Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 30: The Waldensians and the Adepts of Voluntary Poverty


The Waldensian movement illustrates the opportunity lost by Rome in its struggles against the Cathars and the subversive effects of the urban pauperization that was exploited by the “apostolic” reformers. Few records exist that clarify the figure of the movement’s founder, a rich merchant from Lyon named Peter Waldo, Waldo or Valdes, perhaps de la Vallée [of the valley].

Legend has it that he received a warning from heaven while listening to the Lament of Saint Alexis. He made gifts of all his belongings in order to devote himself to voluntary poverty and evangelism, such as they were prescribed by the canonical text attributed to Matthew: “If you want to be perfect, sell your goods, give them to the poor.”

Around 1170, men and women assembled around Waldo and began to preach voluntary poverty in the strict context of Catholic orthodoxy, without any possible collusion with Catharism, with the pataria, who were explicitly anti-clerical, or a fortiori with the Henricians, Petrobrusians or “apostolics.”

The conflict began when the Archbishop [of Lyon] Guichard (1165-1181), guarding his privileges, prohibited the group from preaching. Waldo was summoned to the Pope. He went to Rome where the Pope, scalded by the radicalism of the Patarins, enjoined him to preach only upon the request of the clergy. This was done to support the Archbishop of Lyon. Waldo ignored him. He was excommunicated and chased from the town by Archbishop John of Canterbury, which was an error all the more unpardonable because, according to Thouzelier, at a regional synod held in Lyon in 1180, Waldo had signed a profession of faith in which he confirmed his devotion to Roman Catholicism.[1]


Between 1181 and 1184, there circulated a Liber antihaeresis that clearly opposed the true Christianity of the Waldensians to the non-Christian teachings of the Cathars. Nevertheless, the partisans of Waldo, summoned to Verona in 1184, were condemned as “pertinacious and schismatic”[2] by a scornful decree that identified them with other heretics. The repressive machine, thereafter set in motion, massacred them until the Seventeenth Century with the refinement of cruelty that tyrants [usually] reserved for their best friends. Thouzelier situates the death of Peter Waldo between 1206 and 1210; Gonnet between 1205 and 1206.[3]

The rapid expansion of the movement easily conquered Northern Italy, where Patarins and Cathars shared the loyalty of the population, which was unanimously hostile to the Roman clergy.

In 1205, Waldo probably assisted in the schism between the Italian and French branches of the movement. Preserving Waldo’s doctrine, Giovanni di Ronco led the “poor Lombards.” The group, sometimes known as the Roncolists, experienced other schisms. The “del Prato” group, formed in Milan, soon drew closer to Catholicism.

The traditionalist sect recommended manual labor and recognized private property. In its practice, if not in its doctrine, the Roncolists sometimes resembled popular Catharism. Italian Waldensianism soon rallied the support of the “humiliati,” a kind of Patarin group very active in the workers’ milieu, principally in the explicitly subversive class of the weavers. Innocent IV was clever enough to accord his support to these “honest workers.” During the Colloquy of Pamiers, which was united by the French Waldensians (sometimes called “Leonists”), the Roncolists’ organization and orthodox seal of approval influenced the schism of Durand of Huesca, who, after joining the party of Rome, founded the Order of the Poor Catholics and engaged in a crusade of apostolic virtue against the Cathars that, two years later, was followed by a more effective and better-armed crusade that was intended to propagate the truth in a peremptory fashion. (Note that the Opusculum contra haereticos has been attributed to Durand of Huesca’s companion, Ermangaud.)

The Waldensian community continues to exist today, despite secular persecutions. It formed a specific Church among the Protestant currents.

The rupture with the Church of Rome gave the Waldensian doctrine a more resolutely critical content. In the name of a practice that was in conformity with the morality of primitive Christianity, the Waldensians entered into the ranks of the reformers.

According to them, the Church of Rome became corrupt after Pope Sylvester [314-335]. They were indignant about the Cistercian philosopher Alain de Lille, for whom bad priests fulfilled their sacred roles perfectly, provided that they followed the rites. For Waldo’s disciples, the validity of the sacraments depended on the inward purity of the priest who administered them.

They rejected the baptism of infants for the same reason that the Henricians and the Petrobrusians did. They fought the sale of indulgences, founded penitence on personal contrition and only agreed to confess to men who were fundamentally good. They denied all significance to the Messiah and communion through bread and wine, that is, if it was not administered in commemoration of the Last Supper, the feast that united Jesus and his friends.

