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.
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.
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]