591) all joined the English language as ways of describing the ‘common people’, in contrast to the nobility. The ‘plebeian’ was equivalent to a ‘mecanik craftis man’ (c.1550) or ‘a Yeoman’ (1611). Hence, as Shakespeare suggests in Coriolanus, ‘plebeians’ were ‘fusty’, ‘hungry’ and ‘beastly’. Poets wrote insultingly of ‘the giddie clamouring of Plebs’ (1657) and Joseph Hall, in his Apologie of the Church of England (1610) attacking the radical Brownist sect, poked fun at the idea that ‘every plebeian artificer hath power to elect and ordaine [ministers] by vertue of his Christian profession’. Perhaps the most prominent discussion of these terms came from Sir Thomas Elyot in The Boke named the Governour, a well-known work of political philosophy published in 1531. Elyot offered a very detailed dissection of the notion of a ‘commonweal’ and, along the way, analysed the word ‘plebs’:

Plebs in englisshe, is called the communaltie, whiche signifieth onely the multytude, wherin be conteyned the base & vulgare inhabitantes, not avaunced to any honour or dignitie: whiche is also used in our dayly communication, for in the citie of London, and other cities, they that be none aldermen, or sheriffes, be called communers. And in the countrey, at a sessions, or other assembly, if no gentyll men be there at, the sayinge is, that there was none but the communaltye, whiche proueth, in myne opinion, that Plebs in latine, is in englishe communaltie: and Plebeij be communers.

So the ‘plebs’ were ‘the communaltie’, ‘the multytude’ and ‘the base & vulgar’ by this time. Indeed, they were essentially anyone who lacked a title or office.

Sir Thomas Elyot, looking a bit 'plebeian'.

Sir Thomas Elyot, looking a bit plebeian.

Such terms nonetheless present a potential problem for historians. As the quotations from Thomas Elyot and Coriolanus suggest, this vocabulary was first and foremost a product of Latin rather than English. ‘Pleb’ and its various derivations occur relatively often in early modern books, but most frequently by far in works written in Latin, translated from Latin, quoting in Latin, or referring directly to classical history. I have yet to come across even a single use in a more vernacular text such as a ballad or chapbook. Even in elite correspondence it seems vanishingly rare. I’ve never found ‘the plebs’ or ‘plebeians’ in the many hundreds of letters and government reports that I’ve read over the years. So, although I would welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong, I feel fairly confident saying that such terms were simply not part of the language used by people at the time, except by scholars and poets trying to show off their classical education.

Despite this, many historians – including myself on occasion – have adopted ‘plebeian’ as an apparently neutral term for non-elites in early modern England. This really started with E.P. Thompson whose 1974 article on ‘Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture’ has been cited hundreds of times. Not coincidentally, it also served as the theme for a conference that Mark and I organised back in our student days. Why? I think for the simple reason that it allows us to talk about a group that would, in the 19th century, be called ‘the working class’ without using such a clearly anachronistic term. It now seems to me that ‘plebeian’ is almost as anachronistic as ‘working class’, given how rarely it was used outside of classical contexts. Indeed, at least ‘working class’ is a term that a 19th-century worker would understand and use. A 17th-century ‘plebeian’ would almost certainly have never heard of the ‘plebs’ and would definitely never refer to themselves as such. It was word owned by the sort of men who went to elite schools and held great sums of wealth, invariably implying inferiority. It is thanks to this unpleasant history that it still retains the power to insult.

Perhaps, then, by using ‘plebeian’ we are as guilty of class condescension as any sneering Tory MP. So what should we use instead? In his post on ‘Who is below?’, Mark and his commenters offered up some very good suggestions, but I’d like to continue the conversion and hear from more people. Depending on the response, maybe I could collect the suggestions in a follow-up post.

So, how should we talk about the people we study? Is there a way to be historically accurate, analytically useful and remain respectful?

Sources: I have not included full citations, but nearly all quotations can be found in the OED under ‘plebeian’, ‘plebe’ or ‘plebe’, or via a keyword search on EBBO.

[Update: A reworked, fact-checked and defanged version of this piece has been published as ‘Pleb: the histoy of the word that sparked Plebgate’ on the BBC’s History Extra]

10 thoughts on “The plebs: a brief history

  1. Great post here Brodie, and glad to see you re-opening the discussion about what social historians should call the subjects of their study: it’s a really important and as yet unresolved issue.

    On the term ‘plebeian’ I believe the 17thC ‘Water Poet’ John Taylor self-identified as a ‘plebeian’, and did not intend this as a pejorative (see Bernard Capp’s book about Taylor). Taylor was a waterman by trade, so what we might think of as 17th century ‘working class’, but he was also literate and educated and his use of the term is more likely an attempt to show off his learning than evidence that the lower classes of early modern England commonly self-identified as ‘plebeian’. I also have a recollection that at that conference we organised Phil Withington said that Thompson adopted the term from Defoe, who was very much using it as an insult in the early 18th century.

