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The Waldensian Movement From Waldo to the Reformation

Dennis McCallum

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In the literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there appears the figure of an intriguing man who had an exceptional impact on the society of his day. He is referred to variously as Valdes, Valdesius, Valdensius and Waldo (Valdo), from the city of Lyons.

References to the movement he founded ("Waldensians" "the poor of Lyons" "the Leonese" "the Poor of Lombardy" or simply "the Poor") appear repeatedly throughout the succeeding centuries of European history. They are always in the shadows, always under bitter persecution, always hard to understand, but always seemingly at the cutting edge of reformation ferment.


The actions and views of Waldo are shrouded in shadow, because neither he, nor contemporaries in his movement ever chronicled their lives. No existing documents speak of the exact year of his birth, of his youth, or even of the very last years of his life.1 This problem is made worse by the fact that the Poor of Lyons themselves desired to establish an argument for their legitimacy based on antiquity.

In a day when there was only one legitimate church, the Poor of Lyons felt that they had to answer the charge that they must be heretics because they were new. Therefore, they developed an argument that they were the remnant of a movement that had been resisting the Roman Catholic Church since the time of Constantine's donation of the western empire to Pope Sylvester in the fourth Century AD. This claim depended on the spurious documentation for the donation of Constantine, which both Catholics and Waldensians believed to be authentic at the time but which is actually without historical support.2

This development would have been harmless enough, but unfortunately, some early Protestant historians, writing in the 1600's were also in the market for a claim to antiquity. They saw the Waldensians as the bridge between themselves and the Apostles.3 They were inclined to believe the legends of the Poor of Lyons, and unfortunately they had possession of the earliest authentic Waldensian manuscripts.

These documents were compiled with commentary in a history written by Perrin, pastor at Lyons in the year 1618.4 Perrin's history was commissioned by the Synod of Dauphiny (which included the now reformed Waldensian Churches).5 A few years later, in 1655, John Leger, a Waldensian pastor, compiled another collection of source material, which eventually wound up in the library of the University of Cambridge.6 Perrin and Leger attributed dates to the documents which were far too early. Some Waldensians documents were dated as early as 1100 AD, (at least 60 years before the movement began). Other documents from the reformation period were dated as coming from before the reformation. This had the effect of portraying the Waldensian movement as reformed in doctrine throughout their history, whereas in fact they were not reformed until after the reformation.7

In 1875, Alexis Muston published The Israel of the Alps, which, although critical of some of the earlier work, such as Perrin's,8 continued to accept the basic thesis that the Waldensians originated at the time of Sylvester. Almost every Protestant work done since the time of Muston in turn has depended on his work until recent times. In fact, studies carried out by denominations such as the Presbyterians as recently as 1912 have continued to follow this line.9 Catholic sources are no better. Melia is an example of a Roman Catholic author as recently as 1870 attempting to deny that religious persecution of the Waldensians occurred at all.10 In the same way that John Leger accepted exaggerated accounts of the persecution, Melia has accepted non-credible Roman Catholic accounts.

It is perhaps not surprising that study of the Waldensians has become unpopular among scholars because it is viewed as the province of biased ideologues. For these reasons, there are few contemporary histories of the Waldensian Movement that have scholarly credibility.11

Because of these developments, it is difficult for the average student of history to arrive at a clear picture of the chronology and development of the movement without careful comparison of contradictory material. Further, in this case one must not only compare different authors, but must also ascertain that they do not depend on each other.

All we have from the earliest period is a few fragmentary writings from letters, commentaries and poems which circulated within the group, and a larger body of contemporary material written by Roman Catholic clerics, all from a hostile point of view. Therefore, as with so many "heresies" of the medieval period, it is necessary for the student to read between the lines of detractors' comments to separate the facts of the situation from the polemical elements in the inquisitorial literature.


According to one report from an inquisition prosecution found in Church archives in Carcassonne, France, the movement known as the "Poor of Lyons" began in about 1170. The document goes on to state that Waldo himself had been a rich merchant who underwent a religious experience which led him to renounce all of his wealth, and ". . .observe a life of poverty and evangelical perfection, as the Apostles."12 This sort of commitment can hardly be considered unusual during this period of history. However, Waldo went further:

He arranged for the Gospels and some other books of the Bible to be translated in common speech . . . which he read very often, though without understanding their import. Infatuated with himself, he usurped the prerogatives of the Apostles by presuming to preach the Gospel in the streets, where he made many disciples, and involving them, both men and women, in a like presumption by sending them out, in turn, to preach.

