In this article, we argue that the usual restriction of critical theory to ‘modern’ norms is subject to problems of coherence, historical accuracy and moral obligation. First, we illustrate how critical theory opposes itself to societies designated as pre-modern, through a summary of Honneth’s recognition theory. We then show how an over-emphasis on modernity’s normative novelty obscures counter-currents in ethical life that threaten the unity of the modern era. Those two steps prepare the main analysis: that the ‘exceptionalist’ modernism of critical theory distorts our view of history and ignores normative dimensions of the past. We show how medieval and early-modern societies in Europe experienced many conflicts and possessed institutions that create illuminating configurations with modern norms. As a result, we articulate several kinds of moral and political link to the past that should lead critical theorists to expand the historical reach of their analyses.