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WALDENSIANS . The Waldensians, also called the Poor Men of Lyons, originated with Pierre Valdès, or Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant of Lyons, France. The dates of his birth and death are not known, nor is his exact name. The name Peter was given to him later by his followers, probably to stress his affinity with Peter, first of Christ's disciples. About 1170 Valdès was converted from his worldly life after hearing the story of Saint Alexis, who on his wedding day abandoned his bride and all his worldly possessions to become a pilgrim. The account led Valdès to seek the advice of a priest on how he, too, could obey God and become perfect. The reply he received was the same text from Matthew (19:21) that Francis of Assisi was to come upon forty years later: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven; and, come, follow me." Valdès acted on the injunction, and took to a life of wandering poverty and preaching, living on alms, in emulation of Christ's life on earth.

He was soon joined by others, among them priests who translated into French passages from the Bible for the group's use in preaching. Vernacular translations from the Bible were one of the Waldensians' hallmarks. Before long their unauthorized preaching alarmed the local clergy, and the archbiship of Lyons ordered them to cease. Valdès refused, with the reply that was to be the central Waldensian tenet, that God was to be obeyed before humans (a reference to Acts 5:19).

The Waldensians decided to take their case to the pope, Alexander III, and a party of them traveled to Rome for that purpose. They arrived during the Third Lateran Council in 1179, were heard, and their beliefs were examined. Alexander confirmed their vow of poverty, but he also, in effect, confirmed the archbishop of Lyons's ban on their preaching by declaring that they could preach only if they first gained the permission of the local clergy. That, however, was not enough for Valdès; he continued to preach, and although he made a profession of faith before a synod at Lyons in 1180, he and his followers were excommunicated in 1182 or 1183. At the Council of Verona in 1184, where the first concerted attack on heresy was begun, the Waldensians were included among the heretical sects condemned, a condemnation to be repeated many times during the next three centuries.

The Waldensians are the classic case of popular piety become heresy. What had begun as one more attempt, not uncommon in the twelfth century, by a few individuals to return to evangelical principles, ended outside the church. The Waldensians differed in that they, alone among these groups and individuals, were neither absorbed into a religious order nor eventually disappeared as a sect, but survived the Middle Ages to become one of the new reformed churchesalbeit a small oneof the sixteenth century. They did so, in part at least, because, of all the heretical sects, they remained closest to the teachings of the gospel which they sought simply to preach and practice without theological or metaphysical overtones. Theirs was above all a moral and spiritual Christianity. In that there were strong similarities between Valdès and Francis of Assisi. But where Francis and his band were accepted both by the local church hierarchy and by the pope, Innocent III, Valdès was not, and he rebelled. Even so, there is no evidence that he ever departed from the church's teachings, and every indication that during his lifetime he devoted himself to combating heresy, especially that of the Cathari. The closeness of the Waldensians to orthodox belief is suggested by the reconversion of two groups under Durand of Huesca and Bernard Prim in 1207 and 1210, and their formation into separate religious orders by Innocent III to oppose the Cathari.

That was probably the period when Valdès died. By then the Waldensians had spread from Lyons into Languedoc and northern Italy as well as into Germany, in due course extending into central Europe. They became the nearest thing to a popular counterchurch, with their own congregations and priests and their own religious forms. But they did not operate as a single church. That was due partly to circumstances and partly to their popular, almost exclusively lay, character. In 1205 there was a schism between the Lombard Waldensians and those from north of the Alps, the followers of Valdès. The Lombards had instituted their own sacraments and ceased to lead the life of wandering preachers but lived in towns and by manual labor. The followers of Valdès maintained their original pattern of mendicant preaching and poverty. The Lombards elected their own head, whereas for Valdès only Christ could be the head. Despite a further attempt to heal the split in 1218 and some degree of contact, the two different wings went their own ways.

The Waldensians were the one genuinely popular heresy (before the Hussites) who drew their support from artisans and peasants. Although they had their base in the cities, especially in Lombardy, they were also of the countryside, especially north of the Alps and in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont, where geography protected them. Cohesion was maintained by the Waldensian priests, often called the "perfect," an analogy with the Catharist perfect but having a very different character. The Waldensian perfect, especially north of the Alpsand by the fourteenth century the Waldensians had in effect become a northern phenomenon, with their main strength in Germany and central Europewere preachers acting as Christ's apostles as Valdès had done. But now they acted clandestinely. They visited individual Waldensian believers and administered their simplified version of the sacraments. In return they were supported by the believers materially, sometimes by a voluntary tax or payment. Otherwise, the ordinary Waldensian led an ordinary life, earning his living and observing outward obedience to the Roman church. That may well have involved less of a conflict than among the ordinary Cathar believer. The difference between being a Waldensian and an orthodox Christian was less one of belief than of adherence to the Waldensian perfects, regarded by the Waldensian believers as Christ's true representatives. The opposition between them and the Roman church was the main source of Waldensian belief as it developed after the death of Valdès.

The Waldensians claimed that they were the one true church to whom the apostolic succession had passed after the so-called Donation of Constantine, which gave to the pope headship of the western Roman Empire. Although a forgery, the Donation was believed to be true until the fifteenth century, and the Waldensians were not alone in treating it as the cause of the Roman church's decline. From it they argued that the Roman priests were not true priests and, following Valdès, further held that any man, and, indeed, woman, pure in spirit and in the quality of his or her life, was a priest and ordained by God. Like the Cathari, the Waldensians accepted women as perfect, although there seems to have been a decline in the number of female perfect in the fourteenth century. Once adopted, those Waldensian beliefs became irreconcilable with those of the Roman church. The Waldensians also came to reject the Roman church's sacramental forms and most of its prayers and ceremony, including prayers for the dead, a belief in purgatory, or the very need for churches. In their place they had their own modified spiritual forms of baptism (and only for adults, not children), confession, and marriage. At the same time, true to the literal interpretation of Christ's own gospel teaching, they rejected all nonspiritual activities, including the swearing of oaths, the exercise of legal authority, the waging of war, or the taking of life.

In all those ways they sought to obey God rather than human authority by turning away from the laws of the Roman church to direct communion with Christ through God's word in the Bible. Their influence is to be seen upon the Hussites.

See Also

Cathari; Hus, Jan.


Lambert, Malcolm. Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus. New York, 1977. The fullest and most up-to-date account of medieval popular heresies.

Moore, R. I., ed. The Birth of Popular Heresy. London, 1975. A representative selection of translated sources, mainly from the twelfth century, with a useful introduction.

Russell, Jeffrey B. Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages. Berkeley, 1965. A useful, wide-ranging survey of early medieval heresies to the end of the twelfth century.

Thouzellier, Christine. Catharisme et Valdéisme en Languedoc. Paris, 1966. A very full analysis of the sources.

Wakefield, Walter L., and Austin P. Evans. Heresies of the High Middle Ages. New York, 1969. The largest collection of translated sources, particularly valuable for their fullness.

New Sources

Cameron, Euan. Waldenses: Rejections of Holy Church in Medieval Europe. Oxford and Malden, Mass., 2000.

Shahar, Shulamith. Women in a Medieval Heretical Sect: Agnes and Huguette the Waldensians. Woodbridge, U.K., and Rochester, N.Y., 2001.

Stephens, Prescott. The Waldensian Story: A Study in Faith, Intolerance and Survival. Lewes, U.K., 1998.

Tourn, Giorgio. The Waldensians: The First 800 Years. Translated by Cpillo B. Merlino. Edited by Charles W. Arbuthnot. New York, 1980.

Gordon Leff (1987 and 2005)

Revised Bibliography

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