The Waldensians   

[ Sources: History of Protestantism, Rev J A Wylie (1889) his references including Histoire General des Eglises Evangeliques des Vallees de Piedmont, ou Vaudoises. Jean Leger (1669); Israel of the Alps, Alexis Muston (1854); History of the Vaudois Church,  Antoine Monastier ( 1848). The Never Failing Light, Capt R M Stephens (1957).

The Waldensians are portrayed by some as having  originated with Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant in Lyons about 1173 AD,  who gave up his wealth and sought a simple life of poverty and austerity. Significantly he and his followers, known as "The Poor Men of Lyons"  preached in the common tongue. It is likely that Peter of Lyons was given the surname (not in use during the 12th century) to identify him as one who held the beliefs of the Waldenses. Others hold that they were called Valdenses, or Vaudes, or Vaudians before his time, from the valleys in which they dwelt (not to be confused with the Canton of Vaud in southern Switzerland). Earlier writers, before Waldo, in 1144 and 1160 referred to them as the men of the valleys (Valdenses). In the 11th century the French, lingua franca, used "vaudois" to mean a sorcerer ( Joan of Arc was charged with being a "vaudois" or sorceress). The Waldensian beliefs are summarised in a piece of prose entitled "The Noble Lesson" which emerged around 1100 AD.  Modern historians and linguists argue strongly that the language of the `Noble Lesson`, is in  a clearly identifiable dialect the Waldensians used. It did not suddenly appear in 1100AD but that it represents the culture of several centuries.  There is also evidence from the time of Ambrose ( Archbishop of Milan, 374-397 AD) and St. Jerome (340-420) that there were Alpine churches with beliefs very similar to the Waldenses of later times. The evidence therefore supports a much earlier origin than Peter Waldo.

It is of note that there was a Waldensian , Durand of Huesca in Arragon, who abjured his faith and obtained a licence to preach dated 16 December 1207 from Pope Innocent III. He and his followers were industrious in Arragon and Languedoc for some years. In time he began to revert to his old beliefs and was complained against by priests and bishops, and the sect seems to have disappeared. Yet others hold that persons (on the fringes) of Waldensian beliefs became in time the Anabaptists who were severely repressed and rejected by the Reformers by 1527 It is this association of labels, rather than proven facts, that led to the unjust use of the Waldensian name as a synonym for infamy and heresy by their opponents and widely used for just about any dissenter from the Church of Rome. The Taborites of Bohemia, however, were one of the sects whose beliefs were close to the Waldensians.  In the eyes of the Inquisition the fact that they all disagreed with the diktats of Rome meant they were all heretics anyway.

The true Waldensians became part of the Reformation by 1532, when they produced their Confession of Faith that was acceptable to the Reformers in Geneva.

Returning to Peter Waldo, preaching required official permission which he was unable to secure from the Bishop in Lyon. In 1179 he met with Pope Alexander III at the Third Council of the Lateran and asked for permission to preach. He was required to seek permission of the local priests; but he continued to preach without it and by the early 1180s he and his followers were excommunicated. Pursued as heretics they left Lyons and went to Lombardy and the Alpine chain in north western Italy that extends between Turin and Grenoble to the west known as the Cottian Alps. Here in the valleys of Piedmont region the Waldensians clung to the valleys, minded their own business and for a while prospered. Near neighbours were the sect known as the Albigenses (or Cathars) who were in the lower valleys of the Dauphine and Provence in south eastern France. Although separate in their theology,  the two sects represented a large group of dissenters who dared to differ from the Church of Rome, and thus were heretics to be pursued to extirpation.

  It is also evident that the Waldensians had a version of the New Testament  in the vernacular - the `Lingua Romana` or Romaunt tongue which was common in southern Europe between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. Copies were provided by Peter Waldo probably around 1180 AD and represents therefore, one of the first complete literal translation of the New Testament  for the common people. Half a dozen copies are  known to exist - one each in Lyons, Grenoble, Zurich, Dublin and two in Paris. This plain and importantly, portable, book was in  its day  widely available in the south of France, Lombardy and Piedmont.

