Illustrations depicting Waldensians as witches in Le champion des dames, by Martin Le France, 1451.
Waldensian believers were identified by the Roman Catholic church hierarchy as heretics. A crusade was launched against them in 1487 in three principalities in the southwestern Alps: Dauphink, Savoy, and Piedmont. According to the most reliable sources for this crusade, about 160 Waldensians were killed.
References to Waldensians can be found in Western Europe from the 12th to the 16th century, when some became Calvinists. Their original resistance to Catholicism stemmed from their application, denied by the church, to preach. Episcopal license based on adequate training was necessary for either the monito, moral exhortation that could be practiced by members of religious orders, or in some cases, laypersons, or praedicato, dogmatic teaching reserved for ordained clergy.
In spite of a tradition that traces Waldensianism back to the early church, the movement seems to have started with a wealthy merchant in Lyon, Valdesius, in 1173. He heard a street preacher, who urged the value of voluntary poverty as a means of salvation, and after confirming the message with local clergy, he gave away his goods. His selfimposed mission was public: he gave away money on the street and talked to passersby about why he had done so. As a result, by 1177 he had founded a community of like-minded followers. They had portions of scripture translated from Latin into the vernacular, and began to recite verses publicly.
The merchant and his community attended the Third Lateran Council in 1179, where their lay “order” was approved, but they were instructed not to preach unless asked to do so by local clergy. They were again warned not to preach at the Council of Lyon in 1180-81 by the archbishop and the cardinal legate. The Waldensians refused to obey the hierarchy, instead claiming a higher duty imposed by God. As a result they were excommunicated and expelled from Lyon sometime between 1182 and 1184. At the Council of Verona in 1184 they were listed among heretics such as the Cathars. The canon condemning them specifically excommunicated all who preached publicly or privately without permission from the clergy.
The Waldensians were forced to emigrate, and became concentrated in Provence (southern France) and Lombardy (northern Italy), where they preached against the Cathars. In spite of Rome’s concern with the rise of Catharism in these regions, the Waldensian preaching of Catholic doctrine continued to be anathematized as disobedience, and disobedience as heresy. Some Waldensians did preach the Donatist heresy that the sinfulness of the priest disqualified him for office, but even here, the issue was one of authority rather than of theology.
Valdesius died in c.1205. Some of his followers were apparently converted back to orthodoxy by Bishop Diego of Osma, who had brought St. Dominic to southern France. He debated with the new sect in 1207 at Pamiers. Like the Cathars, the Waldensians became a focus for the Inquisition, which replaced the Albigensian Crusade as the papal response to heresy. In 1487-88 the inquisitorial process was followed by a crusade indulgence granted to those who hunted down Waldensian believers in the duchy of Savoy and the principalities of Piedmont and Dauphink. A disputed number of heretics were killed, others were captured and fined. Those who agreed to abjure their faith were readmitted to the Orthodox Church at a ceremony held before the cathedral at Embrun on 27 April 1488.
Penances of various kinds were imposed as a condition of absolution, including the wearing of a yellow cross sewn into the clothes. Some heretics were allowed to buy back confiscated land or pay to have the penance revoked. Money was also collected from Catholic individuals and communes which had sheltered the Waldensians. In 1507 the conduct of this crusade and the penalties imposed on the heretics came under review, first by a papal commission, and then by an ecclesiastical court at Paris. The Waldensian Alpine communities were represented by lawyers who were able to obtain a judgment in their favor in 1509.
Waldensians who fled the diocese of Embrun for southern Italy were persecuted by the Inquisition in 1560 as a result of having called in Protestant ministers. Soldiers were called in to arrest and execute Waldensians, about 84 of whom had their throats slit. Other marginally heretical groups who did not become targets of full-scale crusades include the Humiliati, Publicani, and Patarenes.