The story of the Moravian church begins, one may say, at Bethlehem. Not Bethlehem in Pennsylvania but Bayt Lahm, Jesus’ birthplace in Israel.
From the night of Jesus’ birth in a stable to a believers’ community on the heights above the Lehigh River an unbroken story of faith continues. It is a story other Christian groups have often wished to invent for themselves, but with little success.
The Moravians, without invention, are an “Apostolic” church (a church that has kept its succession of leadership unbroken from the apostles’ times to now). More than that, they survived as a movement keeping its place in the love of Christ with far greater faithfulness than most, through two thousand years. Yet their story, like the story of all faith communities, involves struggle, confusion at times, and trials that obscured its way. It is not as simple as some have been led to believe.
“As a church we descend from the movement of John Huss, burned at the stake in 1415,” say tour guides at Moravian museums. At first I took what they said at face value. But the more I learned of the facts behind that statement, the more I saw how potentially misleading it could be. The Unitas Fratrum (the Brotherly Unity or Moravian church) “descends” from John Huss in the same way, perhaps, as the Anabaptists from Martin Luther, or the Quakers from Oliver Cromwell. Certainly, there was a connection, but to speak of spiritual “descent” implies more than there really was.
The “renewed Moravians” (the Unitas Fratrum after 1722) were not Czech-speaking people of Moravian background. True, they came across the mountains from Moravia—the “hidden seed”—but their ancestors were German Waldenses who in their turn had fled there for refuge. In Moravia their ancestors had linked arms with the Unitas Fratrum, a Czech renewal movement. But even it had stood in sharpest opposition to John Huss’s reformation from the beginning, and far from representing him now, bore the marks of brutal suppression suffered under the rule of his followers for centuries.
To get the story straight we need to go back—far back beyond Moravia, the Hussites and Waldenses, to early Christian communities in Asia. . . .
Soon after the apostle John died in Ephesus, terrible persecutions drove many who loved Christ from Asia Minor through Greece and Italy, to Gaul. Persecution followed them. For every natural disaster, flood, drought, or plague, pagans found Christians to blame. A hundred years after John’s death Christian refugees in Gaul wrote back to their relatives and friends:
The servants of Christ at Vienna [Vienne] and Lugdunum [Lyon] in Gaul to our brothers in Asia and Phrygia who have the same faith and hope of redemption as we: peace, grace, and glory from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. . . .
The severity of our trials here, the unbridled fury of the heathen against God’s people, the untold sufferings of the blessed martyrs, we are incapable of describing in detail: indeed no pen could do them justice. The adversary swooped on us with all his might. . . .1
After describing how Sanctus the deacon at Vienna on the Rhone, Maturus a new convert, Attalus an immigrant from Pergamum, the old brother Pothinus (in his nineties), Alexander a doctor, Blandina (roasted alive and thown to bulls), and a fifteen-year-old believer, Ponticus, died under torture rather than deny Christ, the letter ends triumphantly:
This was the greatest war they fought against him [the Beast]. . . . Shedding many tears in supplication to the Father, they asked for life and he gave it to them. This they shared with their neighbours when they departed victorious to God. Peace they had ever loved; peace they commended to our care; and with peace they went to God, leaving no sorrow to their mother [the church], no strife or warfare to their brothers, but joy, peace, concord, and love.
Inner peace in the heart of raging persecution, nothing could have laid a better foundation for the church in southern France than the testimony of the martyrs at Lyon in AD 177. One wave of persecution followed another. With the passing of time, persecution under Roman pagans became persecution under Roman “Christians,” but the believers of Gaul never forgot how the first among them lived and died.
That memory, as century after century passed, became ever more precious—and costly.
