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(1) A member of a class of free men in ancient Rome.
(2) A member of the lowest and poorest stratum of the population in the cities of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Plebeians included impoverished guildsmen; unskilled workers and day laborers outside the guild system; vagrants, beggars, and other lumpen proletarians; and some journeymen. Plebeians became an especially important element in society as feudalism declined and capitalist relations arose. In this period the number of plebeians greatly increased and protoproletarian elements among plebeians began to play an ever-increasing role.
Owing to their heterogeneous social composition, the plebeians as a class behaved in various ways during social struggles. Although the lumpen-proletarian elements sometimes supported reactionary tendencies, the plebeians more often belonged to the left wing of popular movements. They were placed in an antagonistic position to the entire social system of the time by their total, or almost total, lack of property and by their difficult material circumstances. They were the main driving force in many of the urban revolts against the patriciate, the domination of the guild oligarchy, and burdensome taxation. Together with the poorest of the peasantry, the plebeians constituted the social base for movements that raised demands for egalitarian communism; these demands were put forth by leftwing Czech Taborites, the Anabaptists, and T. Münzer. The plebeians and peasants made up force that secured victory for the bourgeoisie in the early bourgeois revolutions.