1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Waldenses

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WALDENSES. The Waldensian valleys lie to the south-west of Turin, in the direction of Monte Viso, but include no high or snowy mountains, while the glens themselves are (with one or two exceptions) fertile and well wooded. The principal town near the valleys is Pinerolo (Pignerol). Just to its south-west there opens the chief Waldensian valley, the Val Pellice, watered by the stream of that name, but sometimes called inaccurately the Luserna valley, Luserna being simply a village opposite the capital, Torre Pellice; near Torre Pellice the side glens of Angrogna and Rora join the Pellice valley. To the north-west of Pinerolo. up the Chisone valley, there opens at Perosa Argentina the valley of St Martin, another important Waldensian valley, which is watered by the Germanasca torrent, and at Perrero splits into two branches, of which the Prali glen is far more fertile than that of Massello, the latter being the wildest and most savage of all the Waldensian valleys.

The name Waldenses was given to the members of an heretical Christian sect which arose in the south of France about 1170. The history of the sects of the middle ages is obscure, because the earliest accounts of them come from those who were concerned in their suppression, and were therefore eager to lay upon each of them the worst enormities which could be attributed to any. In later times the apologists of each sect reversed the process, and cleared that in which they were interested at the expense of others. In early times these sectaries produced little literature of their own; when they produced a literature at the beginning of the 15th century they attempted to claim for it a much earlier origin. Hence there is confusion on every side; it is difficult to distinguish between various sects and to determine their exact opinions or the circumstances under which they came into being. The polemical conception which has done much to perpetuate this confusion is that of the historical continuity of Protestantism from the earliest times. According to this view the church was pure and uncorrupt till the time of Constantine, when Pope Sylvester gained the first temporal possession for the papacy, and so began the system of a rich, powerful and worldly church, with Rome for its capital. Against this secularized church a body of witnesses silently protested; they were always persecuted but always survived, till in the 13th century a desperate attempt was made by Innocent III. to root them out from their stronghold in southern France. Persecution gave new vitality to their doctrines, which passed on to Wycliffe and Huss, and through these leaders produced the Reformation in Germany and England.

This view rests upon a series of suppositions, and is entirely unhistorical. So far as can be discovered the heretical sects of the middle ages rested upon a system of Manichaeism which was imported into Europe from the East (see Manichaeism). The Manichaean system of dualism, with its severe asceticism, and its individualism, which early passed into antinomianism, was attractive to many minds in the awakening of the 11th century. Its presence in Europe can be traced in Bulgaria soon after its conversion in 862,[1] where the struggle between the Eastern and Western churches for the new converts opened a way for the more hardy speculations of a system which had never entirely disappeared, and found a home amongst the Paulicians (q.v.) in Armenia. The name of Cathari (see Cathars) , taken by the adherents of this new teaching, sufficiently shows the Oriental origin of their opinions, which spread from Bulgaria amongst the Slavs, and followed the routes of commerce into central Europe. The earliest record of their presence there is the condemnation of ten canons of Orleans as Manichees in 1022, and soon after this we find complaints of the prevalence of heresy in northern Italy and in Germany. The strongholds of these heretical opinions were the great towns, the centres of civilization, because there the growing sentiment of municipal independence, and the rise of a burgher class through commerce, created a spirit of criticism which was dissatisfied with the worldly lives of the clergy and their undue influence in affairs.

The system of Catharism recognized two classes of adherents, credentes and perfecti. The perfecti only were admitted to its esoteric doctrines and to its superstitious practices. To the ordinary men it seemed to be a reforming agency, insisting on a high moral standard, and upholding the words of Scripture against the traditions of an overgrown and worldly church. Its popular aim and its rationalistic method made men overlook its real contents, which were not put clearly before them. It may be said generally that Catharism formed the abiding background of medieval heresy. Its dualistic system and its anti-social principles were known only to a few, but its anti-ecclesiastical organization formed a permanent nucleus round which gathered a great deal of political and ecclesiastical discontent. When this discontent took any independent form of expression, zeal, which was not always accompanied by discretion, brought the movement into collision with the ecclesiastical authorities, by whom it was condemned as heretical. When once it was in conflict with authority it was driven to strengthen its basis by a more pronounced hostility against the system of the church, and generally ended by borrowing something from Catharism. The result was that in the beginning of the 13th century there was a tendency to class all bodies of heretics together: partly their opinions had coalesced; partly they were assumed to be identical.

