Exclusion or Inclusion? Disability and Community in Late Medieval France

I recently had the opportunity to leave my comfort zone a bit and attend a history of science lecture. Typically, the lectures that I attend are focused on current international events, so it was an exciting change of pace to attend an event focused more on history.

The talk I attended was given by Dr. Sasha Pfau, an associate professor from Hendrix College. I was not sure what exactly to expect from such a lecture, but I found myself quickly fascinated with Dr. Pfau’s research. Her study’s goal was to investigate the treatment of disability in Medieval France. Whenever I think about disability in the Middle Ages, I, like many people think of people locked away from society in mental institutions or shunned in leper colonies. During this talk, I was surprised to learn that this was often not the case.

Dr. Pfau found her evidence by pouring through thousands of pardon letters. These letters were written to the king of France by either convicted criminals or their families or friends requesting pardon. The king granted these pardons as a show of power; he was above the law, and excused people’s crimes in an attempt to flaunt it. Those seeking pardon worked with court scribes and paid a fee to write the letters, and if the king granted the pardon, they could pay extra to have it transcribed in the official books. These approved, transcribed pardons are all that survive, so today, we have no way of knowing how many pardons were approved or what an unapproved pardon looked like, but the letters give modern historians insight into ordinary life at the time.

Each letter included the story of the crime with a justification. It is these stories that Dr. Pfau was interested in; though the stories may have been embellished, they reflected plausible, normal events at the time. Thus, any treatment of disability that came up in the letters was likely indicative of how disability was regularly treated in those days. Dr. Pfau said that most letters did not contain any mention of disability; she had to read hundreds of letters to find what she was looking for. However, the letters she did come up with painted a picture of disability treatment that looks very different from my assumptions. From these letters, it is apparent that those living in late Medieval France included disabled people as members of society and practiced a great deal of familial care. Rather than casting the disabled out, they were brought into the fold and included as much as possible.

Her case studies varied from a disabled man who participated with his friends in a bar fight to a blind man who was killed by his wife for intentionally sabotaging her work. In each case, the disability was never the focus of the letter, but the reader could see that it was often treated very differently to what many have previously imagined. When the disabled were mistreated, it was due to their own negative actions, rather than their disabilities. Their families felt and upheld the responsibility to care for their disabled family members, and the disabled were as integrated into society as possible.

I was impressed with Dr. Pfau’s ability to make such a strong case for something so surprising to me, as well as her method of obtaining it. Before this talk, I had never heard of pardon letters, nor had I given much thought to the treatment of disability throughout history. The lecture was a fascinating reminder that often, dominant historical narratives are not accurate; they are shaped by biased historians choosing the version of history that they want to pass down. I learned some interesting things about Medieval France and had some of my preconceived notions of history shattered. It was a nice reminder that, while studying current events is immensely important, studying historical events can be equally so.

Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.


The Iran Nuclear Deal

Hello! It is difficult for me to believe that I’m now in my last semester at OU. As cheesy as it sounds, it really does seem like just yesterday that I was starting up this blog. I’m amazed at how much has happened in under four years – I’ve traveled to eight countries since then, had several awesome internships, developed passions I didn’t know that I had, and come up with a viable plan for my future. None of this means that I know what I’m doing yet, but I’ve had an amazing time finding my way.

Tonight, I had the immense pleasure of going to a talk by Dr. Trita Parsi at the Sam Noble Museum on the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve spoken before about how much I enjoy listening to experts discuss their fields, and tonight was no different. Dr. Parsi was eloquent, engaging, and extremely knowledgable, and I learned a great deal about the intricacies of the U.S.-Iran relationship over the last several decades. Dr. Parsi advised the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear talks and was also in conversations with Iranian officials. If anyone is an expert on this topic, it is this man.

He spoke of the historical roots of the relationship between Iran and the United States, and the complicated role that Israel played in the relationship. It was fascinating to hear about how things have changed over the years: in the 80s, Iran and Israel often worked together against common threats, such as Saddam Hussein and the USSR. However, in the early 90s, the USSR collapsed and the two countries became rivals. Iran refused to recognize Israel and the two countries no longer got along. The U.S. has gained and lost power of influence in the region over the years. As with all international disputes, the situation is complex with no clear solutions.