The Flower of Faith in Languedoc
As usually happens in migrations of the church, only the most dedicated Christians moved from Asia Minor to the Roman frontier. A few, like Alexander the doctor from Phrygia, came with an education. But most who followed him were illiterate brothers and sisters that settled with their children in villages along the Rhone. From there, frequently driven by persecution, they spread north into Lugdunensis (Lyon) and Germania, east into the snow-crowned Alps, and west across the Cevennes into green valleys sheltering the Gallic cities of Albi and Tolosa (Toulouse).
Unlike sophisticated “Christians” in Greek cities and Rome, many Gallic believers kept to a simple, practical faith. Feeling their own guilt and helplessness before Christ, they responded to him with open hearts and ever increasing love for his mercy on them. This, demonstrated by how they lived, led to the conversion of hundreds, and eventually thousands, of Gauls.
Convinced Asian believers and converted Gauls, now the church in western Europe had potential to note! The Gauls (Celts, first galled Galli by the Romans) had long distinguished themselves, not for their organisation but for resistance under attack. Even though the Romans conquered them, they never became Roman at heart. Neither did they become French in AD 486 when the last Roman troops retreated from Gaul and the region fell to the Franks.
They stayed Christian.
Like all who lived in French territories along the Mediterranean Sea, these Christians kept the Languedoc (language where one says “oc” instead of “oui” as in French) and prepared to stand for what they believed.
Roman military rule, under Clovis, chief of the Franks, ended. But because he had converted to Roman Catholicism, domination from Rome only increased. Clovis set out to bring all Christians by force into the Roman church and began, for the believers who worked the farms and vineyards of the Languedoc region, a trial of faith that would far surpass anything they had known.
Thankfully, they did not stand alone. Visiting brothers and sisters from the east kept them in touch with other believers, especially those of Bosnia and Dalmatia.
What were those believers like?
A thousand years after Roman Catholic persecutors destroyed their writings and left little but slanderous accounts of their own, it is not easy to know the truth. That some of them, commonly known as Cathari (pure ones) or in south Slavic countries as Bogomili (those under the Lord’s mercy), misunderstood Scriptures and taught certain things wrong seems likely. Speculation about the origin of matter and spirit caused confusion in their time and led some into unbalanced asceticism. But from a description of the church in Bosnia we read:
They had no priests, or rather the priesthood of all believers was acknowledged. The churches were guided by elders chosen by lot, several in each congregation, an overseer (called grandfather), and ministering brothers called leaders and elders. Meetings could be held in any house and the regular meeting-places were quite plain, no bells, no altar, only a table, on which might be a white cloth and a copy of the Gospels. A part of the earnings of the brethren was set aside for the relief of sick believers, for the poor, and for the support of those who travelled to preach the Gospel among the unconverted.2
Nowhere did this “preaching to the unconverted” bear more fruit, in spite of persecution, than in southern France. From sunny olive groves in Provence, through the Rhone Delta to Lyon and Toulouse—the entire Languedoc region—the movement grew by the eleventh century to include thousands of people. Many villages consisted exclusively of non-Roman-Catholic believers, and in Albi on the Tarn (a tributary of the Garonne) they became so numerous their enemies eventually identified the whole movement as that of the Albigenses.
Unlike the leaders of the state church whom the Christians of Languedoc criticised for their great wealth and immorality, their own leaders were simple, frugal men. Even their enemies knew them as men of their word, modest in dress and habits, and unusually ready to give their lives for what they believed. One of the first of them about whom we have many details was Pierre, a brother from the village of Bruys.
At the end of the tenth century, Pierre (who had been a priest but left Roman Catholicism after his conversion) began to visit the homes of seekers in the mountainous region east of the Rhone. From Die and Gap to Embrun, at the foot of the Massif de Champsaur he travelled on foot, encouraging believers and holding meetings wherever he could. “Why have church buildings,” he asked the people, “if the Church of Christ consists not in walls, but in the community of the faithful? If we may as well pray to God in a barn, and be heard, if worthy, in a stable as before an altar?”3
Like the first Christians, Pierre taught the people that faith and repentance must accompany baptism for it to be valid sign. Therefore he saw no use for the baptism of infants. He also rejected Roman Catholic teaching about the bread and wine. “Jesus gave himself once for all,” he told the people. “We do not need to offer him up again. We need no priests or sacrifice.”4
Wherever he travelled, throughout the Languedoc countryside, Pierre found ready listeners. What he said confirmed what a large number already believed, and brought others to think seriously. But his teaching enraged Roman Catholic authorities. Even more than his rejection of church buildings and ritual was his feeling about crosses. “The cross,” he said, “was the instrument of Christ’s death. Why venerate it or keep it on continual display? Much rather, we should be ashamed of the cross!”
