The “poor of Christ”, the “poor of Lyon” or, simply, the “brothers” never called themselves “Waldenses” until they joined the Reformation. The derisive appellative was given to them by their persecutors, after the name of the man who consolidated the doctrine of the community.
It was the year 1173 when Peter Waldo, a rich merchant from Lyon, had a revelation of God’s character while studying Christ’s words to the rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
Deeply moved by what he read, Waldo provided for his wife and daughters and, armed with fragments of the New Testament translated at his own expense into the Provençal dialect, went out to preach across the country. Waldo’s vision was based on the literal interpretation of the Bible, a life of poverty and preaching, with the aim of restoring the Catholic Church to Christ’s standards. His dedication, contrasting with the opulence of the Catholic clergy, brought him a multitude of followers.
From schismatics to cursed
The Catholic authorities did not oppose the austerity oath of the Waldenses, but they did not tolerate their commitment to the preaching of the gospel. Driven out by the clergy, from region to region, the Waldenses made disciples wherever they arrived: in the south of France, in the north of Italy, in Burgundy, and in Lotharingia.
The “brothers” continued to preach even after they were excommunicated in 1184 for “schism”. The label of “schismatics”, and not that of “heretics”, was yet another proof that what had attracted the opprobrium of the clergy was the breach of the prohibition to preach and not the substance of their preaching.
After Waldo’s death (1202/1207), the movement received a severe blow from within. Durand de Huesca, one of the leaders, converted to Catholicism and began to write against the Cathars, a group spread in the same geographical areas as the Waldenses. Shortly after, in 1208, many Waldenses would be killed in a Catholic crusade against the Cathars. Ultimately, in 1215, in the Fourth Council of the Lateran, anathema was pronounced against the Waldenses.
The Inquisition and the Reformation
With the establishment of the Inquisition (1232), the Waldenses avoided preaching in the public gatherings of the upper classes and dispersed to the Alps, preaching secretly in caves or forests. Some historians believe that, in this period, the formation of the social classes of merchants and bankers also influenced the Waldenses to renounce the vow of poverty.
This explains why, in 1487, during the crusade against the Waldenses in Dauphiné, led by Cattaneo, the crusaders fought for the properties of the persecuted rather than for religious truth. Many of the Waldenses then fled to Provence (France), while some took refuge in southern Italy.
On the one hand, hounded by the Inquisition and, on the other hand, attracted by the eloquence of Calvinist preachers, the Waldenses joined the Reformation Movement in 1532. Historian Gabriel Audisio sees in this decision the end of the Waldensian movement, which abandoned strong elements of identity when it accepted Calvinist predestination, the preachers’ right to marriage and property, and renounced clandestine preaching, which the reformers considered hypocritical.
In 1558, under the influence of the Reformation, the “Poor of Christ” adopted the name “Waldenses” and were officially organised as a church.
The persecutions, the plague, and the massacre
Decimated by persecution (starting in 1540), then by the plague (1630), the Waldenses had to face the most ferocious episode in their history in Italy, in the Piemonte region. In April 1655, the Waldensian valleys were stormed by a large army of Italian and French soldiers.
Aware that they could not break the blockade erected by the Waldenses, the soldiers pretended that they came in peace. Relying on the security guarantee that the Italian Duke Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy had offered them, the Waldenses accommodated the soldiers without any worries. On Easter morning, the soldiers slaughtered their hosts. The atrocity of the massacre caused strong reactions in Europe. Oliver Cromwell, for instance, raised money for the survivors and threatened military action if the persecution of the Waldenses did not stop.
The glorious return
In 1685, a new wave of persecution fell on the Waldenses, who took refuge in Switzerland. Four years later, a group of 900 Waldensian refugees started the “glorious return” to Italy. The treacherous road through the Alps and hunger left only 300 people alive.
However, upon entering Italy they were me by French soldiers. Providentially, the fog prevented the attack and the fugitives escaped into the mountains. Just a few days later, Italy turned its arms against France, and the Waldenses were officially recalled to Italy to defend the border. After the end of the war, however, a new period of exile followed. It was only in 1848, with the issuance of the Edict of Emancipation, by Carlo Alberto, that the Waldenses were granted political and civil rights in Italy. In honour of that event, the 17th of February is still celebrated today by the Waldenses.
The Waldensian legacy
The Waldenses proved that pure adherence to the Word of God is strong enough to conquer the hotbed of corruption of our time. They also produced the first Bible translated into French. Their geographical expansion and survival, despite the persecutions and atrocities that followed them throughout history, are as important as the role of the proto-reformation movement the Waldenses had.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.