    I also wanted to add an observation on a recent trend in history publications relating to the issue of what historians should call their subjects: a popular choice of late has been ‘The People’. The trend has chronological range: it figures in David Rollison’s book on medieval popular politics A Commonwealth of the People; in Andy Wood’s recent book on early modern popular memory The Memory of the People; and in Selina Todd’s oral history of the 20th century working class The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. In fact, Todd argues that ‘The People’ came to be used more commonly in the post-war period at a time when the status of the working class in society was particularly high, so it was deliberately chosen as a more positive term. I think a book I am about to review (In Praise of Ordinary People in Early Modern Britain and the Dutch Republic, Jacob and Secretan eds) may be making a similar argument about the early 18th century. I’m sure we could identify limitations with the term ‘the People’, but it does seem to be one in the ascendency among social historians.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion of John Taylor. I did a bit of EBBO research and his use of the term is very interesting. I couldn’t find any cases where he refers to himself as such (though there may be some in untranscribed texts) and I couldn’t find any especially positive ones either. There are a few that are relatively neutral such as in All the vvorkes of Iohn Taylor the water-poet (1630), where he refers to ‘Plebeian’ in contrast to ‘Palatine’ (i.e. patrician). In Drinke and vvelcome (1637), he talks condescendingly about ‘pomperkin’ as a drink ‘no where acceptable but amongst the Rusticks and Plebeyans, being a heartlesse liquor’. In most cases, Taylor gives it a strongly negative connotation. In Prince Charles his vvelcome from Spaine (1623), he recommends that ‘Let not Plebeans be inquisitiue, Or into any profound State-businesse dive’. This attitude comes out even more strongly in his royalist writings in the 1640s, where there are references to ‘a company of catacoxcombrian Plebeians’ (No Mercurius Aulicus, 1644), ‘infernall Plebeians spirits’ (Crop-eare curried, 1645) and ‘the intoxicated braines of a mad Plebeian Enthusiast’ (A brown dozen, 1648). So although Taylor is a good case of a genuine ‘plebeian’ (i.e. commoner) using the word, it seems to be mostly a term of insult for him.

    I agree that ‘the people’ is much more promising. It’s obviously very popular in 17th and 18th century political discourse, where it is used both positively (especially by the Parliamentarians and various radical groups) and negatively. It turns up quite regularly in the manuscripts I’m reading from the 1690s (e.g. ‘the people must buy bread at any rate’; parliamentary votes about the coinage ‘doe threaten the People’; ‘The Act of Parliament that is on passing Gives great ease to the Peoples minds’; ‘the necessities of the people’; etc.). I haven’t found any self-identification (i.e. ‘We the people of the United States’) in the archives, but most references are fairly neutral. In printed texts, ‘we the people’ is actually reasonably common (e.g. ‘We the People chose you’, 1604; ‘we the people, conceive it’, 1646; ‘we (the people) have our Rights’, 1659; ‘we the people may perhaps complain’, 1660; ‘we the People of England’, 1661; ‘we the People of this Kingdom’, 1694; ‘we the People do amend’, 1700). In short, ‘the people’ seems to have been a thoroughly vernacular term for the non-elite population. If anyone has found any self-identification as ‘the people’ outside of printed texts, I’d be eager to hear about them.

  3. Thoughtful post and follow-up. I had some thoughts about terms and anachronism and Defoe on Twitter and Brodie kindly responded and invited me to bring the discussion here. I’ll do so but want to begin by remembering a scene from the movie “Lone Star,” where three couples – one black, one white, and one Hispanic – get into a heated debate over what should or what should not be in a Texas history schoolbook. In the end, they can only cool down by suggesting that perhaps they shouldn’t teach history at the secondary level. I note this because (a) past categories and terms often have pejorative roots, and (b) the importance of local (and especially in Texas, state) school boards in deciding history might not be well known outside my country’s political culture. I note this because my comments below are not in reaction to the current (or is it past?) plebgate in UK politics.

    So, first I noted, after reading the related HistoryExtra piece from BBC History, that just as pleb was a negative term, so too were Puritan, Whiggamore, and Tory. (We could even add many-headed monster.) Brodie noted that at least those were used at the time. This inspired me to think about EP Thompson’s “Patricians and Plebs” article, which remains to me a helpful way of thinking about (historical) relationships. I noted that the de in Defoe was an aspiration rather than a true marker of nobility. Brodie immediately knew why I picked this seemingly oblique example, and noted that Defoe had written about “Plebij,” thus betraying his learned not quotidian referent. And that Defoe had 100 acres and so was clearly “elite,” and that he was only talking about uppity servants. If I had had something other than grading (marking) in front of me, I would have bowed gracefully from the field, since these are all true. But I pressed on.