As a result of Pierre’s teaching, mountain people may have burned wayside crosses. In communities where everyone got converted, they may have torn down “idolatrous churches” like Pierre said they should. But what can clearly be proven is that Roman Catholic authorities, instigated by priests threatened with losing their jobs, burned Pierre alive at St. Gilles, near the old Gallic city of Nimes.
After Pierre de Bruys’s death the bishops of Embrun and Arles, with the fervent support of the Abbot of Cluny, led a campaign against the believers in eastern Languedoc, only to have them become—in the west, around Albi and Toulouse, and along the Mediterranean coast—more numerous than ever.
Under pressure from Rome the city of Toulouse finally passed a law, in AD 1119, that all babies of the region had to be baptised. But believers paid scant attention to it and Henri, a converted monk from Lausanne, became active as an evangelist in Pierre’s place.
The Fruit of Faith
When arrested and brought to trial for their actions, the early Albigensian believers of Languedoc surprised their accusers. Even though many could not read and were simple farmers or craftsmen, they knew the Scriptures well. Especially from the Gospels they could quote long portions—entire chapters or even the Gospels themselves. This had to do with what they believed.
The Albigenses believed God is all around and in creation, but that we cannot see him or speak directly with him. They believed the Word of God became flesh in Christ. Christ is an expression of God and as humans we may relate to him. In third place, they believed the Spirit is subject to Christ and lives in us, showing us what is true and false.
Because they expected to relate directly and only to Christ, his words became of utmost importance. The early Albigenses set their hope in his favour and took his example for their guide in life.
Following Christ they refused to swear oaths in any form. They did not take interest on money. They returned good for evil and suffered violence rather than take up arms in self-defence.
Simple faith in Christ brought them to confess their faults to him and to one another, rather than seek the services of a “mediatorial church.”
Members One of Another
Not only did the Albigenses confess their faults among themselves. They believed like Paul that we are “members one of another”5 and did what they could to encourage whoever belonged to the body of Christ.
Within the Albigensian congregation credentes (believing members) and perfecti (complete members) lived in remarkable unity. Everyone—the mature and the immature, the fully committed and those still finding their way—discovered the place best for them. But no one could join an Albigensian congregation before passing through a novitiate. Questions asked of them during that time included the following:
Do you pray before mounting a horse, boarding a vessel, entering a town, or walking across a log bridge?
When you see something lying on the road that is not yours, do you pick it up?
Do you pray before and after meals?
Do you visit the sick and show concern for the spiritual welfare of others?
Do you pay your debts?
On their acceptance as believing members men and women promised to hold their heart and goods, both present and future, at the disposal of the Lord and his community. If later on they desired complete membership they received, on top of this, the consolamentum (the comforting of the Holy Ghost). This, according to a sermon on baptism given in Languedoc during the thirteenth century, was to take place as follows:
The Bonne Homme [presiding elder] in charge shall admonish him [the applicant] and teach him with words appropriate for his consolamentum, saying: “Pierre, you wish to receive the baptism through which the Holy Spirit is given to the church of God with the holy pronouncement and the laying on of hands. Of this baptism our Lord speaks in Matthew 28:19-20, and other places. He set the pattern for this laying on of hands himself (Mark 16:18, etc.) and afterwards Paul and Barnabas practised it in several places. Through it the Holy Spirit comes to the church and this custom has been kept from the apostles’ time until now, passed on from Bonne Homme to Bonne Homme, and will be passed on to the end of the world.
