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. Continue reading

Fantastic Thoresby – Part IV: An archive closure, a whale and a funny friend

Laura Sangha

This is my latest post in my long running series on the pious Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby. My thanks to the Yorkshire Archeological Society for their permission to reproduce material from the Thoresby papers.

ClaremontI recently returned from an end of summer ‘smash and grab’ raid on the archive with a memory card stuffed full of hundreds of images of diary entries, correspondence and other bits and bobs from Ralph Thoresby’s papers. I consulted all of this material at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS) headquarters in Leeds, where the Thoresby Society is also currently located. Both are housed at Claremont, a splendid eighteenth-century merchants’ abode that is a delight for any student of history to work in, peaceful and accessible as it is. The staff and volunteers are very welcoming and knowledgeable, and the archivist Kirsty McHugh in particular went out of her way to accommodate me on my visit. Alas, Claremont will not provide such a salubrious environment to scholars for much longer, because lack of funds means that the Society’s Library and Historical Collections are to be moved, and Claremont is to be sold. Fortunately, the collection is to be loaned to the magnificent Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, hopefully preserving the unique character and coherence of the whole, but nonetheless this is sad news for those who have sustained the YAS over the years, and particularly for those currently based there.

With the start of term only a week away, it is likely to be some time before I can digest the material that accompanied me back to the South West, but I did stumble across a couple of bits of found art that I wanted to share. Continue reading

Mark Hailwood, ‘Who is below?’

[This is the sixth piece in ‘’The Future of History from Below’’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Mark Hailwood is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]

The posts that have appeared so far in this symposium have suggested a number of interesting directions for the future of ‘history from below’: a future that opens up new avenues for research through explorations of material culture, of the landscape, and of global connections and comparisons, with a critical but ultimately optimistic disposition regarding the possibilities of drawing together fragmentary evidence, potentially through the use of digital databases. All of this excites and encourages me. And yet, there is one particular problem that I think we all need to address if ‘history from below’ is to have a coherent future: how to define its subjects.

I’m not so much concerned here with who should ‘qualify’ as an appropriate subject for ‘history from below’ – I’m not sure prescriptive precision here is possible or helpful, but maybe someone would like to take this up in the comments section – so much as with the labels we use to refer to those that are generally accepted to fall within its remit. Let’s start with that classic statement of the ‘history from below’ agenda found in Thompson’s preface to The Making… ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Continue reading

Microhistory: subjects, sources, anti-fascists and Adam

Brodie Waddell

Microhistory is, it seems, a many-headed sort of beast.

In my previous post I suggested that, despite its name, ‘microhistories’ were not simply ‘small histories’ and asked what might make microhistorians distinct:

Is it their interest in ‘strange and bizarre events and socially marginal peoples’? Or the personal nature of their sources? Or their reflective and open discussions of methodology and the limits of historical knowledge? Or perhaps it is really a ‘continental thing’, well beyond the abilities of us depressingly practical Anglos on this side of the Channel?

The responses I received in comments (and by email) were very helpful as it soon became obvious that there were many other possibilities that had never occurred to me. Indeed, I received not just five responses, but at least double that number of potential ‘defining features’. Here, however, I will just focus on four issues.

The characteristic that came up most often was the notion of focusing on the ‘exceptional’, ‘unique’, and ‘extraordinary’. This is something that both Laura and Nancy emphasised in their comments as well as a point made one of the pioneers of the genre, Giovanni Levi, who claimed it involved taking seriously things regarded by others as quirky or deviant.1 In Nancy’s words, ‘these studies use the documentation of peculiarity as a point of entry into the ordinary, daily lives of marginal or low-status persons’.2 However, this feature of microhistory also opens it up to critique. As Steve Hindle pointed out in a recent talk (which he kindly passed along in response to my original post), discerning the relationship between ‘the particular’ and ‘the general’ is even more fraught in cases like these where one’s primary subject is undeniably ‘unrepresentative’.3

Another feature that several people mentioned was an explicit engagement with methodological issues. As Nick noted in his comment, microhistories often adapt interdisciplinary approaches, ‘read against the grain’ and acknowledge the important role of imaginative or speculative reconstructions in the absence of conclusive evidence. Laura too suggests that this might ‘be at the core of what “microhistory” is’. In Levi’s reflections on the genre, this forthright discussion of the ambiguities and partialities inherent in narrative sources – such as depositions in inquisitorial courts – is a key element in these histories.4

Perhaps these two recurring features, rather than their scale, are what give microhistories their distinctiveness.

