Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement

The excommunication of the Waldensians from the medieval Catholic Church for preaching heretical beliefs is considered one of the marks of the beginning of the Protestant movement in Europe.

Summary of Event

The first Waldensians advocated a return to the simple type of Christianity reflected in the Gospels, unencumbered with ecclesiastical organization or hierarchical structure. They named themselves possibly after Peter Waldo, Waldo, Peter a rich merchant of Lyons who in 1175 or 1176 decided to distribute his wealth to the poor and also established a lay order known as the Poor Men of Lyons Poor Men of Lyons . Other origins of the name Waldensians suggest Vaux, or valleys of Piedmont, where the sect flourished; or Peter of Vaux, a predecessor of Waldo. [kw]Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement (c. 1175)
[kw]Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement, Waldensian (c. 1175)
[kw]Protestant Movement, Waldensian Excommunications Usher in (c. 1175)
France;c. 1175: Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement[2060]
Italy;c. 1175: Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement[2060]
Europe (general);c. 1175: Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement[2060]
Religion;c. 1175: Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement[2060]
Social reform;c. 1175: Waldensian Excommunications Usher in Protestant Movement[2060]
Waldo, Peter
Peter II (1174-1213)

According to early accounts, Peter Waldo, after hearing of the Gospels, asked two priests to translate them into everyday language for him. He immersed himself in these translations and resolved to follow the teachings of Christ he found there in a literal fashion. He sold his property, gave the proceeds to the poor, and began begging in the streets. Soon he was joined by many of the uneducated and unlettered poor of Lyons. From this group of followers, the lay order of The Poor Men of Lyons was established. The requirements for admission to the order were “conversion,” accompanied by a turning away from worldly pursuits; divesting self of personal property and vocation, along with the dissolution of any existing marriage; and unquestioned submission to the superiors in the order. Training consisted of memorization of the entire New Testament and many of the writings of the saints.

At first Peter Waldo’s personal program consisted primarily of living a life of poverty, but as he became better acquainted with the Bible in the vernacular he began publicly to elucidate the Scriptures. In addition, his followers openly criticized the immorality of the clergy and their frequent indifference to Christian precepts. Although Waldo’s activities, and those of his followers, were not heretical, it was contrary to the Canon Law of the Church and established practice for lay persons to preach. At the Third Lateran Council Lateran Council, Third (1179)[Lateran Council 03] (1179), The Poor Men of Lyons sought and received authorization for their vow of poverty and were given permission to preach provided they received authorization from local Church authorities. When the Poor Men found it difficult to obtain such authorization—because they were found by the council to be unacquainted with even the most basic teachings of the Church—they ignored the council’s restriction by expounding the Scriptures openly in the towns. At the Council of Verona Verona, Council of (1184) in 1184, they were condemned along with the Albigensians and expelled from Lyons. They fled to Spain, Lombardy, the Rhineland, Bohemia, Hungary, and northern France; but as they went they came into contact with more radical heretical groups who influenced them into adopting more extreme unorthodox tenets.

As opposed to the Church, the Waldensians denied the existence of purgatory and denied the efficacy of indulgences and prayers for the dead. They held that private prayer (praying in a closet) is preferable to praying in a church. From the beginning, they especially stressed the need to make the Scriptures in the vernacular available to the laity—rather than to reserve them for the priesthood. Lying was considered an especially grievous sin, and they forbade the shedding of blood and the taking of oaths. In an age when society was bound together by a system of feudal oaths, this prohibition was considered deleterious to the social order. Furthermore, they condemned war and capital punishment. From preaching and expounding the Scriptures, it was an easy transition to hearing confessions, absolving sins, and assigning penances. At the Council of Verona Verona, Council of (1184) (1184), they were accused of refusing obedience to the clergy, usurping the right of preaching, and opposing the validity of masses for the dead. Although the Waldensians did not espouse any significant doctoral aberration, they opposed the entire sacerdotal system, declaring that the authority to exercise priestly functions was derived not from ordination but from individual merit and piety.