    I wondered about identity. What if we compare, as Defoe probably did, Defoe’s 100 acres (at times; wasn’t he broke at others?) with Cavendish’s Chatsworth? Has anyone ever had more status anxiety than Defoe? Like a regional state school prof, I am sure Defoe imagined himself patrician. But couldn’t he also imagine the other? Patrician-plebeian is only a relation. Neither end is a thing. And when we add self-consciousness to our purview, is there any reason to reject the insight coming from those metal filings (Defoe, for example) between the two magnets (to use EPT’s metaphor), just because it does not come from the thing-itself? In our historicist search for banishing anachronism, I sometimes worry about separating the etic (what we impose on the past) too much from the emic (the categories that the people themselves use), when what we are really seeking are models of the past that work, provide insight, and tell US something about the past. Mightn’t it be that to write solely within the etic is not to communicate with those around us today?

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful responses, Newton. And for posting this here, rather than trying to continue the discussion on twitter. I’ve only just joined and I’m already finding the challenge of a genuine conversation in 140 character bursts very frustrating!

      As you say by way of background, the origin of the term in early modern historiography probably came from E.P. Thompson’s reading of Daniel Defoe, who (sort of) used it in The great law of subordination consider’d; or, the insolence and unsufferable behaviour of servants in England duly enquir’d into (1724). Thompson starts his famous article on ‘Patrician Society, Plebeian’ culture with a quote from it. I’ve attached an image of the page below.

      So the immediate question is about Defoe: Is his use of the term a useful indicator of the place of ‘plebeians’ in early modern society? In one sense, yes. Defoe was a very acute observer of the world around him and, as you pointed out, he experienced both riches and poverty in his lifetime. He was certainly much better placed to have a sense of social groupings and social divisions than, say, the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Yet, I’m still very leery about this particular example. Defoe used ‘Plebii’ essentially as a synonym for a bunch of other terms on the same page: ‘Low-Life’, ‘the Poor’, ‘the Servants’, and ‘the Commons’. What’s interesting to me is that all of those other terms were quite common at the time and would have been understood by all parties, no matter how educated. ‘Plebii’, on the other hand, was used exceedingly rarely (except in Latin texts) and would have been meaningless to the vast majority of the population, who lacked schooling in Latin. To my mind, it seems to be an example of Defoe showing off his education rather than attempting to actually describe a particular group of people. It is, of course, used very disparagingly too, which makes Thompson’s use of it particularly galling given his battle against the ‘condescension of posterity’. So, for all these reasons, I think Thompson was right to largely avoid this word (except, annoyingly in the title of this article) and instead refer to his subjects as ‘the labouring poor’ or ‘commoners’, both of which were more prevalent and less disparaging.

      However, I think your larger and (to my mind) more important point is exactly right. We shouldn’t abandon a term simply because it wasn’t used at the time. Attempting to banish all anachronistic language from historical writing would be pointless and self-defeating, especially if we are trying to communicate to people outside the academy. But on that last point, ‘plebeian’ fails again. Most students and laypeople today have a sense of what ‘the poor’ or ‘the common people’ means, but I suspect few know what ‘plebeian’ implies – unless, of course, they’re a Tory MP who went to Rugby School!

      So, that’s a very long-winded way of saying that I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with historians using anachronistic or disparaging words, but that ‘plebeian’ nonetheless fails to tell us much about the social groups and social divisions of the time. The individuals I’m interested in weren’t Roman citizens: they were ‘the poor’, ‘the commons’ or simply ‘the people’.

      [3,253 characters = 24 tweets!]

      Defoe on the plebs

  4. As promised, I’ve also posted my thoughts about this: In summary, plebeian is certainly problematic, but so are most of the alternatives, and I’m issuing a genuine call for help in finding the most appropriate term to use. I find ‘The People’ a bit vague, and it obscures the huge variety within – especially in my period between radicals and loyalists (more tricky terms!) among the working population. Doesn’t it also perhaps deny the personhood of those we don’t include (though perhaps we care less about what we call the powerful!) Perhaps we need a new term altogether!

    • Thank you so much for your detailed response, Ruth. Robert Walker’s self-description as ‘plebeian’ in 1802 is particularly interesting: I don’t think there is any equivalent for the 17th century, though I’ll continue to look around.

      I completely understand your objection to ‘common people’ – I suppose that’s why Hobsbawm called one of his books ‘Uncommon People’. That said, it does have the advantage of linking to the wider notions of ‘commonwealth’, ‘common good’ and ‘commons’, which was a source of political engagement in the early modern period.

      Personally I’d be quite happy using the term ‘working class for the industrial revolution period: it doesn’t have the derogatory overtones and it was soon claimed by many workers as a badge of honour. Of course, it has its own (Marxist) baggage…

      In any case, looking forward to reading ‘Power and Identity in the Homes of the English Swinish Multitude’!

  5. Pingback: The Rise of ‘The People’ | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part I: Some evidence from 44,313 printed texts | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: We the People, 1535-1787: Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part III | the many-headed monster

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