You must understand that power is given to the church of God to bind and loose, to forgive and retain sin, as Christ said (John 20:21, etc.). If you wish to receive this power, you must also keep the commandments of Christ and the New Testament to the best of your ability. He commands us not to commit adultery or murder, not to lie or swear oaths, and to keep from stealing. On the contrary, we are to pardon and love our enemies, pray for those who speak against us, if one strikes us on one cheek we are to turn to him the other as well. We are to hate the world and the things that are in the world (1 John 2:16-17, etc.)6
If the applicant committed himself to this way of life in Christ, the Bonnes Hommes placed a copy of the New Testament on his head, laid hands on him, and prayed. Then they received him as a complete member with the kiss of peace.
Albigensian brothers greeted one another like this and sisters did the same, among themselves. Complete members (always single) greeted those of the opposite sex only by touching elbows and never sat beside them on a bench, no matter how long it was.
The Trust of Membership
To be a complete member of the Albigensian community was no light or easy matter. One promised to remain single, to renounce all material possession, and to spend one’s life in voluntary service for others. Complete members could not work for wages or commit themselves to a trade. They lived entirely at the mercy, and in the service, of the believing members’ community.
Among the complete members the sandaliati (sandalled ones) spent much time teaching the novellani (novices). Together they memorised and copied Scriptures, visited seekers, and made long trips on foot to spread the good news of the peace of Christ. All leaders of the Albigensian church, conjointly known as Bonnes Hommes but holding the offices of deacons, elders, and overseers, were complete members. Of these, the congregation chose none to leadership before they turned twenty, and then only if they had proven themselves for at least six years of complete membership.
An account from the twelfth century lets us know how the Albigenses celebrated communion:
When the congregation comes together, both brothers and sisters, they spread a table or bench with a clean cloth and set a cup of good pure wine and an unleavened cake or loaf upon it. Then the brother in charge says: “Let us ask God to forgive our sins for his mercy’s sake, and to fill us, for his mercy’s sake, with everything for which we rightfully ask. Then let us pray the Lord’s prayer seven times to the honour of God and the Holy Trinity.”
On their knees the congregation follows these instructions. Then the brother takes a white cloth and hangs it over his left shoulder. With his bare right hand he wraps the loaf or cake in the cloth and holds it to his breast. Standing like this he repeats the words our Lord used at the Last Supper. Then he makes the sign [of the cross] over the bread and wine, and breaks the bread. While he does this, the congregation stands, but when he finishes they seat themselves at the table, every member in proper order [from the oldest to the youngest]. As every one receives the bread and wine from the brother in charge he says, “Benedicité, Senher” (bless me Lord). The brother in charge replies, “Deus vos benedicat” (God will bless you). Then their service is over and they believe this to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”7
Not only at formal meetings, but day after day in their homes the Albigenses enjoyed quiet times of communion together. Before every meal they stood in silence for twenty to thirty minutes. Then, in an audible voice, everyone said together: “Lord have mercy on us! Christ have mercy on us! Lord have mercy on us!” The oldest one present asked for the blessing: “May the Lord, who blessed the five loaves and two fishes in the wilderness, bless this table with everything on it—and everything yet to come—in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Then they all sat down.
After eating, everyone held and lifted their hands in a circle. They turned their faces toward heaven and the oldest one would say: “May God reward and give food to all who benefit and bless us. May God who gives us earthly food bless us with spiritual food as well. May God be with us and we with him forever.”
The meal ended when all said “Amen.”
After the evening meal in Albigensian homes someone passed a hand-written copy of a Gospel or another Scripture around for everyone to read from. Those who could not read, or who had no copies of Scripture, quoted by memory. Then the older ones among them—parents, grandparents, or visiting perfecti—shared an instructive message.
