The word has its origin in classical Latin, when ‘plebs’ was a term for the citizens of Rome, as opposed to the ruling ‘patrician’ elite. Of course, it would have been unknown to the vast majority of the population of Roman Britain, because they did not speak Latin. The same was true in the medieval period, when the term was rare even among the elite, who could read and speak Latin.
‘Plebs’ was occasionally used in Latin texts by English writers to denote the “people of a parish” from the 12th century onwards. However, 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 when it was, it was nearly always in a rather restricted ecclesiastical sense.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, variants of the word were known and used by many English authors. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was during this period that the words ‘plebeian’ (first recorded in 1533), ‘plebe’ (1583) 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’ (c1550) 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.
As the passages from Thomas Elyot and Coriolanus show, this vocabulary was first and foremost a product of Latin rather than English. ‘Pleb’, and its various derivations, occurred relatively often in books of the time, but most frequently by far in works written, translated from or quoting in, Latin, or referring directly to classical history.
It was almost entirely absent from more popular texts such as street ballads or cheap pamphlets. Even in the letters of learned gentlemen it seems to have been vanishingly rare. I’ve never found reference to ‘the plebs’ or ‘plebeians’ in the many hundreds of letters and government reports that I’ve read over the years. So, 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.
This brings us ‘plebgate’ : the word ‘pleb’ seems to have been an invention of the late 18th century. It did not appear in 16th and 17th century texts except in Latin passages, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first example in 1795. It was, by this time, derogatory Westminster School slang for “the son of a tradesman”.
‘Pleb’, then, has always been a word of sneering condescension. The English language has long been rich with words to describe ordinary men and women – ‘the commons’, ‘the people’, and, most recently, ‘the working class’. These are words that most people understood, and would be happy to identify with.
A ‘plebeian’, on the other hand, would almost certainly have never heard of the ‘plebs’, and would definitely never use such a term to describe themselves. It was a 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 the word still retains the power to insult.
Brodie Waddell is a lecturer in early modern history at Birkbeck, University of London, who blogs as the many-headed monster.