“The music keeps them quiet; there is no other way.”

Vox populi, vox dei: “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Reporters and pundits haul out this Latin proverb every election year. Some find it vindicating, others deploy it ironically, but I wonder how many people know where this notion came from.

In the mid-1800s, scholars thought the first writer to record this proverb was the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury. One Notes and Queries entry delightfully shortened it to “VPVD,” an abbreviation that suggests a lucrative market for motivational bracelets at political conventions four years hence.

My get-rich-quick schemes notwithstanding, VPVD is older than William of Malmesbury—and, like so much else worth knowing, it was first written down during the time of Charlemagne.

Flip through Ernst Dümmler, MGH, Epistolae Karolini Aevi II (Berlin, 1895), and on page 199, there it is, the ninth in a series of responses in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne:

VIIII. Populus iuxta sanctiones divinas ducendur est, non sequendus, et ad testimonium personae magis eliguntur honestae. Nec audiendi qui solent dicere: “Vox populi, vox Dei,” cum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.

The people must be led according to divine laws, not followed, and by the examples provided by more respectable people. Those who say “the voice of the people is the voice of God” should not be heeded, for the hubbub of the crowd is always rather close to madness.

Note that Alcuin isn’t endorsing this proverb; he’s decrying it.

As fond as I am of de-exoticizing the Middle Ages by pointing out the medieval-ness of many modern experiences (and vice-versa), I suspect most citizens of modern democracies agree that Alcuin was, as the contributor to Notes and Queries put it, “breathing the spirit of a different age.” Then again, whether or not you side with Alcuin on this proverb depends on whether your preferred candidate has prevailed—an opinion we all privately revise every four to eight years.

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