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Waldenses (wôldĕnˈsēz) or Waldensians, Protestant religious group of medieval origin, called in French Vaudois. They originated in the late 12th cent. as the Poor Men of Lyons, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant of Lyons, who gave away his property (c.1176) and went about preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Being laymen, they were forbidden to preach. They went to Rome, where Pope Alexander III blessed their life but forbade preaching (1179) without authorization from the local clergy. They disobeyed and began to teach unorthodox doctrines; they were formally declared heretics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1211 more than 80 were burned as heretics at Strasbourg, beginning several centuries of persecution.

The Waldenses proclaimed the Bible as the sole rule of life and faith. They rejected the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and the mass, and laid great stress on gospel simplicity. Worship services consisted of readings from the Bible, the Lord's Prayer, and sermons, which they believed could be preached by all Christians as depositaries of the Holy Spirit. Their distinctive pre-Reformation doctrines are set forth in the Waldensian Catechism (c.1489). They had contact with other similar groups, especially the Humiliati.

The Waldenses were most successful in Dauphiné and Piedmont and had permanent communities in the Cottian Alps SW of Turin. In 1487 at the instance of Pope Innocent VIII a persecution overwhelmed the Dauphiné Waldenses, but those in Piedmont defended themselves successfully. In 1532 they met with German and Swiss Protestants and ultimately adapted their beliefs to those of the Reformed Church. In 1655 the French and Charles Emmanuel II of Savoy began a campaign against them. Oliver Cromwell sent a mission of protest; that occasion also prompted John Milton's famous poem on the Waldenses. At the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), the Waldensian leader, Henri Arnaud, led a band into Switzerland; he later led them back to their valleys.

After the French Revolution the Waldenses of Piedmont were assured liberty of conscience, and in 1848, King Charles Albert of Savoy granted them full religious and civil rights. A group of Waldensians settled in the United States at Valdese, N.C. The Waldensian Church is included in the Alliance of Reformed Churches of the Presbyterian Order. The principal Waldensian writer was Arnaud.


See study by E. Cameron (1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Poor Men of Lyon), adherents of a medieval heresy that originated in the last quarter of the 12th century in Lyon.

The founder of the heretical movement of the Waldenses was the Lyon merchant Peter Waldo (also Valdo or Valdès), who, according to legend, gave away his possessions and proclaimed poverty and asceticism as life’s ideals. The members of the sect organized by him made a vow neither to own property nor to have families. The Waldensian heresy spread through southern France, Spain, northern Italy, Germany, Bohemia, and Switzerland, primarily among artisans and peasants. Sharply criticizing the Catholic Church, the Waldenses demanded that it entirely renounce its property and income, especially tithes. The Waldenses preached an apostolic life. They opposed military service, feudal courts, and especially capital punishment, and they rejected the monopolistic right of the Catholic clergy to preach and administer the sacraments (of which they acknowledged only baptism and communion). They denied the dogma concerning Christ, belief in purgatory and the saints, and worship of icons. The Waldenses’ assertion that every worthy man could be a priest led to the conclusion that there was no role for the entire Catholic clergy, including the Roman pope.

The Waldensian heresy was condemned several times by the Catholic Church (1179-1215). The Waldenses were subjected to cruel persecutions in France and Spain, where they were burned. At the beginning of the 13th century some of the Waldenses, under pressure from the papacy, left the movement on condition that the Catholic Church recognize some of the characteristics of their sect as well as their right to preach “evangelical poverty.” The extremist wing of the Waldenses merged with the Cathari. A Waldensian group was founded in Italy (the so-called Poor Men of Lombardy, with their center at Milan). Many resettled in high mountain Alpine regions, where the “patriarchal heresy of the Waldenses,” according to Engels, was a “reaction of patriarchal Alpine shepherds to the feudalism that was penetrating them … an effort to fence themselves off from historical development” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7, p. 361). Some communities of Waldenses survived even in the 20th century, primarily in Italy.


Bortnik, N. A. “Ereticheskie sekty Italii 1-i pol. XIII v.” In the collection Srednie veka, issue 10. Moscow, 1957.
Comba, E. Storia dei valdesi. Torre Pellice, 1950.
Martini, M. P. Valdo, le pauvre de Lyon. Geneva, 1961.
Leutrat, P. Les Vaudois. Paris [1966]. (Contains a bibliography.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


members of 12th-century French religious movement living in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, X: 519]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The Valdesi retain an importance out of all proportion to their numbers, not least in a more ecumenical age when they have good relations with many Roman Catholic dioceses and even hear an occasional soundbite from their Moderator picked up by Vatican Radio.