Faculty Highlight: Christopher Paolella’s Passion for History Enters the Classroom and Becomes Advocacy Outside of It

Thursday, May 27, 2021

By Claudia Zequeira

Christopher Paloella’s passion for history is as hard to hide, as the saying goes, as love, smoke and cough.

In the classroom, Christopher, professor, history, has particular ways of bringing episodes of the past to life. Over the last two years — which is how long he has been with Valencia College — Christopher, or Chris, as he is known among friends and colleagues, has brought replicas of medieval armor and gear into his classroom to teach specific historical periods.

Whether it’s a mail hauberk, a kind of shirt made of metal rings popular in Europe up to the 15th century, or 15th century Gothic plate armor, Chris likes to bring concrete examples of what life may have been like for a medieval warrior to modern-day students.

These physical objects, he says, have a way of connecting with them and are inspiring in ways that a lecture can never be.

“If I lecture about armor…it’s kind of vague, right?,” said Chris, who teaches ancient and medieval Western civilization as well as U.S. history. “But if I put you in the armor, I put a helmet on your head and you experience what it’s like to have your vision cut off except for a narrow slip and your breath cut off except for some breathing holes, and you feel what it feels like to have the weight on you, the restrictions in the movement … all of a sudden you’re having very similar experiences to what somebody in the 15th century would have had. And so, there’s this visceral connection to somebody centuries in the past.”

One of Chris’ students poses wearing various pieces of armor from different historical periods. The picture was taken in October 2019 after a lecture. 

Because physical replicas are not always easy to find, Chris also relies on images to show students armor from non-European cultures and places, such as Africa, India and Japan, or that worn by women. The idea, he said, is also to show cultures normally underrepresented in the traditional curriculum and to break pre-conceived notions about history.

Outside the classroom, Chris has another passion and area of expertise he shares with the Valencia College community at large as well as other entities: the history of human trafficking. The topic was something he based his doctoral dissertation on at the University of Missouri, which eventually became a book titled “Human Trafficking in Medieval Europe: Slavery, Sexual Exploitation, and Prostitution.”

“The drivers that sustain human trafficking today are similar to those of the past,” he said. “So, we’re talking about limited economic opportunities for women, poverty and male entitlement.”

But these hard-to-erase societal elements are not an inevitable fate.

By way of example, Chris mentioned the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who commissioned an official inquiry into human trafficking in the Byzantine Empire and issued edicts to suppress such activities in the 530s, and his wife, the empress Theodora, who herself grew up in the sex industry of Constantinople in the early sixth century and who embarked on her own fact-finding mission to end sexual slavery in the imperial capital and to address the uncertainty in the lives of survivors.

“Theodora was not a victim of human trafficking as far as we can tell, although she did work as an exotic dancer, and her sister and mother were also sex workers in the city,” he explained. “Also, Justinian’s Novella 14 is a major late-antique imperial edict that cites the commission’s findings as justifications for its numerous decrees.”

Both rulers managed to bring about societal change in the sixth century by enacting initiatives that relied on attacking the root causes of human trafficking and decreased the likelihood of young women falling into a life of sexual slavery, such as providing skills training for them.

Chris’ interest in the history of human trafficking is also a reason he has been asked to participate in several panels across the country, including the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Dallas, the Annual Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies at St. Louis University, and at the Slavery, Past Present and Future global conference in Berlin.

But it’s his ability to find commonality with today’s forms of human trafficking that have caused him to collaborate with government and non-profit groups eager to solve this modern-day problem.

In Missouri, Chris participated in a human trafficking taskforce created by the Attorney General’s office to conduct research and combat the practice. He also volunteered with the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition.

His participation, he said, was born out of the deep connection he developed with the people he started writing about academically.

“In history, we often write about the people carrying the sword,” he said. “I became concerned about the people at the other end of the sword.”

Chris recently participated in a Valencia College panel on the topic hosted by the Peace and Justice Institute (PJI) and will join another panel this coming June along with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation and others. His goal, he said, is to educate the public as much as possible on the issue, which is one not brought on by recent moral decay — as some political figures have attempted to portray it — but as one that has a long and storied past.

“You can publish books and articles and give lectures and classes, but you know, honestly, the only way that stuff really helps is if you get it out into the public,” he said.

Do you know a faculty member doing great work? Or, perhaps you’d like to share the work you’re doing? Send the colleague’s (or your) name to us at  The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu and include Faculty Highlight Nomination in the subject line of your email. We might just feature your colleague (or you) as an upcoming Faculty Highlight.


1 Comment

  • Karen Murray said:

    True active learning
    Brilliant and sad connections between history and present-day issues
    Admirable work!

    Kudos to Professor Paolella

    PMFri, 28 May 2021 15:49:03 +0000Fri, 28 May 2021 15:49:03 +0000pm21,3:49 pm

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