Most of these sects were stamped out before the period of the middle ages came to a close. The Waldenses, under their more modern name of the Vaudois, have survived to the present day in the valleys of Piedmont, and have been regarded as at once the most ancient and the most evangelical of the medieval sects. It is, however, by no means easy to determine their original tenets, as in the 13th and 14th centuries they were a body of obscure and unlettered peasants, hiding themselves in a corner, while in the 16th century they were absorbed into the general movement of the Reformation. As regards their antiquity, the attempts to claim for them an earlier origin than the end of the 12th century can no longer be sustained. They rested upon the supposed antiquity of a body of Waldensian literature, which modern criticism has shown to have been tampered with. The most important of these documents, a poem in Provençal, “La Nobla Leyczon,” contains two lines which claimed for it the date of 1100: —

Ben ha mil e cent anez compli entierament
Que fo scripta l' ora, car sen al derier temp.

But it was pointed out[2] that in the oldest MS. existing in the Cambridge university library the figure 4 had been imperfectly erased before the word “cent,” a discovery which harmonized with the results of a criticism of the contents of the poem itself. This discovery did away with the ingenious attempts to account for the name of Waldenses from some other source than from the historical founder of the sect, Peter Waldo or Valdez. To get rid of Waldo, whose date was known, the name Waldenses or Vallenses was derived from Vallis, because they dwelt in the valleys, or from a supposed Provençal word Vaudes, which meant a sorcerer.

Putting these views aside as unsubstantial, we will consider the relation of the Waldenses as they appear in actual history with the sects which preceded them. Already in the 9th century there were several protests against the rigidity and want of spirituality of a purely sacerdotal church. Thus Berengar of Tours (990-1088) upheld the symbolic character of the Eucharist and the superiority of the Bible over tradition. The Paterines in Milan (1045) raised a protest against simony and other abuses of the clergy, and Pope Gregory VII. did not hesitate to enlist their Puritanism on the side of the papacy and make them his allies in imposing clerical celibacy. In 1110 an apostate monk in Zeeland, Tanchelm, carried their views still farther, and asserted that the sacraments were only valid through the merits and sanctity of the ministers. In France, at Embrun, Peter de Bruys founded a sect known as Petrobrusians, who denied infant baptism, the need of consecrated churches, transubstantiation, [ 256 ] and masses for the dead. A follower of his, a monk, Henry, gave the name to another body known as Henricians, who centred in Tours. The teachers of these new opinions were men of high character and holy lives, who in spite of persecution wandered from place to place, and made many converts from those who were dissatisfied at the want of clerical discipline which followed upon the struggle for temporal supremacy into which the reforming projects of Gregory VII. had carried the church.

It was at this time (1170) that a rich merchant of Lyons, Peter Waldo, sold his goods and gave them to the poor; then he went forth as a preacher of voluntary poverty. His followers, the Waldenses, or poor men of Lyons, were moved by a religious feeling which could find no satisfaction within the actual system of the church, as they saw it before them. Like St Francis, Waldo adopted a life of poverty that he might be free to preach, but with this difference that the Waldenses preached the doctrine of Christ while the Franciscans preached the person of Christ, Waldo reformed teaching while Francis kindled love; hence the one awakened antagonisms which the other escaped. For Waldo had a translation of the New Testament made into Provençal, and his preachers not only stirred up men to more holy lives but explained the Scriptures at their will. Such an interference with the ecclesiastical authorities led to difficulties. Pope Alexander III., who had approved of the poverty of the Waldensians, prohibited them from preaching without the permission of the bishops (1179). Waldo answered that he must obey God rather than man. The result of this disobedience was excommunication by Lucius III. in 1184. Thus a reforming movement became heresy through disobedience to authority, and after being condemned embarked on a course of polemical investigation how to justify its own position. Some were readmitted into the Catholic Church, and one, Durandus de Osca (1210), attempted to found an order of Pauperes Catholici, which was the forerunner of the order of St Dominic. Many were swept away in the crusade against the Albigenses (q.v.). Others made an appeal to Innocent III., protesting their orthodoxy. Their appeal was not successful, for they were formally condemned by the Lateran council of 1215.