Even though the perfecti—complete members—did not marry in imitation of Christ, believing members of the Albigensian church lived and worked in exemplary family settings. Children learned the way of truth at an early age and considered hard work a virtue. Women occupied an important place in the congregation, as well as the men, but never in teaching or leadership positions. Those who remained single could (and usually did) become complete members.
The Albigenses’ Roman Catholic enemies accused them of Manichaeism (the belief that matter is evil and spirit is good). No doubt they had reasons for their charge. Some of the Albigenses’ practices appear to fall in line with this oriental, third century, teaching. But the very accusations of state church inquisitors shed more light on the matter.
Roman Catholics accused Albigensian believers of forbidding to eat meat. At the same time they accused them of eating meat on holy days. They also accused Albigenses of forbidding to marry. Yet they blamed them for forcing priests and monks to take wives.
The truth, no doubt, lies somewhere in between. Many Albigenses, perhaps all complete members, lived as vegetarians. To live as lightly “in the flesh” and as close to heavenly freedom as possible, already in this life, was their goal. The same feeling led them to prefer the unmarried state. Even Paul wrote of greater freedom for the unmarried. But where men and women could not live single lives productively, or if they developed affections for the opposite sex (as many priests or monks had), the Albigenses definitely preferred marriage above living in hypocrisy or sin.
While Albigenses multiplied among the vineyards of Languedoc and Provence, others sought Christ in the east, in lands north of the Alps, and in the great cultural centres of Italy itself. In Milan a deacon named Arialdo began to gather with his friends in the pataria (a low class sector of the city). People called them patarini. Disgusted with the priests' low living, Rome’s wealth and greed, and above all with the pope himself, they turned to Christ’s teaching for direction.
Through Switzerland and the Rhein valley, itinerant weavers carried the convictions of the patarini to Alsace, Belgium, and beyond—growing in witness and reputation until the words tisserand (weaver) and heretic became interchangeable. By the 1180s their work had produced such widespread results in the Netherlands that fierce persecution broke out against them.
Far to the south in Gascony (the land of the Basques) between France and Spain, another movement of believers emerged. Like the Albigenses they did not baptise infants or believe the sacrament of communion took away sins. They loved Christ and followed him in simplicity, poverty, and chastity. In 1160 a group of these believers, thirty men and women travelling together, appeared at Oxford in England. The English stripped them to the waist and drove them from town in mid-winter, to freeze.
In 1191, in Corazzo on the island of Sicily, a Cistercian abbot suddenly renounced his position and turned to the mountains. His name was Gioacchino. Surrounded by friends in the wilderness, he saw the ages of the Father (the Old Testament period) and of the Son (the time of the institutional church) as nearly over, and the age of the Spirit about to begin. Gioacchino envisioned this final period in God’s plan to be one of great peace between heaven and earth, and community among men. But the only ones to take part in it, he believed, would be those who followed Christ and completely denied the world.
During Gioacchino’s time8 the fun-loving son of a rich merchant in the mountain town of Assisi, north of Rome, also renounced his wealth and began to pray. His name was Francis. A group of friends joined him to become the order of friars minor (lesser brothers).
All these men, the women who followed them, and the movements that took shape around them, deeply affected the search for Christ in mediaeval Europe. But none, perhaps, affected it more than a new voice from France.
“In 1173, at Lyon in France,” begins an anonymous account written forty-five years later, “there lived a man, Pierre Valdés by name, who had made himself a fortune by wicked usury. On a certain Lord’s Day he joined a crowd gathered to hear the words of an itinerant preacher. He was smitten by what the preacher said. He took him to his house and heard more. The next morning he hurried to the priests’ school to ask what he should do for his soul. The priests told him many things. Finally he asked their teacher what the most safe and certain way was to God. The teacher told him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go sell everything you have and give your things to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.’”