My two main takeaways from the talk are that effective diplomacy often requires creativity and that this creativity is often impossible without friends. During his time in office, President Obama imposed the harshest sanctions to date on Iran, crippling their economy for several years, in an attempt to get them to stop their nuclear program. These sanctions were only effective because Obama had international clout and got buy-in from many U.S. allies, who stopped buying Iranian oil. When Iran found ways to get around the sanctions, the U.S. then got creative, creating a secret channel to Iran through Oman in order to expedite nuclear talks.

Through this secret channel, American diplomats offered to let Iran keep a certain low number of centrifuges enriching uranium in exchange for their participation in the deal. The U.S. could not write down this offer for fear of upsetting its U.N. allies, who were still participating in the official nuclear talks, and Iran could not take a verbal agreement from the U.S. To get around this, the U.S. got the Sultan of Oman, a close ally to Iranian officials and to us, to personally deliver the offer. The Iranians could not refuse a personal offer from such a close friend lest they appear to be publicly distrusting an ally. Thus, the Iran nuclear deal was born. It would not have been possible without creativity and friends – unilaterally, the U.S. would have gotten nowhere.

In light of this, I am concerned with the U.S. government’s current treatment of diplomacy. An “America first” policy seems to serve only to alienate our closest allies. Additionally, many of our international embassies are currently without ambassadors. We appear to be ignoring attempts at diplomacy in a time when we need them the most; this talk proved that we NEED allies if we have any hope of solving our greatest international problems. During his talk, Dr. Parsi drew alarming parallels between talks with Iran over the last decade and the situation between the U.S. and North Korea now. If we are to look to our past and avoid the same mistakes, the government would do well to keep in mind that creative diplomacy and the curation of strong international friendships will likely be they key to an effective solution.

Learning Greek


A mosaic at Sepphoris I saw this summer

A couple years ago, I posted here about my experience learning German, the first foreign language I’ve ever seriously tried to learn. Even though I’m far from my goal of being fluent by the end of my college career, I’m still reviewing and learning, and I’m excited to be in a conversation class in the fall. I got so excited about German that I decided to start on a couple more languages – Latin and Greek – since I want to continue studying classics in grad school.

What is the difference between modern Greek and ancient Greek? Ancient Greek is much different from modern Greek. I’ve done a very small amount of research to learn just how different, and it seems like the difference between ancient and modern Greek, according to some website, is like the difference between English and Latin. Much more of a difference than I had thought. Some words are mutually intelligible – I can guess, for example, that the Latin rosa means “rose” – but other times I might guess incorrectly but have related meanings – I wouldn’t be able to simply guess that domus means “house” though I would recognize the derivative “domestic” or “domicile.” From what I gather, the relationship between ancient and modern Greek is similar. Modern Greek speakers can pick out words with varying degrees of difficulty.

Learning Greek is really interesting. It’s also one of the most difficult undertakings I’ve begun in college. First, there’s an entirely difficult alphabet. It’s not difficult to internalize, but it adds an extra layer of decoding to every exercise. Then, Greek, like Latin, is also an inflected language, and full of participles and dozens of forms of verbs that I still don’t recognize, even just after a single semester.

Even though ancient Greek is not a modern language, I still have taken some things away that remind me that language and culture tightly intertwined. I never that language has a profound effect on the way we think until I started learning different languages. “Shame” and “modesty” in Greek are the same word, and shame seems to have a positive connotation rather than negative. Groups of people are not “they” but rather “hes” or “shes” in a sense, and if a group is made up of a hundred females and a single male, the group is still a group of “hes.” Epicene nouns are nouns that have a masculine gender, but their articles can simply be changed to feminine to indicate that the thing in question is feminine. From these things, what are the implications about gender in Greek culture? I’m fascinated to think about things like this, and I’m learning to apply the same mode of thinking in examining modern American culture and other cultures I encounter.


Media as a Mirror

I have always strived to keep up with world news. It is important to me that I remain aware and ready to discuss recent and vital happenings. The media helps me do this. Over the years, I have pared down the multitude of sources big and small to only the ones I trust the most. Some of these have even been deemed "fake news" by a certain world leader, but I have found their mission and motivations to be relatively pure - the best news organizations have a mission of truth, to educate the populace on events with no distortion of that truth. And when they're wrong, they admit it.