The Waldensians held that:

1. Only the holy Scripture is to be believed in matters pertaining to salvation, and no man or man's writing besides.

II.      All things which are necessary to salvation are contained in holy Scripture; and therefore nothing is to be admitted in religion, but only what is commanded in the word of God.

III.   There is one only Mediator; the saints are in no wise to be made mediators, or to be invocated.

IV. There is no purgatory ; but all men are either through Christ justified to life eternal, or, not believing in him, go away to everlasting destruction and, besides these two, there is no third or fourth place.

V.   There be but two sacraments, baptism and the communion.'

VI.    All masses, namely, such as be sung for the dead, are wicked, and ought to be abrogate.

VII.     All human traditions ought to be rejected, at least not to be reputed as necessary to salvation ; and therefore this singing and chanting in the chancel is to be left off: constrained and prefixed fasts bound to days and times, superfluous holidays, difference of meats, such variety of degrees and orders of priests, monks, and nuns, so many sundry benedictions and hallowing of creatures, vows, pilgrimages, and all the rabblement of rites and ceremonies brought in by man, ought to be abolished.

VIII.      The asserted supremacy of the pope above all churches, and especially his usurped power above all governments, in other words the jurisdiction of both the swords, is to be utterly denied; neither are any degrees to be received in the church, but only the degrees of priests, deacons, and bishops.

IX.    The communion under both kinds is godly and necessary, being ordained and enjoined by Christ.

X.   The church of Rome is the very Babylon spoken of in the Apocalypse; and the pope is the fountain of all errors, and the very antichrist.

XI.    The pope's pardons and indulgences they reject.'

XII.     The marriage of priests they hold to be godly, and also necessary in the church.

XIII.      Such as hear the word of God, and have a right faith,  hold to be the right church of Christ; and that to this church the keys of the church are given to drive  wolves, and to institute true pastors of Christ, who should preach the word and minister the sacraments.

to the people this meant

There was no true pope since the time of Sylvester (313-335 AD);
that temporal offices  and dignities were not appropriate for preachers of the Gospel;
that the Pope`s pardons were a cheat;
that purgatory was a fable;
that relics were simply rotten bones which belonged to no one knew whom;
that to go on pilgrimages served no end save to empty one`s purse;
that flesh might be eaten any day if ones appetite served him;
that holy water was not a whit more efficacious than rain water;
that prayer in a barn was just as effectual as if offered in a church;

The Waldensians were also accused of scoffing at transubstantiation, and spoke blasphemously of Rome as the harlot of the Apocalypse. It is of note that the doctrine of  transubstantiation dates from 1215, a century after the `Noble Lesson`, and was not therefore referred to as being of any significance as later claimed by Rome and the Inquisition.

The `Church of the Alps`  also `Church of the Valleys` as it has been called, became well organised. The joining with the Reformers brought with it better structure and organisation. Waldo had devised two types of members - the `perfect ` who took monastic vows and became pastors, preachers and teachers. The second group were called `believers` Soon, however the monastic vows were dropped. Physically the region was divided into parishes each with a pastor ( called a barbe)  to preach and guide the  people. The pastor was assisted by a consistory of lay people; and an annual synod took place. One of the `barbe was elected  head of the community and called the majoral. No distinction was made between the barbe and the people, and between themselves the barbe only made a distinction of age. The arrangements bear the mark of the simple primitive church of the Scriptures that later showed itself in Calvin`s thoughts and the establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland. A feature of the church was the strong education of the young, who were often made to learn off by heart parts of the Gospels and the Epistles. A frequent task was to copy out much of the Gospels and add to the growing library of works in the common tongue. Many went on to university in Lombardy and the Sorbonne in Paris, where they would often gain new members.