The earliest definite account given of the Waldensian opinion is that of the inquisitor Sacconi about 1250.[3] He divides them into two classes: those north of the Alps and those of Lombardy. The first class hold (1) that oaths are forbidden by the gospel, (2) that capital punishment is not allowed to the civil power, (3) that any layman may consecrate the sacrament of the altar, and (4) that the Roman Church is not the Church of Christ. The Lombard sect went farther in (3) and (4), holding that no one in mortal sin could consecrate the sacrament, and that the Roman Church was the scarlet woman of the Apocalypse, whose precepts ought not to be obeyed, especially those appointing fast-days. This account sufficiently shows the difference of the Waldenses from the Cathari: they were opposed to asceticism, and had no official priesthood; at the same time their objection to oaths and to capital punishment are closely related to the principles of the Cathari. Their other opinions were forced upon them by their conflict with the authority of the Church. When forbidden to preach without the permission of the bishop, they were driven to assert the right of all to preach, without distinction of age or sex. This led to the further step of setting up personal merit rather than ecclesiastical ordination as the ground of the priestly office. From this followed again the conclusion that obedience was not due to an unworthy priest, and that his ministrations were invalid.

These opinions were subversive of the system of the medieval church, and were naturally viewed with great disfavour by its officials; but it cannot fairly be said that they have much in common with the opinions of the Reformers of the 16th century. The medieval church set forth Christ as present in the orderly community of the faithful; Protestantism aimed at setting the individual in immediate communion with Christ, without the mechanical intervention of the officers of the community; the Waldenses merely set forward a new criterion of the orderly arrangement of the church, according to which each member was to sit in judgment on the works of the ministers, and consequently on the validity of their ministerial acts. It was a rude way of expressing a desire for a more spiritual community. The earliest known document proceeding from the Waldensians is an account of a conference held at Bergamo in 1218 between the Ultramontane and the Lombard divisions, in which the Lombards showed a greater opposition to the recognized priesthood than did their northern brethren.[4]

As these opinions became more pronounced persecution became more severe, and the breach between the Waldenses and the church widened. The Waldenses withdrew altogether from the ministrations of the church, and chose ministers for themselves whose merits were recognized by the body of the faithful. Election took the place of ordination, but even here the Lombards showed their difference from the Ultramontanes, and recognized only two orders, like the Cathari, while the northern body kept the old three orders of bishops, priests and deacons. Gradually the separation from the church became more complete: the sacraments were regarded as merely symbolical; the priests became helpers of the faithful; ceremonies disappeared; and a new religious society arose equally unlike the medieval church and the Protestantism of the 16th century.

