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?