 If it was intended to become a pastor it was normal practice for youths to spend three years in missionary work often going about disguised as pedlars and merchants. They did this in pairs, an elder (regidor) and the younger (coadiutor), often travelling as pedlars selling their wares and using the cover to disclose the "pearl so bright that by its virtue all men can come to the knowledge of God." Their preaching was necessarily clandestine and took place in the open air or in private houses. The spreading of the Word was also actively pursued in normal trade when other  merchants were recruited.


The early history of the Waldensians is rather patchy but exceedingly bloody after Innocent III approved the Dominican Order, created the Inquisition and ordered action against heretics. The main thrust of the Church of Rome at that time was aimed at the Albigenses (possibly named after the diocese of Albi in Languedoc where they had prospered for many years) who fled into the valleys. in 1275 the Inquisitor Reynerius charged the sects with a long list of alleged blasphemies and heresies that led to some one hundred thousand people of various denominations to perish under the hands of the Inquisition. Inevitably very many Waldensians were taken up it seems mainly for their money, and were able to secure their release on payment of huge fines. Some did not escape: the first Waldensian Martyr was a woman  who suffered burning at Pinerolo in 1297.

16C wood cut, perception of the Church of Rome.

 There was a steady ramping up of action against dissidents since the Council of Toulouse  (1119) when a general excommunication was made on the Albigenses. Later Councils in 1139 (Lateran General Council), 1163 ( Council of Tours), 1179 (Third Lateran Council )  all continued the pursuit. This policy  of extirpation continued for  the next four hundred years washed in the blood of hundreds of thousands  of Christians who dared to be different. Pope Innocent III was the most active in his persecutions at this time, the Lateran Council of 1215,  issuing an edict enjoining the `extirpation of all heretics.` Subsequent Popes sought to carry on the fight. John XXII in 1332 sent Inquisitors into the valleys of the Lucerna and Perosa where there were synods held  with some 500 representatives - indicating the large number of adherents there were. Fortunately, however, the zeal of the Popes was not always met with like enthusiasm by the lords and nobles who saw their best tenants and leading citizens being lost to them.

From 1378 - 1410 the `Great Schism` of the  Papacy ( three popes trying to decide which one was the true pope) gave some respite. But it did not prevent a disaster in the valley of Pragelas (Pragelato). Here on Christmas Eve  1386 the Inquisitor Borelli descended in force while a second band attacked  from the Col de Fenestrelle. Sandwiched between these forces the villagers were forced to flee.into the mountains and into a severe storm. The escape route was through a pass at over 9000 feet, but so many old people, mothers and children  could not make it. In the morning several hundred were found frozen to death, including at least fifty children, some lying on the ice, others locked in their dead mother`s arms.

The 15th century was one long series of bloody intervention by the Inquisition, intermingled by occasional visits by preachers seeking to use eloquence to convert their audience. In 1425 St Bernard of Siena tried the honeyed words approach but failed dismally. There was some resistance, said to be mainly by Cathars. In the town of Cuneo there was on average one martyrdom per year for twenty two years. This led to a local rising in which a priest died. The whole population of Angrogna were summoned before the Inquisitor in 1448 but his attempt at pacification and conversion were vehemently rejected . He slunk off leaving the people under an Interdict - a meaningless gesture to the Waldensians.

In 1487  Innocent VIII decided to purge the valleys as effectively as Innocent III had done  on the plains of Dauphine and Provence. He issued a wide reaching Bull largely about heretics who did not worship as he did - there were few actual charges specified. He appointed Albert Cataneo, Archdeacon of Cremona, his legate and counselled all Catholics to deal with the heretics. In this he offered considerable inducements absolving them of pains and penalties, legitimatised the ownership of property that they might have illegally acquired, remission of all sins if they killed a heretic. In a word, he gave carte blanche even though much of what he offered was not his to give. Many leapt at the offerings including the King of France and the Duke of Savoy, who by the summer of 1488 had gathered an army of 18,000 regular soldiers and several thousand ruffians, thieves and murderers intent of reward and pillage. These formed a two pronged attack, one by France through the valleys of the Alps of Dauphine  The second attack  led by Cataneo was into the valleys of Piedmont with the intention of meeting  in the middle in the Val di Angrogna.