As I said, I used these news sources to keep up with events abroad. While I was taking a course earlier this year on the events of the Arab Spring of 2011, I was able to read the news each day and connect the events of today with those of 6 years prior.

Since the end of last year, however, I have increasingly noticed those top headlines being more relevant to me than not. My friends from abroad would ask, How is everything over there since the election? Mass shootings, incendiary Tweets, seeming threats to "unalienable" rights, a mass reckoning for sexual harassers everywhere.

More and more, I have seen the lens on the world turned back in towards my own country. We're in every news cycle, always for a new (and usually worse) reason. The lens has turned into a mirror, reflecting back on myself and my surroundings.

I am forced to consider my role in society like never before. Each challenge brings up memories of times I have been witness to microagressions that contribute to the larger whole. How many times have I let a questionable joke slide? Forgotten about instances of gender discrimination without reporting them? Hoped something would get better without putting the work in myself?

Reading about other places helped me idealize my own home - because it didn't seem that bad. But things have to change. And I'll be here to help change them.

Three Perspectives on the Cold War

Often times in American history, we are taught to view historical events from a single perspective. However, it is important that we take into consideration various international standpoints as we analyze events such as the Cold War. For example, President Truman, Soviet Ambassador Novikov and Indian Prime Minister Nehru interpreted the Cold War and their roles in it completely differently. In order to fully grasp the Cold War and its extreme complexity, one must consider each of these men’s viewpoints.

For instance, According to President Harry Truman, The Cold War was the result of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union’s desire to spread communist values internationally. Up until the Russian Revolution there were only two prominent ways of organizing a society – monarchies and democracies. Many citizens across the globe were intrigued by the prospect of communism and the value that it placed on justice as opposed to the value of equality which was most important under the capitalist system. President Truman believed that the United States was obligated to protect fellow democracies – such as Greece and Turkey – from potential Communist insurgencies supported by the USSR. He proposed in the Truman Doctrine that this should be achieved through a system of containment which would allow communism to exist where it had already been established, but prevent its further expansion. President Truman states in his doctrine that, “No other nation is willing and able to provide the necessary support for democratic government[s].” He is not wrong about this, Europe was in a state of both political and economic unrest after WW2 concluded in 1945 and would not have been able to enter into a confrontation with such a powerful and economically independent nation as the Soviet Union. For this reason, President Truman believed that it was the United States’ duty to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities [Communist insurgents] or by outside pressures.” In this way, Truman deemed the United States as the world’s sole protector in the face of communism and felt an obligation to defend democracy – freedom.

In comparison, Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Novikov believed that the United States was using Europe’s instability and economic dependency as a way to subtly create an “American Monopoly Capital,” and subsequently achieve world domination. Ambassador Novikov believed that the United States significant military expansions and the establishment of a substantial peace time army directly following the conclusion of WW2 was evidence of this plan. His claim was not unreasonable, and the Soviet Union’s initial concern over the United States’ decision to not demobilize was not entirely unwarranted.  According to Ambassador Novikov it was due to this fear that the USSR created “broad plans for expansion [were] developed.” Following WW2, the Soviet Union was one of the only global powers apart from the United States to “continue to remain economically independent,” and for this reason the USSR felt that it was the only nation strong enough to stand up to the United States and prevent the United States’ post-war world domination. Ironically, both the United States and the Soviet Union felt that they were spreading positive values – that they were doing the right thing for the international community.

However, the events of the Cold War are possibly best explained by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who asserted that if the world was divided into two polarized sides, “the inevitable result would be war.” Prime Minister Nehru feared that if he were to submit to either of these sides – “communism” or “anti-communism” – he would lose his identity. He believed this because he did not fully agree with either side’s position; for this reasons, he chose to maintain a policy of nonalignment under which he claimed that India would not become involved in a war “unless we have to defend ourselves.” Prime Minister Nehru argued that for Asian and African states, who just recently earned their independence from the imperialist European powers, to submit to either the United States or the Soviet Union would be “to degrade [and] humiliate themselves.” So, as you can now see, each of these three men had drastically different perspectives on the motives behind the Cold War, and what their role in the war should be. These perspectives differed according to both nationality and ideology and they worked to dramatically influence the both the reality of the Cold War as well as the ultimate result of it.