These people, ignorant and illiterate, went about through the towns, entering houses and even churches, spreading many errors round about.13

Here the heart of what the Poor were all about as well as the crux of their dispute with the Roman Church is evident. Gui goes on later,

The principal heresy, then, of the aforesaid Waldensians was and still remains the contempt for ecclesiastical power. Excommunicated for this reason and delivered to Satan, they were precipitated into innumerable errors. . . The erring followers and sacrilegious masters of this sect hold and teach that they are not subject to the lord pope or Roman pontiff or to any prelates of the Roman Church. . ."14

The fact that Waldo and his followers rejected riches and lived an austere life was not objectionable to the hierarchy of the Roman Church. The same thing was being done by tens of thousands all over Europe. Neither do there seem to have been substantive doctrinal differences at first.

This last point is important, because the most intriguing aspect of the Poor is precisely that there was initially no important doctrinal difference. They saw themselves as Roman Catholics who were carrying the doctrines of Christianity further than their weaker brethren. They even sent a delegation to the third Lateran Council in 1179 to obtain Papal approval of their work. There they were examined by an English friar, Walter Mapes, who in 1184 was in Rome for the council. He recounts,

We saw Waldensian men in the Roman Council held by Pope Alexander the Third. They were simple and unlearned, and were thus called from the name of their founder, Valdo, who was a citizen of Lyons on the Rhone. They presented to the Pope a book written in the old Provencal language,15 in which there were texts and comments of the Psalms, and of many books of the Old and New Testament.16

Mapes questioned them at the council along the following lines,

Do you believe in God the Father? They answered, "We believe." And in God the Son? They answered "We believe" And in God the Holy Spirit? They answered, "We believe." And in the mother of Christ? They answered "We believe". . .

At this point the court broke out in laughter because according to Scholastic Theology, one could only use the formula "believe in" with reference to the Trinity. After this conversation, the delegation "withdrew, covered with disgrace," because they had fallen for a trick question.17 They were ordered to cease preaching, and obey their bishop.

It is easy to see from this incident that there was no serious issue of doctrine at stake. The Waldensian dispute then, centered on the issue of authority. It was the fact that they translated the scriptures, studied them, and "presumed" to preach what they believed, without reference to the clergy that was unacceptable.18 Melia declares,

. . .when John a Bellismanibus, Archbishop of Lyons, about the year 1182 . . .forbade them both to preach and . . .expelled them from his diocese; no mention was made of their holding any doctrine at variance with the teaching of the Church: they were simply expelled because, being laymen and illiterate, . . . they presumed, against the prohibition of their superiors, to preach, and exercise an office which was confided to the Apostles and to their successors only.19

They were arguing that they could draw insight directly from the pages of their translated Bibles rather than from the Roman Church.20 As one of our earliest sources, Alan of Lille put in his chapter entitled, "By what authority and for what reason it is shown that no one ought to preach unless he has permission from the Bishop,"

There are certain heretics. . .called Waldenses, after their heresiarch, who was named Waldus, who--led by his emotions, not sent by God--founded a new sect and presumed to preach without the authority of the Bishop, without divine inspiration, without knowledge, and without literacy. He was an irrational philosopher, a prophet without a vision, an apostle without a mission, a teacher without an instructor, and his foolish disciples have led the simple folk astray in many parts of the world. 21

The Historico-theological Milieu

Waldo was neither the first nor the only divergent voice raised inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church at this time and place. Europe was aflame with new religious movements reacting to such things as the struggle of the Papacy for supremacy, the corrupt practices of local clergy, and the currents of thought that were flowing into the area as a result of the Crusades.22 The Albigensians or the Cathari were the leading schizmatic group,23 but there were many other attacks as well. In 1140 the bishops of France wrote to the Pope that,

Everywhere in our cities and villages, not only in our schools but at the street corners, learned and ignorant, great and small, are discussing the gravest mysteries.24

In the history of this period we find reference to numerous heretical groups,

1. In 1259 the Flagellants appeared. By a kind of mass contagion men, women, and children bewailed their sins and many of them marched through the streets, naked except for loin cloths, crying to God for mercy, and scourging themselves until the blood ran.25 "They proclaimed complete certainty of salvation to all who should persevere in flagellation for thirty-three days. Scourging was the one necessary sacrament. They were condemned in 1349."26

2. The Beguines comprised a variety of lay groups which seem not to have been confined to any specific set of forms and to have displayed wide variety. Deanesly says they were, "the followers of Lambert le Begue, (the Stammerer). . . devout but unlettered lay people, who set great store on the use of vernacular scriptures. Lambert's followers were called from his surname, in Dutch, Beghards, (whence the English word "beggar") in Latin Beguini or Beguinae." She claims that the early Waldensians joined forces with groups of Beguinae.27

3. Tanchelm began to preach in the diocese of Utrecht and early in the twelfth century his views had fairly wide currency in the Low Countries and the Rhine Valley. He attacked the entire structure of the Catholic Church, denied the authority of the Church and of the Pope, and held that at least some of the sacraments were valueless.

