Platonic history

Marc Bloch once wrote, “feudal Europe was not all feudalized in the same degree or according to the same rhythm and, above all, . . . it was nowhere feudalized completely” ( Feudal Society ). He added, “No doubt is it the fate of every system of human institutions never to be more than imperfectly realized.”

In a landmark 1974 article, Elizabeth Brown quipped that the last comment was said “with regret only a confirmed Platonist could harbor.”

Brown’s argument is that “feudalism” was not a medieval social “system,” much less an ideal to which medieval society somehow aspired but fell short. It’s a great point, amusingly stated, and Bloch’s Platonism is not limited to medievalists. How many studies are still haunted by a suppressed Whiggism that sees liberal democracy as the order of the eschaton?

But then one wonders what the alternative is. Surely historians want to say more than “This happened; then that” or “This is the way things were done then; after that, they were done differently.” Aren’t historical changes always measured by something ? Is some sort of “Platonism” inherent in every effort to discover historical meaning? Or, better, can historians ever escape theology?

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