The spread of these heretical sects led to resolute attempts at their suppression. The crusade against the Albigensians could destroy prosperous cities and hand over lands from a heedless lord to one who was obedient to the church; but it could not get rid of heresy. The revival of preaching, which was the work of the order of St Dominic, did more to combat heresy, especially where its persuasions were enforced by law. The work of inquisition into cases of heresy proceeded slowly in the hands of the bishops, who were too busy with other matters to find much time for sitting in judgment on theological points about which they were imperfectly informed. The greatest blow struck against heresy was the transference of the duty of inquiry into heresy from the bishops to Dominican inquisitors. The secular power, which shared in the proceeds of the confiscation of those who were found guilty of heresy, was ready to help in carrying out the judgments of the spiritual courts. Everywhere, and especially in the district round Toulouse, heretics were keenly prosecuted, and before the continued zeal of persecution the Waldenses slowly disappeared from the chief centres of population and tcok refuge in the retired valleys of the Alps. There, in the recesses of Piedmont, where the streams of the Pelice, the Angrogne, the Clusone and others cleave the sides of the Alps into valleys which converge at Susa, a settlement of the Waldensians was made who gave their name to these valleys of the Vaudois. In the more accessible regions north and south heresy was exposed to a steady process of persecution, and tended to assume shifting forms. Among the valleys it was less easily reached, and retained its old organization and its old contents. Little settlements of heretics dispersed throughout Italy and Provence looked to the valleys as a place of refuge, and tacitly regarded them as the centre of their faith. At times attempts were made to suppress the sect of the Vaudois, but the nature of the country which they inhabited, their obscurity and their isolation made the difficulties of their suppression greater than the advantages to be gained from it. However, in 1487 Innocent VIII. issued a bull for their extermination, and Alberto de' Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, put himself at the head of a crusade against them. Attacked in Dauphine and Piedmont at the same time, the Vaudois were hard pressed; but luckily their enemies were encircled by a fog when marching upon their chief refuge in the valley of the Angrogne, and were repulsed with great loss. After this Charles II., duke of Piedmont, interfered to save his territories from further confusion, and promised the Vaudois peace. They were, however, sorely reduced by the onslaught which had been made upon them, and lost their ancient spirit of independence. When the Lutheran movement began they were ready to sympathize with it, and ultimately to adapt their old [ 257 ] beliefs to those of the rising Protestantism. Already there were scattered bodies of Waldenses in Germany who had influenced, and afterwards joined, the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren.

The last step in the development of the Waldensian body was taken in 1530, when two deputies of the Vaudois in Dauphiné and Provence, Georges Morel and Pierre Masson, were sent to confer with the German and Swiss Reformers. A letter addressed to Oecolompadius[5] gives an account of their practices and beliefs at that time, and shows us a simple and unlettered community, which was the survival of an attempt to form an esoteric religious society within the medieval church. It would appear that its members received the sacraments of baptism and the holy communion from the regular priesthood, at all events sometimes, but maintained a discipline of their own and held services for their own edification. Their ministers were called barba, a Provençal word meaning guide. They were chosen from among labouring men, who at the age of twenty-five might ask the body of ministers to be admitted as candidates. If their character was approved they were taught during the winter months, when work was slack, for a space of three or four years; after that they were sent for two years to serve as menial assistants at a nunnery for women, which curiously enough existed in a recess of the valleys. Then they were admitted to office, after receiving the communion, by the imposition of hands of all ministers present. They went out to preach two by two, and the junior was bound absolutely to obey the senior. Clerical celibacy was their rule, but they admit that it created grave disorders. The ministers received food and clothing from the contributions of the people, but also worked with their hands; the result of this was that they were very ignorant, and also were grasping after bequests from the dying. The affairs of the church were managed by a general synod held every year. The duties of the barbas were to visit all within their district once a year, hear their confessions, advise and admonish them; in all services the two ministers sat side by side, and one spoke after the other. In point of doctrine they acknowledged the seven sacraments, but gave them a symbolical meaning; they prayed to the Virgin and saints, and admitted auricular confession, but they denied purgatory and the sacrifice of the mass, and did not observe fasts or festivals. After giving this account of themselves they ask for information about several points in a way which shows the exigencies of a rude and isolated society; and finally they say that they have been much disturbed by the Lutheran teaching about freewill and predestination, for they had held that men did good works through natural virtue stimulated by God's grace, and they thought of predestination in no other way than as a part of God's foreknowledge.