The Waldensians estimated, as Paul did in his Epistle to the Corinthians, that it was better to marry than to burn with concupiscent ardor and that, if there was to be a marriage, it should at least be founded on the mutual inclinations of the spouses.

Unlike the Cathars, the Waldensians recognized in women the same rights possessed by men. They denied the existence of purgatory and subscribed to the widely accepted opinion that hell existed on earth and that, in the conjuration of war, famine, misery, massacre and torture, it had no need of anywhere else to exercise its ravages.

The morals of the Waldensians were close to the customs of the Cathars, but without completely tipping over into misogyny and being horrified by sex. The Waldensians prohibited oaths, because they only had to answer to God. They condemned war and the practices of justice, and particularly fought against corporeal punishment and the death penalty. Nevertheless, the remarks made by the Waldensian Raymond-Roger, the Count of Foix, who justified to Bishop Jacques Fournier the [necessity of the] justice without which “there would be no peace and security among men,” suggested that triumphant Catharism or Waldensianism would have quickly accommodated themselves to the cruel penal repressions of the era.


While Waldensianism was ceaselessly born again from the pyres that were lit everywhere to annihilate it, and [managed to] spread to Provence, Languedoc and Italy, to reach Liege, Trier, Metz, Strasbourg, Mainz and the Rhineland, before touching Bavaria and Austria, pontifical power discovered in an adept of voluntary poverty the opportunity to recuperate under the Church’s control the enterprise prematurely begun by Peter Waldo. Exalting a virtue that he knew was fallible (forgiveness for falling to live up to it had to pass through the ecclesiastic market in redemption), Francis of Assisi (1182-1225) proposed a syncretic order in which orthodoxy would preside over vows of poverty and act in defense of the universal fraternity, including animals, which the Cathars refused to kill.

In 1209, Innocent III approved the rule of this order, in which men and women were active, as was the case among the Waldensians. It was a third order that was more particularly devoted to the lay people living in the world, nay, even the married people, and thus guaranteed a Catholic presence among the disinherited and “dangerous” classes in the urban milieus.

Engaged on the side of the Dominicans in the crusade against the Cathars – in which their leniency was intended to temper the rigor of the “brother preachers” – the Franciscans digested badly the Waldensian heresy that they had so hastily swallowed.

The observance of [voluntary] poverty very quickly created a divergence between the “Conventuals,” who maintained respect for pontifical decisions, and the “Spirituals,” whose scorn for terrestrial goods more and more opposed an ecclesial politics that was won over by the solicitations of mercantile development and the call to “Get Rich.”

In 1254, a Spiritual from Pisa named Gerardo di Borgo San Donnino was inspired by the millenarian theories of Joachim of Fiore and, in his Introduction to the Eternal Gospel, predicted the imminent disappearance of the Roman Church and the advent of a Spiritual Church, in gestation in Franciscanism. Gerardo died after eighteen years of severe incarceration, without having repudiated his convictions.

He found disciples in Peter-John Olivi (1248-1298), whose Postilla in apocalypsim announced the replacement of the Church of the flesh (Rome) by the Church of the Spirit, and in Ubertino of Casale (approximately 1259-1320), who preached in Perugia against the Pope and the monarchy, and who called the Church “Babylon, the great harlot who lost humanity and poisoned it, delivered it up to the pleasures of the flesh, pride and avarice.”

Forced into exile to escape from the resentment of Pope John XXII, who strove to decimate the party of the Spirituals, Ubertino of Casale – when he served as an Inquisitor in Tuscany, in the valley of Spoleto, and in the region of Ancona – still cracked down against the free spirit who seduced a dissident group within the Spirituals, that is say, the Fraticelli.[4]


In the diversity of forms taken by the doctrine of voluntary poverty, Begardism and the movement of the Pastoureaux [the shepherd boys] responded in an opposite manner to the social problems posed by the growing pauperization of the towns and countryside, but they shared a refusal of Waldensianism.