In Spain in 1194, an edict was issued allowing the confiscation of the property of all who gave food and shelter to the Waldensians. In 1197, Peter II Peter II (king of Aragon and Catalonia) amended this edict to include the burning of Waldensians wherever they were found. This edict was the first public document in which death by burning was prescribed as the state punishment for heresy. Heresy;death penalty for

By the early 1300’, the Waldensians were in such conflict with the Church that they had become a secret organization. They divided themselves into two classes, the “perfect” or perfecti, and the “believers” or credentes. Only the male descendants of the original believers—women were no longer admitted to the order—were eligible to become members. The celibate perfecti, having spent five or six years in study, were ordained as deacons and then required to spend as much as nine years more in theological study. They were bound by the vow of poverty, led an itinerant life of preaching, and, being exempt from manual labor, depended on the credentes for their support. The latter group continued to live in the world as others, even receiving the sacraments, except penance, administered by Waldensian bishops. The perfecti were further classified as bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops celebrated the Eucharist and administered penance and ordination, priests preached and heard confessions, and deacons received alms and administered the temporal affairs of the church. Bishops were elected at joint meetings of priests and deacons. One bishop, the rector, seems to have enjoyed supervision over the others, but the supreme governing power was vested in a council of all the perfecti.

After their condemnation by Pope Lucius III Lucius III at Verona, the Waldensians scattered. Waldo led a group into upper Italy, where the sect flourished in the Lombard climate of revolt and anticlericalism. As sporadic persecutions arose, however, they were gradually driven into the rugged valleys of the Piedmontese Alps. A dispute arose between the Italian and French factions in which the former, led by Waldo, rejected hierarchical organization, manual labor of the preachers, and moral requirements for one celebrating the Eucharist. The dispute reached such proportions that a majority of the sect repudiated Waldo’s leadership and followed his chief opponent, Joannes de Roncho. It appears that Waldo and the French group favored a reconciliation with Rome, whereas the Italians supported the idea of a separate organization consciously opposed to Rome.

Waldo left Piedmont and, according to tradition, traveled through Italy for some time and finally went to Bohemia, where he died in 1217. The dispute was resolved at the Council of Bergamo, Bergamo, Council of (1218) a city in Lombardy, in 1218, attended by delegates from several countries.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the center of Waldensianism shifted to Milan, where the chief bishop resided and a theological school was established. Each year during Lent, a council was held attended by delegates from every nation that had an organized Waldensian church.


Although harassed by numerous persecutions, the Waldensians persisted. In Bohemia, they paved the way for Jan Hus, Hus, Jan in Switzerland for Calvin, and in France, they eventually merged with the Calvinists in the seventeenth century. The Waldensian church is considered by some to be the oldest Protestant church in existence.

Further Reading

  • Biller, Peter. The Waldenses, 1170-1530: Between a Religious Order and a Church. Burlington, Vt.: Variorum, 2001. A study of the Waldensians focusing on their beliefs and institutions.
  • Clot, Alberto. “Waldenses.” In The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. 12. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1969. Detailed history of Waldensianism, describing its place in medieval Church history and its spread to other countries in both hemispheres. Includes an extensive annotated bibliography.
  • Coulton, G. G. Inquisition and Liberty. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959. Chapters 16 and 17 detail the methodology and history of the Church’s efforts to root out heresy.
  • Dossat, Y. “Waldenses.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. An article maintaining that contempt for the power of the Church was the basis of the heresy.
  • Leff, Gordon. “Waldensians.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 15. New York: Macmillan, 1987. An article setting out the historical chronology of the Waldensian movement, its belief system (biblical foundation and basic tenets), and its descent into heresy.
  • Shahar, Shulamith. Women in a Medieval Heretical Sect: Agnes and Huguette the Waldensians. Translated by Yael Lotan. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2001. A study that uses the story of two Waldensian women burned at the stake in 1319 to draw broader conclusions about the role of women within the sect.
  • Stephens, Prescot. The Waldensian Story: A Study in Faith, Intolerance, and Survival. Lewes, Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1998. An exploration of the trials and travails of Peter Waldo and his followers.