4. Early in the twelfth century, Peter of Bruys, himself following a strictly ascetic way of life, rejected the baptism of infants, the Eucharist, church buildings, ecclesiastical ceremonies, prayers for the dead, and the veneration of the cross. The Petrobrusians re-baptized those who joined them, profaned churches, burned crosses, and overthrew altars.

5. Sometimes classed with Peter of Bruys, but perhaps mistakenly, was Henry of Lausanne. Like the former he preached in what is now France and in the first half of the twelfth century. Before his death in 1145 he is said to have attracted a wide following, called Henricians. He taught that the sacraments were valid only when administered by priests who led a life of asceticism and poverty. He condemned the clergy of the day for their love of wealth and power.28

6. The Adamists conducted their worship in the nude.29

7. Arnold of Brescia. . .was earnestly eager to see the Church conform fully to the Christian ideal. Believing that this could not be so long as its leaders compromised with the world, he attacked the bishops for their cupidity, dishonest gains, and frequent irregularity of life and urged that the clergy renounce all property and political and physical power. . .in 1155 he was hanged, his body was burned, and his ashes were thrown into the Tiber. . . .30

8. In Northern Italy, ". . .the "Pataria" had some years earlier grown up spontaneously in reaction to an increasing corrupt and politically oriented clergy." They were apparently the descendants of the Bogomils, who in turn grew out of the dualistic "Paulicians".31

In addition to these were numerous lesser movements, of which Latourette admits, "We shall probably never learn even the names of all of them."32

Even this short list demonstrates that there were questions being asked at this time, many of which are strikingly similar to those issues raised by the Poor of Lyons:

  • --the question of poverty and asceticism as a means of growth and/or salvation,
  • --questions about the role of ritual,
  • --activism of various sorts among the laity,
  • --questions about the integrity of the clergy.
  • --questions about interpretation and application of the Bible.33

It is likely that Waldo and his followers were influenced by some of these movements, although it is not clear how much. It would be too coincidental to see such common themes arising apart from any influence whatever. The fact is that there was a cultural and religious milieu shaping the thinking of this movement.

For example, we can place Lyonese poor nuclei in the same area of France as the Cathari, at a time when the Catharite revolution was at its height.34 Also, both southern France and northern Italy were hot-beds of dissident zeal during the very period of the rise of the Waldensians.

On the other hand, the Neo-Platonic and dualistic aspects of so many of these groups is not as evident in the teachings of the Waldensians during the earliest period. There is undoubtedly some platonic asceticism involved in Waldo' renunciation of wealth. Many of the new groups, including the mendicant orders of monks were renouncing all wealth at this time, and traveling around as beggars and preachers.35

It is important to realize that the reason they did so was not in order to relieve poverty through a more equitable distribution of goods, but because the suffering incurred from being poor was good for the soul. The material world was viewed with suspicion, and anything that served to separate one from it would bring him/her closer to the Spiritual world, that is, closer to God.36

Significantly, shortly after the time of Waldo, Boanaventure would argue that poverty had been Christ's pattern, carried on for some time by monks such as the Egyptian anchorites, "but poverty declined after the Donation of Constantine and was not revived until the thirteenth century with the foundation of religious mendicancy by Francis and Dominic." This view of history was identical to that held by the Waldensians.37

Tourn and others argue that this ascetic ideological base was not the case with the Waldensians. Their basis for renunciation of wealth was a literalistic application of Lk. 9:3-6, and Mk. 10:23-27, which are not ascetic. In other words, ". . .one might say that Waldensian piety was eschatological rather than dualist or ascetic."38

This may be partially true for another reason. We find no reference to the monastic literature anywhere in the early Waldensian literature. The Cistercian order, which had been organized around 1119 believed that,

. . .the rule (of St. Benedict) was not merely a guideline or a set of positive laws which can be dispensed, but rather a species of Divine Law, which like the Commandments of the Gospel, has to be interpreted, but cannot be changed or dispensed.39

This point of view, so typical of all of the orders at this time, is absent from early Waldensian thinking. They based their movement of the authority of the scriptures.40

Another distinction between the Waldensians and the monastic idealists at this time was the outward focus of the Poor of Lyons. They were not seeking primarily inner piety, but aggressive outreach to others.

". . .Waldo's case was different [than most poverty enthusiasts]. His vow did not lead him to a monastery and to a life of contemplation and obedience. He was an ordinary citizen among the poor and was determined to remain so. . .41

"For the Poor the bond of unity lay not in the sacraments but in their apostolic mission. Christian virtue, then