Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – The Waldenses, or Vaudois

Article

There has been much discussion of the origin and doctrines of the Waldenses. Most non-Catholics possess a traditionary idea of the sect, derived from their Puritan ancestors. During the Commonwealth in England certain Puritan ministers waited in a body on Cromwell to urge interference on behalf of the Waldenses of Piedmont, who were said to be suffering a cruel persecution for their faith under the Duke of Savoy. These ministers were instigated by one Jean Leger, a leader of the Waldenses, amongst whom Calvinism had been introduced not long before from Geneva. Leger pretended that the sect had been persevering in its doctrines since the time of Constantine the Great, when they withdrew from the Church in order to keep more closely to the primitive simplicity of the Gospel. Documents, since proved to have been altered for the purpose, were brought forward to establish these claims of the Waldenses.

These Waldenses of Piedmont had plotted with the Huguenots of France, and in 1535 had attacked Francis I’s army when it was operating in their vicinity. Still later they had murdered a parish priest and other Catholics. After the introduction of Calvinism amongst them the Waldenses were filled with a greater hatred of Catholicity and Catholic art than ever, and, like the Huguenots, wherever they dared they destroyed the Catholic churches and monuments. Like the Huguenots, they were almost always in alliance, open or secret, with the enemies of their country. In 1655 their sovereign, the Duke of Savoy, incensed by their repeated acts of turbulence and by their refusal to remain within the limits that had been assigned to them of old, marched against them, and, after a stubborn resistance on their part, reduced them to peace. It was these military operations of the duke which the English, as a political manoeuvre, distort ed into a massacre by Catholics of a simple-minded and God-fearing people, and this misrepresentation has kept its hold to this day among many well meaning people.

In spite of Leger’s claim for its great antiquity, the sect of the Waldenses goes no further back than the twelfth century. It is true that previous to that epoch there were sects, such as the Cathari, which denied the sufficiency or the authority of the Catholic priesthood and pretended to an exaggerated austerity of life. From the very time of Saint Paul a constant form of heresy has been an attempt to force people to be more virtuous than the law.

The tenth and eleventh centuries, before the heroic and holy Gregory VII began his work of reform, were the darkest period in the history of the Church, and were responsible for nauch of the abuses and scandals that prevailed for centuries after. Feudalism, in its rapid and yet strong growth among the still semi-barbarous people of Europe, had twined itself about nearly the whole exterior of the Church. By the system of homage and investiture many ecclesiastical offices, from bishop and abbot to curate, were turned into gifts at the bestowal of the emperor, king, or other feudal lord. The need of reform was felt, and new religious orders were founded to set an example to the clergy of purity and poverty of life, of complete self-denial for the love of God and mankind. But one of the worst results of scandals has always been the appearance of pseudo-reformers – men who, even if sincerely zealous for reform, sacrifice all else to the success of their own pet ideas of what that reform should be. Luther and Calvin and Knox in the sixteenth century had their forerunners in Arnold of Brescia, Peter of Vaud, John Wicklif, and John IIuss in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.

In Lyons there lived a rich merchant, a native of the neighboring village of Vaud, which in Latin was called Valdum. This Peter of Vaud (or Pierre Vaudois, Petrus Valdensis or Waldensis, and Peter Waldo, as he has variously been called) was of pious inclinations, and, having employed two priests to translate the Holy Scriptures into his native Provencal, after some years’ study determined to aim at religious perfection. A man fell suddenly dead in an assembly of the principal men of Lyons, and Peter was so terror-stricken at the sight that he sold all he had and gave the proceeds to the poor, to whom ho began to preach. This was somewhere about 1170. Peter gained many disciples, and at first, it is likely, his doctrine was not formally heretical; but, not being ordained, he was forbidden to preach. He defied the bishop, however, and he and his followers, after being condemned by Pope Lucius III in a council at Verona, were expelled from the diocese and found a refuge near the Italian border. Soon the Poor of Lyons, as Peter’s adherents were at first called, crossed over into certain remote valleys of Piedmont, where they have continued to live until the present day, now numbering about 20,000. Soon after its origin the sect gained a foothold in Bohemia also.

The Waldenses, having thrown off the authority of the Catholic hierarchy, instituted a ministry of their own. One of their tenets was that ordination is merely a license from the congregation of the faithful to preach, and that it nowise depends on episcopal transmission from the apostles. Another of their tenets was that the Holy Scriptures contain all that is necessary to salvation. So that in their fundamental principles the Waldenses did not differ from Protestants. It is a mistake to charge the Waldenses, as has been done, with holding the errors of the Gnostics or of the Manicheans – a mistake that lias arisen from confounding the Waldenses with the Albigenses. The Manichean heresy of the two opposing principles of Good and Evil, on its passage from Bulgaria and the East to the south of France, where it broke out among the Albigenses, undoubtedly gained votaries in those Piedmontese valleys which lay in its path, and which afterward became the refuge of the Waldenses. Yet, as a fact, the Waldenses, though occupying in Italy the territory once overrun by Manicheism, were not themselves tainted with that error.

The late Rev. Pius Melia, D.D., in a monograph on the Waldenses says that it is “beyond doubt that, before the time of Luther and Calvin, the Waldenses admitted all the books of the Bible and all the Seven Sacraments as the Catholic Church did and does now, and that they did not deny the Keal Presence of our Lord after the consecration of the bread and wine, and paid honor to the Virgin and the saints; and besides, from the doubts proposed in Germany by Morel and Masson, it seems clear that they approved of religious celibacy, auricular confession, vows of poverty, etc.”

MLA Citation

  • “The Waldenses, or Vaudois”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1884. CatholicSaints.Info. 7 January 2017. Web. 20 November 2017. <>