Oecolampadius gave them further instruction, especially emphasizing the wrongfulness of their outward submission to the ordinances of the church: “God,” he said, “is a jealous God, and does not permit His elect to put themselves under the yoke of Antichrist.” The result of this intercourse was an alliance between the Vaudois and the Swiss and German Reformers. A synod was held in 1532 at Chanforans in the valley of the Angrogne, where a new confession of faith was adopted, which recognized the doctrine of election, assimilated the practices of the Vaudois to those of the Swiss congregations, renounced for the future all recognition of the Roman communion, and established their own worship no longer as secret meetings of a faithful few but as public assemblies for the glory of God.

Thus the Vaudois ceased to be relics of the past, and became absorbed in the general movement of Protestantism. This was not, however, a source of quiet or security. In France and Italy alike they were marked out as special objects of persecution, and the Vaudois church has many records of martyrdom. The most severe trial to which the Vaudois of Piedmont were subjected occurred in 1655. The Congregation de Propaganda Fide established, in 1650, a local council in Turin, which exercised a powerful influence on Duke Charles Emmanuel II., who ordered that the Vaudois should be reduced within the limits of their ancient territory. Fanaticism took advantage of this order; and an army, composed partly of French troops of Louis XIV., partly of Irish soldiers who had fled before Cromwell, entered the Vaudois valleys and spread destruction on every side. They treated the people with horrible barbarity, so that the conscience of Europe was aroused, and England under Cromwell called on the Protestant powers to join in remonstrance to the duke of Savoy and the French king. The pen of Milton was employed for this purpose, and his famous sonnet is but the condensation of his state papers. Sir Samuel Morland was sent on a special mission to Turin, and to him were confided by the Vaudois leaders copies of their religious books, which he brought back to England, and ultimately gave to the university library at Cambridge. Large sums of money were contributed in England and elsewhere, and were sent to the suffering Vaudois.

By this demonstration of opinion peace was made for a time between the Vaudois and their persecutors; but it was a treacherous peace, and left the Vaudois with a hostile garrison established among them. Their worship was prohibited, and their chief pastor, Leger, was obliged to flee, and in his exile at Leiden wrote his Histoire générale des églises vaudoises (1684). The revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 began a new period of persecution, which aimed at entire extermination. This was found so difficult that the remnant of the Vaudois, to the number of 2600, were at last allowed to withdraw to Geneva. But the love of their native valleys was strong among the exiles, and in 1689 one of their pastors, Henri Arnaud, led a band of 800 men to the reconquest of their country. His first attempts against the French were successful; and the rupture between Victor Amadeus, duke of Savoy, and Louis XIV. brought a sudden change of fortune to the Vaudois. They were recognized once more as citizens of Savoy, and in the war against France which broke out in 1696 the Vaudois regiment did good service for its duke. The peace of Utrecht saw the greater part of the French territory occupied by the Vaudois annexed to Savoy, and, though there were frequent threatenings of persecution, the idea of toleration slowly prevailed in the policy of the house of Savoy. The Vaudois, who had undergone all these vicissitudes, were naturally reduced to poverty, and their ministers were partially maintained by a subsidy from England, which was granted by Queen Anne. The 18th century, however, was a time of religious decadence even among the Alpine valleys, and the outbreak of the French Revolution saw the Vaudois made subjects of France. This led to a loss of the English subsidy, and they applied to Napoleon for an equivalent. This was granted, and their church was organized by the state. On the restoration of the house of Savoy in 1816 English influence was used on behalf of the Vaudois, who received a limited toleration. From that time onwards the Vaudois became the objects of much interest in Protestant countries. Large sums of money were collected to build hospitals and churches among their valleys, and they were looked upon as the possible centre of a Protestant church in Italy. Especially from England did they receive sympathy and help. An English clergyman, Dr Gilly, visited the valleys in 1823, and by his writings on the Vaudois church attracted considerable attention, so that he was enabled to build a college at La Torre. Moreover, Dr Gilly's book (A Visit to the Valleys of Piedmont), chancing to fall into the hands of an officer who had lost his leg at Waterloo, Colonel Beckwith, suggested an object for the energies of one who was loth at the age of twenty-six to sink into enforced idleness. Beckwith visited the valleys, and was painfully struck by the squalor and ignorance of a people who had so glorious a past. He settled among them, and for thirty-five years devoted himself to promote their welfare. During this period he established no fewer than 120 schools; moreover he brought back the Italian language which had been displaced by the French in the services of the Vaudois church, and in 1849 built a church for them in Turin. He lived in La Torre till his death in 1862, and the name of the English benefactor is still revered by the simple folk of the valleys. (M. C.)