The old chronicle describes what happened afterward:
Pierre Valdés went to talk with his wife, at once. He gave her the choice of staying with him or of staying with his possessions he had decided to abandon: his ponds, orchards, fields, houses, rents, vineyards, mills, and fishing rights. She was much displeased at having to make this choice, but decided to keep the real estate.
With some of his money Pierre made restitution to everyone he had treated unjustly. He gave another part of it to his little daughters he placed in the care of the sisters of Font Everard. But the greatest part of his money he gave to the poor. A very great famine oppressed France and Germany at that time. Pierre Valdés gave bread, vegetables and meat to every one who came to him. He did this three days a week, every week from Pentecost to the feast of St. Peter's bonds.
On the day of the Assumption of the blessed Virgin, while Pierre was in the middle of town throwing money to the poor, he cried, “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Some men of the town came running up to take him, thinking he had lost his mind. But stepping up to where all could hear him he said, “Fellow-citizens and friends, I am not insane, as you think. I am only avenging myself on my enemies—money and created things—who kept me their slave this long. All this time I have been more concerned about money than God. All this time I have served created things instead of the Creator. Now I know that many of you will accuse me for doing this openly. But I do it for my own good and for yours. I do it so any who see me have money in the future may accuse me with reason of being crazy. I do it so you may learn to put your hope in God and not in riches.”9
Another writer of the early thirteenth century, Pierre de Pilichdorf (a man not in sympathy with Pierre’s decision), described what happened when Pierre followed Christ:
A wealthy citizen [Pierre de Valdés] of the southern frontier of France heard how the Lord said to a youth, “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor.” He also heard the Lord’s words to the youth (who went away sad, because he was rich and had many possessions): “It is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Then he heard of Peter who told Christ, “Look, we have left all things and followed you.”
When he heard these Scriptures, Pierre de Valdés, concluded that no one on earth followed Christ anymore. But he resolved to do so. He sold everything he had and gave it to the poor. Then he lived in poverty himself. Some who saw what he did were touched in their hearts, and did the same. . . . After a time of living in poverty, these people remembered that Christs’ disciples were not only poor. They also preached. So, in like manner, they began to go among the people and preach the Word of God. When this was reported to the Lord Bishop [Bishop Jean de Lyon] he commanded them to stop, because ignorant and uneducated people have no right to preaching of the Word of God. But they refused to obey and thought the bishop and his court were only jealous of their success. Then the [Roman Catholic] church excommunicated them. But they persisted in their activities and earned for themselves official condemnation.
The Spirit of Christ—never as powerful as when unleashed among the poor—found an open door to Europe in the 1100s. Poor people everywhere, in crowded urban misery, on feudal estates, serving corrupt churchmen that oppressed and abused them, turned in amazing numbers to the Gospel.
They could understand the Gospel of Christ—especially in southern France.
After Pierre’s conversion a great number of Albigensian believers of the region (many of whose own leaders had become lukewarm and careless) identified with him at once. But Roman Catholic authorities became furious. “What might the church come to,” they stormed, “if unlearned men throw the Scriptures before the masses in their own language? Why, any farmer or housewife will do with them what they want!”
