Heretics of the Middle Ages?
The Saga of the Waldenses

The Waldenses have been regarded as "the most ancient and most evangelical of the medieval sects" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.). From their refuge in the Alpine valleys of Northern Italy, ministers (called barba) traveled throughout Europe. Most accounts trace the Waldenses to the preaching of Peter Waldo, a merchant from Lyon, in the 1100s. We are told that Waldo sought to reform the Roman Catholic church from within, and had few differences with Roman Catholic theology. He and his followers (Waldensians) were labeled heretics and excommunicated for preaching without permission.

Other early accounts, however, state that the name Waldenses (Vaudois, Valdes, Vallenses, Wallenses—valley dwellers) was derived from the valleys in Northern Italy where Christians fled during the persecutions of Diocletian (300ad). Many authors assert the attempt to link the origin of the Waldenses to Waldo was a fraud perpetrated by Catholic persecutors to deliberately obscure the antiquity of these people’s beliefs (see Some Remarks upon the Ecclesiastical History of the Ancient Churches of the Piedmont, Allix, 1689, chap. 7).

The challenge of reconstructing the history and doctrines of "heretics" is compounded because most surviving accounts are from Roman Catholic persecutors. Raynerus, an Inquisitor from the 1300s, stated that the heresy of the Vaudois "was of great antiquity… some say it has been continued down ever since the time of Pope Sylvestor [314–335ad], and others, ever since that of the Apostles" (Allix, pp. 176–178). According to Raynerus, the Vaudois had major differences with Roman Catholicism. He lists 33 beliefs that he considered "errors", including: their claim to be the true Church of Christ and the Apostles’ successors, their belief that the Roman Catholic church is the harlot of Revelation and their rejection of Roman Catholic feast days, purgatory, transubstantiation and prayers for the dead (Allix, p. 188). Accounts from the 1100s assert that the Waldenses (Vaudois) shared the same beliefs as Albigenses and Cathars. One account of Cathar beliefs states that they kept the Law of Moses, the Sabbath, circumcision and rejected the Trinity and the whole Roman Catholic church (Allix, p. 154). To provoke revulsion against them, opponents deliberately attributed bizarre doctrines to the Cathars.

A recent comprehensive study of the Waldenses describes different factions within the movement (see Waldenses—Rejection of the Holy Church in Medieval Europe, Cameron, 2000). During the Inquisition, those holding Roman Catholic sympathies (or seeking to save their lives) deserted the Waldenses "when the chance of papal rehabilitation and recognition beckoned" (Ibid., p. 68). Tradition holds that in the 1500s the Alpine Waldenses met with Geneva Protestants and merged, based on common convictions. Contemporary accounts, however, say that this occurred only after "much discussion." Recent research suggests that the "merger" may actually have been more of a "takeover, a suppression of old ways by new ones and of old preachers by new ministers" (Ibid., p. 7). Today the Waldensian church is part of the Protestant community—united with Methodists in Italy and Presbyterians in North Carolina.

— by Douglas S. Winnail, in the January-February, 2002 issue of Tomorrow’s World, page 17.  For a free subscription to this magazine, write:  Tomorrow’s World, PO Box 503077, San Diego, CA 92150-3077.

To order the book, Waldenses—Rejection of the Holy Church in Medieval Europe, by Euan Cameron, Hardcover - 288 pages (December 2000), Blackwell Publishers; ISBN: 063115339X, Click Here.