The parent church in the valleys is ecclesiastically governed by a court for internal affairs called the “Table,” after the old [ 258 ] stone table round which the ancient barbas used to sit, and a mission board, with an annual synod to which both the home and mission boards are subject. The total population of the Waldensian valleys (for they also contain Roman Catholics in no small number) amounts to about 20,000 all told. In 1900 there were 16 parishes, with 18 pasteurs and 22 temples, and also 2 Sunday schools (3017 children) and 194 day schools (with 4218 children); the full members (i.e. communicants) of the Waldensian faith amounted to 12,695. There were, besides, branches at Turin (1 temple, 2 pasteurs and 750 members), in other parts of Italy, including Sicily (46 temples and as many pasteurs, while the number of members was 5613, of day scholars 2704, and of Sunday school scholars 3707). It is also reckoned that in Uruguay and the Argentine Republic there are about 6000 Waldensians; of these 1253 were in 1900 full members, while the day scholars numbered 364 and the Sunday school children 670.

The literature on the subject of the Waldensian and other sects is copious. For their rise the most important authorities are to be found in Moneta, Adversus Catharos et Waldenses; D'Argentré, Cottectio judiciorum de novis erroribus; Alanus, Adversus haereticos; D'Achery, Spicilegia, vol. i.; Gretser, Opera, vol. x.; Limborch, Historia Inquisitionis, at the end of which is the Liber sententiarum of the Inquisition of Toulouse from 1307-1322. Of modern books may be mentioned Schmidt, Histoire des Cathares; Hahn, Geschichte der neumanichäischen Ketzer; Dieckhoff, Die Waldenser im Mittelalter; Preger, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Waldesier; Cantu, Gli Eretici in Italia; Comba, Storia della Riforma in Italia, and Histoire des Vaudois d'Italie; Tocco, L'Eresia nel media evo; Montet, Histoire littéraire des Vaudois; Lea, History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Amongst books dealing with the more modern history of the Vaudois specially are Léger, Histoire des églises vaudoises; Arnaud, Histoire de la rentrée des Vaudois; Perrin, Histoire des Vaudois; Monastier, Histoire de l'eglise vaudoise; Muston, L'Israel des Alpes; Gilly, Excursion to the Valleys of Piedmont, and Researches on the Waldensians; Todd, The Waldensian Manuscripts; Melia, Origin, Persecution and Doctrines of the Waldensians; Jules Chevalier, Mémoires sur les hérésies en Dauphiné avant le XVIe siècle, accompagnes de documents inédits sur les sorciers et les Vaudois (Valence, 1890); J. A. Chabrand, Vaudois et Protestants des Alpes: recherches historiques (Grenoble, 1886); H. Haupt, article in Von Sybel's Historische Zeitschrift (1889), pp. 39-68; W. A. B. Coolidge, articles in the Guardian for 18th August 1886 and 4th December 1889.


  1. Schmidt, Histoire des Cathares, i. 7.
  2. Bradshaw, in Transactions of Cambridge Antiquarian Society (1842). The text edited by Montet, 410 (1887).
  3. D'Argentré, Collectio judiciorum de novis erroribus, i. 50, &c.
  4. Preger, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Waldesier.
  5. Scultetus, Annales, ii. 294, &c.