The Waldensees

More numerous than the followers of Arnold of Brescia and more lasting as a fellowship were those who were known as the Waldensees or the Vaudois. The origin of the name is in debate. It is said to have been from the vaux or valleys or vallis densa, shaded valley, in which the Waldensees long persisted. It is also conjectured to have come from Peter Waldo, or Valdez.

Peter Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons, became impressed with the brevity and insecurity of life and went to a theologian to ask the way to heaven. In reply, he was given the injunction of Jesus to the rich young ruler: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor." Waldo proceeded resolutely (1176) to carry out the command. Paying his creditors and providing for his wife and children, he distributed the rest of his property among the poor and began begging his daily bread. He made a diligent study of the New Testament through a translation into his native tongue. Inspired by it, he undertook to imitate Christ. Garbed as Christ had commanded his apostles to be in their special missions during his lifetime, and, like them, taking no purse, he preached in city and countryside.

Peter Waldo soon attracted followers. They called themselves the "Poor in Spirit" or the "Poor Men of Lyons." Imitating him, they dressed as he did and went about preaching. So far they resembled the movement which Francis of Assisi was to inaugurate three decades or so later. When the Archbishop of Lyons forbade them to preach, Peter Waldo appealed to the Pope. The Pope at first looked favourably on their vow of poverty and gave them permission in dioceses where the bishops would allow them. Soon they found this restriction too hampering and disregarded it. They asked authorization of the Third Lateran Council (1179) but were denied it. Still they persisted and in 1184 the Pope excommunicated them. Believing that they ought to obey God rather than men, they continued to preach. Their numbers multiplied and they were joined by many of the Humiliati, who had arisen in and near Milan and in that same year (1184) had come under Papal prohibition.

In their tenets and practices the followers of Waldo continued to seek to conform to the New Testament. They memorized large portions of its vernacular translations. Following what they believed it commanded them, they went about two and two, preaching, simply clad, barefoot or wearing sandals, and subsisting on what was given them by those who listened to them. They refused to heed Pope or bishop and taught that the Church of Rome was not the head of the Catholic Church but was corrupt. They held that women and laymen could preach, that masses and prayers for the dead were without warrant, that purgatory is the troubles which come to us in this life, and that to be efficacious prayer need not be confined to churches. They criticized prayers in Latin on the ground that they were not understood by the people, and derided church music and the canonical hours. They declared that while priests and bishops who lived as had the apostles were to be obeyed, sacraments administered by unworthy priests were invalid and that a layman was as competent as a priest to hear confessions. They taught that every lie is a deadly sin, that oaths, even in law courts, are contrary to Christ's commands, and believed that all taking of human life is against God's law. They observed the Eucharist together and held that, if necessary, any layman might administer it. Their only forms of prayer were the "Our Fa ther" and grace at meals. They had their own clergy, with bishops, priests, and deacons, and a head of their fellowship.

The Poor Men of Lyons spread rapidly and widely and were soon to be found in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Bohemia, as well as in their native France. Internal conflicts developed, partly because Peter Waldo, the first head, was deemed arbitrary in his rule, and in 1210 many in the north of Italy withdrew. Other variations developed in organization and doctrine. Many continued to think of themselves as members of the Catholic Church.

Pope Innocent III sought to take advantage of their differences to win the Poor Men back to the Church. He encouraged (1208) the formation and spread of Pauperes Catholici ("Poor Catholics") who under ecclesiastical direction would follow such of the practices of the Waldensees as the Church could approve. By this means many who had been attracted by the Poor Men were held or won back.

For the most part the Waldensees were humble folk. Even their enemies described them as dressing simply, industrious, labouring with their hands, chaste, temperate in eating and drinking, refusing to frequent taverns and dances, sober and truthful in speech, avoiding anger, and regarding the accumulation of wealth as evil

Yet, branding them as heretics, the Catholic Church and the civil authorities sought to eliminate them, by persuasion if possible and if not by force. Such Waldensees as survived persecution sought refuge in the valleys of the Italian Alps, where we are to meet them again at the time of the Reformation.

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