While the Beghards and Beguines rapidly distanced themselves from Catholicism, from which they initially emanated, and became devoted to the teachings of the Free Spirit, the crusade of the Pastoureaux – with its pillaging and anti-Semitism – was part of the tradition of the raids against Islam that the papacy had encouraged under the name “Crusades.” In a predictable return of [certain] enthusiasms, due to the failure and disarray of the Crusaders, the movement of the Pastoureaux turned the weapon of purification (previously aimed at the Muslims) against the priests and the “bad Christians.” Norman Cohn reports in The Pursuit of the Millennium:

“At Easter, 1251, three men began to preach the crusade in Picardy and within a few days their summons had spread to Brabant, Flanders and Hainaut – lands beyond the frontiers of the French kingdom, but where the masses were still as hungry for a messiah [...] One of these men was a renegade monk called Jacob, who was said to have come from Hungary and was known as the ‘Master of Hungary.’ He was a thin, pale, bearded ascetic of some sixty years of age, a man of commanding bearing and able to speak with great eloquence in French, German and Latin. He claimed that the Virgin Mary, surrounded by a host of angels, had appeared to him and had given him a letter – which he always carried in his hand, as Peter the Hermit is said to have carried a similar document. According to Jacob, the letter summoned all shepherds to help King Louis to free the Holy Sepulcher. God, he proclaimed, was displeased with the pride and ostentation of the French knights and had chosen the lowly to carry out his work. It was to shepherds that the glad tidings of the Nativity had first been made known and it was through shepherds that the Lord was now about to manifest his power and glory.

“Shepherds and cowherds – young men, boys and girls alike – deserted their flocks and, without taking leave of their parents, gathered under the strange banners on which the miraculous visitation of the Virgin was portrayed. Before long thieves, prostitutes, outlaws, apostate monks and murderers joined them; and these elements provided the leaders. But many of these newcomers too dressed as shepherds and all alike became known as the Pastoureaux. Soon there was an army which – though the contemporary estimate of 60,000 need not be taken seriously – must certainly have numbered many thousands. It was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, so as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for – as emerges from many different accounts – people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men.

“(...) Surrounded by an armed guard, Jacob preached against the clergy, attacking the Mendicants as hypocrites and vagabonds, the Cistercians as lovers of land and property, the Premonstratensians as proud and gluttonous, the Canons Regular as half-secular fast-breakers (...) His followers were taught to regard the sacraments with contempt and to see in their own gatherings the sole embodiment of truth. For himself he claimed that he could not only see visions but could heal the sick – and people brought their sick to be touched by him. He declared that food and wine set before his men never grew less, but rather increased as they were eaten and drunk (again the ‘messianic banquet’!) He promised that when the crusaders arrived at the sea the water would roll back before them and they would march dryshod to the Holy Land. On the strength of his miraculous powers he arrogated to himself the right to grant absolution from every kind of sin. If a man and a woman amongst his followers wished to marry he would perform the ceremony; and if they wished to part he would divorce them with equal ease. He was said to have married eleven men to one woman – an arrangement reminiscent of Tanchelm and which suggests that Jacob, too, saw himself as a ‘living Christ’ requiring ‘disciples’ and a ‘Virgin Mary.’ And Jacob’s bodyguard behaved exactly like Tanchelm’s. If anyone contradicted the leader he was at once struck down. The murder of a priest was regarded as particularly praiseworthy; according to Jacob it could be atoned for by a drink of wine. It is not surprising that the clergy watched the spread of this movement with horror.

“Jacob’s army went first to Amiens, where it met with an enthusiastic reception. The burghers put their food and drink at the disposal of the crusaders, calling them the holiest of men. Jacob made such a favorable impression that they begged him to help himself to their belongings. Some knelt down before him ‘as though he had been the Body of Christ.’ After Amiens the army split up into two groups. One of these marched on Rouen, where it was able to disperse a synod which was meeting there under the Archbishop. The other group proceeded to Paris. There Jacob so fascinated the Queen Mother Blanche that she loaded him with presents and left him free to do whatever he would. Jacob now dressed as a bishop, preached in churches, sprinkled holy water after some rite of his own. Meanwhile, while the Pastoureaux in the city began to attack the clergy, putting many to the sword and drowning many in the Seine. The students of the University – who of course were also clerics, though in minor orders – would have been massacred if the bridge had not been closed in time.

“When the Pastoureaux left Paris they moved in a number of bands, each under the leadership of a ‘Master,’ who, as they passed through towns and villages, blessed the crowds. At Tours the crusaders again attacked the clergy, especially Dominican and Franciscan friars, whom they dragged and whipped through the streets. The Dominicans’ church was looted, the Franciscan friary was attacked and broken into. The old contempt for sacraments administered by unworthy hands showed itself: the host was seized and, amidst insults, thrown into the street. All this was done with the approval and support of the populace. At Orleans similar scenes occurred. Here the Bishop had the gates closed against the oncoming horde, but the burghers deliberately disobeyed him and admitted the Pastoureaux into the town. Jacob preached in public, and a scholar from the cathedral school who dared to oppose him was struck down with an axe. The Pastoureaux rushed to the houses where the priests and monks had hidden themselves, stormed them and burned many to the ground. Many clergy, including teachers at the University, and many burghers were struck down or drowned in the Loire. The remaining clergy were forced out of the town. When the Pastoureaux left the town the Bishop, enraged at the reception that had been accorded them, put Orleans under interdict. It was indeed the opinion of contemporaries that the Pastoureaux owed their prestige very largely to their habit of killing and despoiling priests. When the clergy tried to protest or resist they found no support amongst the populace. It is understandable that some clerics, observing the activities of the Pastoureaux, felt that the Church had never been in greater danger.

