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

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:

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

All things which are
necessary to salvation are contained in holy Scrip
and therefore nothing is to be admitted in religion, but only what
is com
manded in the
word of God.

There is one only
Mediator; the saints are in no wise to be made

mediators, or
to be invocated.

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

There be but two
sacraments, baptism and the communion.’

All masses, namely, such
as be sung for the dead, are wicked, and ought

to be abrogate.

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, super
fluous holidays, difference of meats, such variety of degrees and orders
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.

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.


communion under both kinds is godly and necessary, being or
and enjoined by Christ.


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.


The pope’s pardons and indulgences they reject.’


marriage of priests they hold to be godly, and also necessary in the


Such as hear the word of God, and have a
right faith,

to be

the right church of
Christ; and that to this church the keys of the church are

given to drive

and to institute true pastors of Christ, who should

preach the word and minister the

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
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

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.

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

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

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

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 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