The referendum has been framed as a rebuke of Britain's political establishment, its financial elite and its savants in the media, its think tanks and the academy. No matter the warnings of experts and the entreaties of politicians on the continent, a majority of Britons — mostly in smaller English towns — thought it necessary to upturn more than four decades of political integration with Europe and plunge their nation, and much of the world with it, into a profound state of uncertainty.
They feared a future where a globalized world seemed to be moving without them. And they resented the edicts of a foreign power seemingly beyond their control.
How this relates to the great uprising in England in 1381 is another matter. The Peasants' Revolt is perhaps the country's first major popular rebellion, and it remains a beloved historical parable, particularly of the left. A peasantry rose up against a new royal poll tax that was triple what had been levied the previous year on their meager income, and railed against their serfdom. And they caused mayhem.
It began as a fringe movement in the southeast of the country but picked up steam. Eventually, a band of Kentish rebels, led by a man of humble origins named Wat Tyler, had an audience with the teenage King Richard II outside London to demand an end to the tax and the instituting of reforms, including the end of the form of slavery to which many peasants were subject in feudal England. The meeting was not a success, and angry rebels entered the capital and, with the willing aid of many townspeople, opened up jails and set fire to the Savoy Palace, and killed those who were deemed agents of the crown.
In circumstances that remain controversial, Tyler was killed at a second meeting with Richard II. In the months that followed, the rebellion would be bloodily suppressed.
Court chroniclers at the time offered no sympathy to the rebels. Jean Froissart, a French-speaking scribe, blamed the cause of the upheaval on the relative prosperity of the peasants — in an earlier generation, the population of Britain had been ravaged by the Black Death, and therefore peasant labor, being scarcer, had much higher value.
"Never was any land or realm in such great danger as England at that time. It was because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived that this rebellion broke out," lamented Froissart. "The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise, saying, they were too severely oppressed; ... [that their lords] treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they laboured or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it."
The remaining rebels were dispersed, hunted down or executed over the following months. Although the uprising had failed, it laid down a marker as the first instance of widespread class warfare in English history.
Still, we're far away from Brexit here, a political event that would obviously be insensible to Wat Tyler and Richard II. It is offensive to imply that those in the "leave" camp are "peasants," although that does play into the narrative of ordinary Britons taking their country back that has been peddled by Brexit's proponents.
The picture is far more complicated than that. The referendum has led to the dethroning of Prime Minister David Cameron; his most likely successor is Boris Johnson, a conservative politician who campaigned aggressively for Britain to quit Brussels. Both Cameron and Johnson, as many have noted, attended the same posh school in their youth. Peasants, they most certainly are not.