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Our knowledge of the medieval history of the Waldensians comes almost exclusively from the records of the Roman Catholic Church, the same body that condemned them as heretics and persecuted them fiercely.
The Waldensians are an ascetic movement within Christianity, reputedly founded in Lyon around 1173. (Lyon is the third-largest city and second-largest urban area of France.) This movement quickly spread to areas that today are part of France and Italy.
The Waldensians were characterized by lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict adherence to the Bible. They were critical of Catholic beliefs and spoke of the Catholic Church as the harlot of the Apocalypse.
The Catholic Church declared the Waldensians heretical. In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued the Bull of Extermination against the Waldensians, which enjoined all to destroy the Waldensians in any way possible, absolving all who perpetrate such crimes.
The Waldensians found the ideas of reformers similar to their own and quickly merged into the larger Protestant movement.
But the Waldensians were still fiercely persecuted, for example, the Massacre of Mérindol in 1545.
In 1655 the soldiers of the Duke of Savoy did not simply slaughter the Waldensian; they looted, raped, and tortured. This became known as the Piedmont Easter massacre, and was caused by constant pressure exerted by the Council of Propagation of the Faith and the Extermination of Heresy, an institution of the Roman Catholic Church; established in Turin in 1650.
In 1685, King Louis XIV of France started to purge his territory of Waldensians. French troops forced 8,000 to convert to Catholicism, killed about 2,000 Waldensians and incarcerated about 8,500 in several fortresses. The government confiscated Waldensian properties and the valleys were resettled by Catholic subjects.
Such persecutions continued intermittently until the French Revolution when the Waldenses were assured of liberty of conscience.
The Waldensian movement was characterized by lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict adherence to the Bible. They translated the New Testament into their own language. The French Bible, translated in 1535, was based in part on this Waldensian translation.
They rejected a number of beliefs that were widely held in Christian Europe of the era. For example, the Waldensians held that temporal offices were not meant for preachers of the Gospel, that relics were no different from any other bones and should not be regarded as special or holy, that pilgrimages served only to spend one’s money, that holy water was no more efficacious than rainwater, and that prayer was just as effectual if offered in a church or a barn. They scoffed at the doctrine of transubstantiation.
RESPONSE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
The Catholic Church excommunicated them in 1180 and forced them from Lyon. By 1215, the Catholic Church declared them heretical and subjected them to intense persecution.
In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued the Bull of Extermination against the Vaudois (Waldensians – see the book Israel of the Alps-chapter II), by which he enjoined all rulers of nations to take arms for their destruction. He summoned all Catholics to a crusade against them, absolved all who should take part in this crusade from all ecclesiastical penalties, legitimized their possession of goods which they might have stolen and promised the remission of all sins to everyone who should kill a heretic. Moreover, he annulled all contracts with the “Vaudois, commanded their domestics to abandon them, forbade anyone to give them any assistance, and authorized all and sundry to seize upon their goods.”
The Waldensians found the ideas of reformers similar to their own and quickly merged into the larger Protestant movement. In 1532, they formally became a part of the Calvinist tradition. Some Protestant scholars regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, similar to the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, who had maintained the apostolic faith in the face of Catholic oppression, and who were also persecuted for it.
The Massacre of Mérindol took place in 1545, when Francis I of France ordered the Waldensians of the village of Mérindol to be punished for dissident religious activities. Provençal and Papal soldiers killed hundreds or even thousands of Waldensian villagers.
In 1560, the Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy ordered all Protestants in his domain to revert to Catholicism. The Waldensians petitioned him, saying they had always stayed loyal to him and that their religion was the same as Jesus Christ originally taught.
The duke’s noblemen were Catholic while the Waldensians were peasants. Tensions between them rose and eventually escalated to violence from 4 April to 5 July 1560.
CHARLES EMMANUAL II
In the 17th century the Duke of Savoy attempted to exterminate the Waldensians. This led to the exodus and dispersion of the Waldensians to other parts of Europe. (Savoy is a region in Europe. It was annexed to France in 1792.)