Extirpation showed its face at its ugliest in the Vale of Loyse where the expedition under Lord La Palu  caused the populace to flee into the mountains. There they took refuge in an enormous cavern that was nigh impregnable from assault. However, La Palu cleverly had troops descend on ropes from above to secure the front entrance. He then chose not to enter and lose men, but packed the entrance with all available wood and set fire to it. The thick acrid smoke did its job with over 3000 dead, the total population of Loyse, and some 400 infants suffocated in their mother`s arms. The property of the deceased was shared out among the horde of followers and hangers on. Other valleys followed, including Pragelas which had suffered in the cold at Christmas 1386.

The other force under Cataneo refused to listen to representatives sent him, and decided that his forces would soon deal with the farmers and herdsmen facing him. In this he decided to split his forces into several small companies to attack simultaneously on a wide front. They had early victories as the populace fled at their approach and soon held all the Valley of Lucerna. They then sent a force of 700 to climb through the mountains ( a seriously daunting task at any time let alone carrying weapons) and attack  the Valley of Prali. There the entire 700, save one ensign, were killed by the Waldensians who did not flee as expected, but fought and overcame the troops undoubtedly tired from their climbing.

The Lucerna Valley was evacuated with a core of Waldensians deciding they must stand and fight; wisely they decided that they should do so on ground that was familiar to them. They therefore gathered up their families and trekked to the Pra del Torno at the head of the Val di Angrogna - towards Cataneo who was confident that victory was his.  Pra del Torno is the central point of the Valleys and entirely surrounded by high mountains- it was an excellent place of refuge. Here the Waldensians assembled on rising ground and were mainly armed with bows and arrows and home made armour of leather draped with bark from chestnut trees. Primitive as it was, it served to take the edge off sword and lance thrust. The Cataneo troops were forced to attack uphill and were at first successful with their bowmen cutting  a number of defenders down. At this some defenders fell on their knees and loudly  cried `God deliver us`, which was heard by advancing troops. Heartened by this apparent weakness,   a captain, Le Noir of Mondovi, boastfully shouted at the defenders and so doing lifted his visor - to be struck between they eyes by an arrow shot by a youth, Pierre Revel, from Angrogna. At this Cataneo`s troops faltered, the Waldensians rallied and near defeat was turned to victory.

Enraged at his defeat, Cataneo made a second effort to enter the Val di Angrogna and passed the scene of earlier defeat unchallenged. Above this point, called Roccomaneot, the valley narrowed sharply. In front of them lay - across the valley -  a steep unscalable mountain augmented by a man made wall known as the `Barricade` .The only way past it was  a very narrow twisting gorge with the foaming waters of the river at the bottom. The path through the gorge was on a narrow ledge and at best allowed only  two abreast. Nature`s trap was set. Meanwhile the Waldensians were keeping watch on local weather and in particular a cloud formation on the mountain summit. This grew rapidly and descended into the the gorge virtually blacking out the light so thick was the fog. This enabled the Waldensians to scramble from hiding and spread out on the mountainside from where they threw and rolled rocks down upon the stupified troops. Other Waldensians entered the end of the gorge and attacked with swords. Panic then set in and the troops were trampling over one another  with many falling underfoot, and swept away in the river and drowned.  Another victory was gained and the pattern set for guerrilla tactics to be deployed successfully. This lasted for the best part of a year in the valleys, until the most part of the 18,000 troops were gone. Peace was declared in 1489 and the Waldensians allowed by the Duke of Savoy to continue unmolested in their valley homes; but only for a short while as the priests and Inquisitors rallied for their more pernicious attacks.