“At Bourges the fortunes of the Pastoureaux began to change. Here too the burghers, disobeying their Archbishop, admitted as many of the horde as the town could hold; the rest remaining encamped outside. Jacob preached this time against the Jews and sent his men to destroy the Sacred Rolls. The crusaders also pillaged houses throughout the town, taking gold and silver where they found it and raping any woman they could lay hands on. If the clergy were not molested it was only because they remained in hiding. By this time the Queen Mother had realised what sort of movement this was and had outlawed all those taking part in it. When this news reached Bourges many Pastoureaux deserted. At length, one day when Jacob was thundering against the laxity of the clergy and calling upon the townsfolk to turn against them, someone in the crowd dared to contradict him. Jacob rushed at the man with a sword and killed him; but this was too much for the burghers, who in their turn took up arms and chased the unruly visitors from the town.

“Now it was the turn of the Pastoureaux to suffer violence. Jacob was pursued by mounted burghers and cut to pieces. Many of his followers were captured by the royal officials at Bourges and hanged. Bands of survivors made their way to Marseilles and to Aigues Mortes, where they hoped to embark for the Holy Land; but both towns had received warnings from Bourges and the Pastoureaux were caught and hanged. A final band reached Bordeaux but only to be met there by English forces under the Governor of Gascony, Simon de Montfort, and dispersed. Their leaders, attempting to embark for the East, were recognised by some sailors and drowned. One of his lieutenants fled to England and having landed at Shoreham collected a following of some hundreds of peasants and shepherds. When the news of these happenings reached King Henry III he was sufficiently alarmed to issue instructions for the suppression of the movement to sheriffs throughout the kingdom. But very soon the whole movement disintegrated, even the apostle at Shoreham was torn to pieces by his own followers. Once everything was over rumours sprang up on all sides. It was said that the movement had been a plot of the Sultan’s, who had paid Jacob to bring him Christian men and youths as slaves. Jacob and other leaders were said to have been Mahometans who had won ascendancy over Christians by means of black magic. But there were also those who believed that at the time of its suppression the movement of the Pastoureaux had broached only the first part of its program. These people said that the leaders of the Pastoureaux had intended to massacre first all priests and monks, then all knights and nobles; and when all authority had been overthrown, to spread their teaching throughout the world.”

Less than a century later, the fear and resentment aroused by these people who were disinherited by the Crusades (whom Jacob and his Pastoureaux in their rage and vindictiveness truly were) secretly fed the hatred that fell upon other inheritors of the Crusades, but this time it was the privileged factions, the bankers of the French state who were burned by their defaulted creditors in front of Notre-Dame in Paris in 1314. Characterized as heretics and sorcerers, the Templars joined in the same inferno the humble people and the powerful people who had served a power that no longer perceived the utility of their services and opportunely disencumbered itself of the witnesses of its turpitude.


[1] Thouzelier, Catharisme et Valdéisme en Languedoc, 1966.

[2] Translator: Publio Elvio Pertinace was proclaimed the Emperor of Rome the morning after the murder of Commodus in the year 192.

[3] Thouzelier, op. cit. [Translator: the entry for Peter Waldo in Wikipedia places his death circa 1218.]

[4] Translator: note well that, though it is not mentioned in the English or French versions of Wikipedia, this assertion is confirmed by the Italian version of that online encyclopedia: “In quegli anni Ubertino fu anche inquisitore, e in questa veste nel 1307 condannò per eresia frate Bentivenga da Gubbio, capofila della corrente italiana dei Fratelli del Libero Spirito.”

[5] N. Cohn, Les Fanatiques de l’Apocalypse, pp. 98-102. [Translator: Vaneigem refers to the French translation of Norman Cohn’s In Pursuit of the Millennium. Rather than translate Cohn back into English, we have directly quoted from the original, pages 82-87. All ellipses in conformity with Vaneigem’s citations.]


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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