The Savoyard–Waldensian Wars were a series of conflicts between the Waldensians and the Savoyard troops from 1655 to 1690 (The Savoyard state is a name used by historians to denote collectively all of the states ruled by the counts and dukes of Savoy.) The Savoyard–Waldensian Wars were largely persecution of the Waldensian Church, rather than a military conflict. The Waldensians were nearly annihilated. In summary:
In January 1655, Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or to move to the upper valleys of their homeland. Being in the midst of winter, the order was intended to persuade the Waldensians to become Catholics. However, the bulk of the populace abandoned their homes in the lower valleys. They “waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received.”
By mid-April 1655, the Duke sent troops into the upper valleys. The Duke’s forces did not simply slaughter the inhabitants. They are reported to have unleashed an unprovoked campaign of looting, rape, and torture. According to a report by a Peter Liegé:
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers and their heads dashed against the rocks. Mangled bodies were thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees and their hearts cut out. Others were buried alive. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first raped, then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die ( Wylie, J. A. (1996) . History of the Waldenses. Hartland. p. 132. ISBN 9780923309305).
This massacre became known as the Piedmont Easter.
Alexis Muston, a 19th-century French Protestant pastor based in Bordeaux, claimed in L’Israel des Alpes (Israel of the Alps – Paris 1852) that neither Duke Charles Emmanuel II of Savoy nor the Waldensians themselves had sought to wage war and that both parties were content to maintain the peace. These atrocities were committed due to the constant pressure exerted by the New Council of Propagation of the Faith and the Extermination of Heresy (Concilium Novum de Propaganda Fide et Extirpandis Haereticis), an institution of the Roman Catholic Church established in Turin in 1650.
KING LOUIS XIV
The 1598 Edict of Nantes guaranteed freedom of religion to the Protestant subjects in France. In 1685, King Louis XIV of France revoked this edict and started to purge his territory of Waldensians. French troops sent into the Waldensian areas forced 8,000 to convert to Catholicism through baptism and by placing children in Catholic homes. On 22 May about 2,000 Waldensians were killed in the fighting or massacred afterward. About 3,000 left for Germany. About 8,500 were incarcerated in several fortresses. The government confiscated Waldensian properties and the valleys were resettled by Catholic subjects.
On 3 January 1687, the released prisoners were granted permission to leave the country, but only 3,841 had survived by that time and only 2565 reached Geneva.
The Genevan Waldensian exiles formed a rebel army of about 900 men in the summer of 1689, with the objective of returning home and to retake possession of their valleys. This event is known as the “Glorious Return“. The Waldensians suffered many losses due to hardships during the journey. French troops blocked their way, but the Protestants defeated them and reached their valleys on 6 September. They plundered the farms of the new Catholic settlers and ambushed ducal patrols. The Glorious Return was a great success, despite the heavy casualties.
VICTOR AMADEUS II
But Louis XIV was determined to crush the Waldensians once and for all. He demanded Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II to cooperate. Victor Amadeus requested several times that the Waldensians would pack up and leave his domain again without being attacked, but this offer was refused.
Louis moved to finish the Waldensians off himself. However, on 28 May 1690 Victor Amadeus signed a truce with the Waldensians and made plans for a joint attack on the French invaders. Also, on 4 June, Victor Amadeus II recalled the Waldensians from abroad back home to Piedmont. The vast majority did indeed return to their valleys in northwestern Italy.
In this way, Duke Victor Amadeus effectively put an end to the Savoyard-Waldensian Wars, as the duchy once again tolerated the presence of Protestant subjects on its territory, and protected them against the French troops invading Piedmont.
But this was not to last long. On 29 June 1696, Savoy concluded a separate peace with France, which required that all Protestants be expelled from Savoy. In 1698, Victor Amadeus forced about 3,000 Protestants to leave the Waldensian valleys.
After the French Revolution, beginning in 1789, the Waldenses were assured of liberty of conscience.