A curious event incidental to the peace was that the Duke of Savoy asked to see Waldensian children as he had been told that they were born with one eye in the middle of the forehead, had rough teeth, and black throats. Such was the vicious slanders made by their opponents .

There was for a while a decaying piety as many of the Waldensians compromised with the priests in order to live peaceably. In practice they attended mass, the confessional had their children baptised by priests and overtly became papist. This was in order to obtain a pass from the priest to trade in local markets. Some also continued attending the pastor and the discipline of the church. In 1517 a visit was made by the newly appointed Archbishop of Turin, Seyssel, who made his arguements for conversion based on Biblical quotes. The response from the Waldensians was 

"We have no need of the Pope`s forgiveness, Christ is sufficient for us."

 In 1526 pastor Martin  Gonin from Lucerna ( executed by drowning in 1536 for heresy), and Guido of Calabria, returned from travels with the news of the Reformation having broken out in Switzerland, France and Germany. In September 1530 the churches in Provence and Dauphine made contact with John Oecolampadius and sought his approval of their discipline, doctrine, worship and manners, with the request that he advise of any defects or variances that required attention.  They then moved on to Strasbourg and met Bucer and Capito from whom they also received both welcome and advice. Oecolampadius wrote to them on 13 October 1530 rejoicing in their existence despite the war waged against them. True to form criticisms were offered and in particular to deal with the backsliders who had compromised, urging that the congregation be strong and reject the papist overtures. Inevitably the criticism of slippage in faith and conduct and the compromise with the priests caused some discomfort  to a minority standing on their dignity ( and possibly conscience stricken). The decision was made that a synod should consider the issues. The synod met at Chamforans in the Val di Angrogna on 12 September 1532. The comments and criticisms of the Reformers, represented by Farel, were discussed and a `Short Confession of Faith` produced that closely followed their original. From this point they were truly part of the Reformation.

A Brief Confession of Faith made by the Pastors and Heads of Families  of the Valleys of Piedmont is preserved in Cambridge University, and  consists of seventeen articles, the chief of which are:
the moral inability of man;
election to eternal life;
the will of God, as is made known in the Bible, the only rule of duty; and, the doctrine of two sacraments only -  baptism and the Lord`s Supper.

Another sign of the new life injected into the Waldesians was reflected in rebuilding of their churches which had fallen into decline in the previous fifty years; and an end to the dissimulations and compromise with the priests. There followed in 1535, a translation of the New Testament into French from the original Greek and Hebrew, and a decision to print  both Old and New Testaments. To this end the Waldensians contributed some 1,500 gold crowns, a large sum for a poor people. The translation was done by Robert Olivetan working at Pra del Toro  It took three years but the first printed bible was delivered to the second synod at Chamforans. By the end of the century over fifty copies had been printed.

The consequence of agreement with the Reformers was a decision to establish regular public worship. This required a change of practice by the worshippers themselves as well as the need to bring the still scarce Bible to their attention. Meanwhile the ministers were sent to Geneva for training, from which flowed a steady stream of pastors and teachers to all parts of Italy. It is estimated that in this period of peace there were some thirty pastors in the Valleys and Piedmonte, and almost forty thousand believers.

The peace lasted just twenty eight years before Charles III of Savoy, pressured by the Archbishop of Turin, gave permission to take action against the valley dwellers. This round of persecution was at the hands of a nobleman named Bersour who was repulsed in the valleys, but responsible for many deaths of those who resided near him at Pinerolo. Fortunately politics caused Charles III to call off the attacks as he was wary that the Waldensians (who controlled the valleys) might collaborate with the French who wanted access to Milan. This was also significant, and a sign of the times, that politics and sovereignty took precedence over placating Rome.