Called the pauperes de Lugdunum (the poor of Lyon) Pierre de Valdés and his friends went out to tell the world what they had found. An English theologian, Walter Map, who came to know them on a trip to Italy, wrote in 1179:
These people have no fixed residence. They go around two by two, barefooted and dressed in woollen tunics. They own nothing. Whatever they use they hold in common, after the manner of the apostles. Naked, they follow a naked Christ. As of now their impact is still negligible, because their following is small. But if we were to leave them alone, I do not doubt they might yet be the ruin of us all.10
An inquisitor, sent by Roman Catholic authorities to suppress the Poor remarked. “Not one of them, old or young, man or woman, by day or by night ever stops learning and teaching others.” He also quoted one of the Poor brought before him: “In our homes, women teach as well as men, and one who has been a student for a week teaches another.”11
Unlike Gioacchino’s movement in the mountains of southern Italy, the Poor of Lyon lived in the city. Giorgio Tourn, a Waldensian historian, writes:
They wished to be part and parcel of the life of the city. They were not hermits seeking the solitude of the desert. Their calling was to be present in churches, public squares and homes where their message could be heard. They were and wished to remain citizens of Lyon, one of the great cities of western Europe, on the route of the crusades where St. Bernard had preached, where a great cathedral, St. John’s, was under construction. This urban environment was their world. To it belonged the promise of transformation. Here they chose to live out their discipleship.12
The Poor in Lombardy
Across the Cottian Alps, in the city of Milan and plains of Lombardy around it, messengers from Lyon found prepared soil. The Patarini still met in Milan. Among them—as among others who prayed to Christ—their teaching took root and grew into a healthy plant of its own. In fact, it grew into an expression of Christian living unlike anything the Poor had known. Giorgio Tourn writes:
The witness given by the Poor in Lombardy very soon became independent of the Lyonese pattern. The Lombards tended to see the apostolic calling as one rooted in community (societas), and not necessarily implying itinerant preaching. They felt that to travel across the countryside preaching was one way of living “like the apostles,” but not the only way. Another was to share commitment unselfishly with one’s sisters and brothers in the faith. In other words, the Lombard Poor reflected the emphasis recorded in Acts 1-4 on Christian community, while their counterparts from Lyon honed in on the missionary message of the Jesus they found in Matthew 10.
It was not by accident that the main point of discussion between the two groups was on the way they should regard work. According to the Lyonese, labour was an impediment to witness and a temptation to accumulate wealth. For the Lombards one’s daily task was an instrument of service, the opportunity for concrete witness. The Poor of Lyon tended to be pilgrim preachers, bards of conversion not greatily dissimilar from the wandering minstrels of the time. The central figure for the Lombard Poor, on the other hand, was the artisan, the woolcarder in a textile shop, the labourer, the worker.
A deep sense of social solidarity was found among the Lombard Poor. They possessed considerable organizing ability. Their life and witness were well structured, and not, as in Lyon, somewhat euphoric and spontaneous.
Whether settled in Christian communities or out on the road preaching, all the Poor drew the clouds of Europe’s wrath down on them, sooner or later. A hundred years before Pierre Valdes’s time, European authorities already burned non-Roman-Catholics at the stake—fourteen at Orleans in 1022, more at Aachen in Germany, and after 1100 a great many Albigenses in Arles, Toulouse and Narbonne (cities of the Languedoc region) and neighbouring Gascony. But the storm did not break loose until a young man from Spain, Domingo de Guzmán, appeared.
After his mother died, Domingo’s wealthy father sent to him to study in southern France. There, at his uncle’s home, he came to know the Albigenses (still strong in numbers even though fallen, somewhat, from their early principles). He observed the Waldensian movement rapidly growing out of it. He learned of the Patarini, the Tisserands, and “poor” Christians like them that captured the imagination of Europe, and felt discouraged. “What shall become of our mother, the Catholic church,” he wondered, “if all this goes to seed?”
Sitting outside the Languedoc village of Fanjeaux on the summer evening of July 22, 1206 (the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene) the solution suddenly came to Domingo de Guzmán. The poor, it dawned on him, must be conquered by the poor!
The “heretical” Poor multiplied so rapidly, Domingo reasoned, because they saw nothing but wealth and corruption in the state church. But if Roman Catholics—even just a few—would turn to living in simplicity, poverty, and chastity like Christ, what would they have to say? With an option for real Christian living within the Catholic church, wouldn’t many seekers prefer it and not “go astray”?
Looking out across the wide and fertile plains of Languedoc, where the steeples of Carcassonne, Castelnaudary, and Montreal stood in the glow of sunset among ripening grain, Domingo sat lost in thought. Then, scarcely believing his eyes, he jumped to his feet. What was it! The heavens opened, not once, but three times, for a burning orb to appear and descend on an abandoned church at Prouille, a village between Fanjeaux and Montréal in the very heart of the Albigensian region.