But I think it is worth pushing further, because subjects and methods and even styles can only provide a rather ‘unhistorical’ definition of a historiographical genre. (Note: If you’re an undergrad looking for a straightforward definition of ‘microhistory’, you can stop reading now.)

Let’s start with politics. Nick mentioned that he associated this type of history with ‘the Lotta Continua 1971left’, a link that I hadn’t considered. I think he may be right: the ‘founder’ of the genre, Carlo Ginzburg, wrote a whole book deconstructing and critiquing the murder trial of an activist linked to the Italian leftist group, ‘Lotta Continua’.5 Similarly, the other ‘founder’, Giovanni Levi, has suggested that innovative historical methods can help to explain continuities between the present and the past that ‘neoliberalism’ tries to suppress. In fact Ginzburg and Levi both appear to take some of their inspiration from their Jewish identity and militant anti-fascist heritage. I’d welcome comments from any readers who know of additional (or contrary) examples, but what I think this ought to remind us is that even historiographical traditions that are not explicitly politicised still emerge from specific historical – and thus political – contexts. Microhistory is no exception.

The second issue is nomenclature. For, as Laura pointed out, if we want to find a definition we also need to ask a question: Who decides what is and isn’t ‘proper microhistory’? The power to name things is a very great power indeed, one traditionally reserved for deities and patriarchs.6 Part of the genius of Ginzburg and Levi was simply

Genesis 2:19-20 at the Brick Testament

Genesis 2:19-20 via The Brick Testament

their ability to come up with a concise, memorable term (microstoria) for what they were doing and to convince others to go along with it. This becomes clear when one realises that the word itself had already been used by an American historian, George R. Stewart in the title of one of his books more than a decade before the Italians took it up.7 Stewart may have coined the term, but it was only when Ginzburg and Levi turned it into a ‘brand’ that it became a widely acknowledged and widely imitated genre of history. It was then that it moved beyond the literal notion of a ‘small history’ to acquire all of these associations with specific types of subjects, methods and politics.

Here, at last, we have an explanation for why certain works of history which seem to fit the literal definition of ‘microhistory’ – such as E. P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (1975) or Wrightson and Levine’s Poverty and Piety (1979) – are rarely granted that label. Ultimately, it comes down to politics, power and a damn good marketing campaign.


1 Giovanni Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (1991). Thanks to Steve Hindle for drawing my attention to this.

2 For an excellent recent example of this approach (including some ‘microhistories’ and some not), see The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England: Essays in Celebration of the Work of Bernard Capp, edited by Garthine Walker and Angela McShane (2009). If you are interested in the connection between ‘microhistory’ and its ‘extraordinary’ antecedents in eighteenth and nineteenth-century ‘compilations of crimes, trials and other strange-but-true stories’, you might want to apply for a fully-funded PhD studentship on that topic at Ghent University in Belgium.

3 Steve Hindle, ‘Reducing the Scale of Historical Observation: Micro-history, Alltagsgeschichte, Local History’, at Huntington Library, Early Modern Studies Institute, ‘Past Tense’, 19 October 2012. There should be a podcast of this talk available soon at which point I will update with a link.

4 Levi, ‘On Microhistory’.

5 Carlo Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes and a Late-Twentieth-century Miscarriage of Justice (1999).

6 Genesis 2:19 – ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.’ See also this interesting recent post by Daniel Little on the nomenclature of ‘the human sciences’.

7 George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (1959).

Naming Names II

Mark Hailwood

Puritan names are of course the most well known for their originality – famously satirised by Ben Jonson in the character ‘Zeal-of-the-land Busy’ in Bartholomew Fair – but here is one I hadn’t encountered before: the seventeenth-century Yorkshire nonconformist and autobiographer Joseph Lister named his son ‘Accepted’.

If this seems a bit presumptuous, you might appreciate the cruel irony of the fact that Accepted had been partially disabled following a fall from a horse – hardly an encouraging sign of providential favour.

Naming Names

Mark Hailwood


As you can see from this quick sample of first names of Reading alehouse keepers, taken from a list compiled in 1622, originality was not a priority when it came to early modern naming practices. It always catches the eye then when a more unusual name crops up in the archives. A recent favourite of mine is another Reading alehouse keeper: Valentine Skeate sounds as though he could be from the pages of a Dickens novel.

Keeping your eyes peeled for interesting names can add a bit of light relief to archive grubbing, especially when you are working through rather dry list material. Feel free to share any of your own that you come across.

[Part II in the series is here]