France under Francis I finally seized Piedmont and for twenty three years the Waldensians were left alone. In 1553 Emmanuel Philibert became ruler of Savoy and there were hopes that when Piedmont was returned following the Treaty of Cambresis , 3 April 1559, there would be toleration of religion. But this was not to be as the Catholic states - Spain, France and Savoy, had agreed to extirpate the reformed religion. In  13 February 1560 an edict was issued forbidding people from hearing the Protestant preachers in Lucerna under pain of fine of 100 gold dollars for the first, and the slave galleys for life for the second. Shortly it was followed by an edict commanding attendance of the mass with failure on pain of death. A copy of the Confession of Faith was sent to the Duke of Savoy and passed on to Pope Pius IV. He responded with the inevitable closed , dictatorial, mind of the papacy and the Church of Rome.

"I will never permit that points which have been canonically decided should be open to discussion. The dignity of the Church requires  that everyone should submit himself to her constitutions, disputing nothing."

Not content with mere disagreement of principles and the exercise of free will,  the warped mentality turned to murder by torture and burning. The Inquisition that followed was led by Philip of Savoy and Thomas Jacomel, the Inquisitor General. But even her the Inquisitors were almost shamed of their actions against a people who appeared to be good Christians, but they alleged that they blasphemed the pope and the Roman clergy. One Inquistor wrote:

"They may be recognised by their dress and conversation.

They are steady and modest, avoiding extremes in their dress, which is of material neither good nor inferior. They do not engage in business in order to avoid lying; swearing  and deceit. They live by manual labour; their leaders are weavers or cobblers; they are content with such things as they have.

They are chaste and sober, and do not frequent taverns nor dances. because they care not for such things. They are hard working yet find time to study and to teach. One may also recognise  them by their precise  and modest conversation. They avoid all evil speaking, jesting and idleness. They do not swear, or even say "really" or "certainly" as that to them  would amount to swearing."

One wonders how it is that people of such habits and persuasions could actually blaspheme; if one does not believe in the Pope as God`s representative on earth,  a charge of blasphemy or profanity has no grounds. Perhaps it reflects the nuance of Jesuit thinking that a criticism of a priest`s conduct was in their eyes slander, which equated with blasphemy, therefore they were heretics. Truth had nothing to do with it.

 It was the commencement of the most dreadful persecution with thousands of men, women, children, young and old alike, brutally slaughtered because they dared to disagree with the priests.

"There was not a town in Piedmonte in which some of our brethren have not been put to death.... the Waldensians were cut to pieces, flayed alive,  mutilated and left to die, impaled on lances, disembowelled and otherwise atrociously treated ."

 The murdering continued for over 130 years until in 1686 Catholicism was declared the only legal religion in Savoy. Once again it was the control of the valleys and politics that rejected the absolutism of Rome. This time it was Savoy deciding to join the coalition of Britain, Germany Holland and Spain against France. The price was toleration for Protestants in Savoy and the second settlement of the Valleys in 1690.  Even then Innocent XII declared (19 August 1694)  that the edict of the Duke was null and void and the pursuit of heretics should continue.

 It was not until 1761 that Savoy finally rejected the temporal authority of the Pope. It was not until the 19th century that revolution and more general freedom of religion  in Europe enabled the Waldensians to escape the  vindictiveness of Rome. As late as 1868 priests were still collecting bibles from homes and burning them. rather than let people read them. In 1919 the Vatican cooperated with the Fascist Dictator Mussolini and continued their oppressive and narrow minded ways. The Lateran Pacts signed in 1929 and the accompanying Concordat opened with the statement that Roman Catholicism was the sole religion of the state.  When Mussolini announced liberty of conscience, Pope Pius XI wrote to the government explicitly declaring  that absolute liberty of discussion on religious questions was inadmissible ..

"in a Catholic state liberty of conscience and discussion must be understood and practised  according to Catholic doctrine and law".

Herein lies the real reason that the Waldensians and so many others, suffered for their faith for centuries - the constant interference in civil government matters by the domineering Church.

Plus ca change, plus c`est la meme chose

A Waldensian Time Line


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