Domingo could wait no longer. He took the vision as a sign of God’s approval on his idea and asked the Bishop of Toulouse for the abandoned church. With the friends who joined him there—all devout Catholics—he shed his wealth and comfort to begin living like Pierre Valdes. He put on rough clothes and sandals, and walked with his friends from village to village preaching the message of Christ—and more.
Unlike the “heretics” Domingo and his friends (who became the “Dominican” order) swore a solemn oath to remain true to the “holy Roman church.” They taught people to follow Christ where it suited, but that no one could hope for salvation outside of going to mass, confessing to a priest, and belonging to the state church.
By the time they had worked ten years in southern France and abroad, the pope recognised the Dominicans as “Christ’s invincible athletes” and a wealthy nobleman, Simon de Montfort, gave them the feudal estate of Casseneuil for their headquarters.
Blood and Smoke
Less than a year after Domingo’s vision the pope (who supported him) sent a letter “to all prelates, counts, and barons and to all people in the kingdom of France” calling on them to “avenge the insult of the Crucified One” by cleansing the land of heresy. To whoever would take part in this “crusade” he promised forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Domingo de Guzmán found himself surrounded with loyal supporters at once. The Bishop of Toulouse (monk, songwriter, and professional clown) took it upon himself to make the crusade even more attractive. “Not only will your sins be forgiven,” he promised the people. “If you lose your lives in this campaign you will die as martyrs and bypass Purgatory!”
From all over France and other European countries the “crusaders” came. Responding to pleas of the Abbot of Citeaux, the Duke of Narbonne, and the Archbishops of Reims, Sens, and Rouen, counts and noblemen came with around twenty thousand knights on horseback and two hundred thousand foot soldiers, followed by innumerable priests and common people. Religious fanatics, highwaymen, thieves, or simple peasants looking for adventure—all found their way to southern France. The pope put their families and the homes they left behind under special protection. He absolved them from paying debts for the time being, and with the Bishop of Toulouse prayed blessings on their swords and spears.
The deluge of fire and blood began in Languedoc in 1208. After the Bishop, in full pontifical attire, had blessed the crusaders and told them, “Up to now you have fought for the earthly. Now you may fight for the eternal!” they fell on Chasseneuil (a town with a large percentage of Albigensian residents) and Béziers.
At Béziers the crusaders told city authorities to give up the “heretics” among them so the rest might be spared. But the authorities (even though Catholic) could not do so in good conscience and perhaps twenty thousand died as crusaders lit the city and put all who escaped to the sword. During the massacre—a deliberate attempt at terrorising other Languedoc towns—the Abbot of Citeaux encouraged crusaders confused as to who was a heretic or not: “Kill them all! The Lord will know his own!”
From here the crusaders swept like a tornado westward, burning one hundred and forty Albigenses at Minerve, hanging eighty at Lavaur, burning another four hundred at that place several months later, and eighty at Castres, between Albi and Carcassonne. Wherever they went on their wild and bloody rampage they left a trail of destruction behind—burnt buildings, homeless orphans, and entire villages in ruins. So outrageously did they treat their victims, violating the women and mutilating men, gouging out eyes and slitting noses, that thousands who were not Albigenses resisted crusading troops and the region erupted in civil war.
Feudal lords of the region did what they could to protect the Albigenses but one after another their castles fell. New crusaders kept pouring in from Germany, Italy, and faraway Slavic lands until Languedoc lay devastated and attention shifted to the Poor. In 1221, Conrad, bishop of Portuis, founded the Military Order of the Faith of Jesus Christ. Three years later, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, ordered the Poor of Lombardy rounded up, burned at the stake, and their property confiscated. This, within a short time, became standard procedure in Roman Catholic lands. Then, in 1231, Pope Gregory IX established the Holy Office of Inquisition.
Hounds of Heresy
In the late 1220s the crusaders left southern France and returned home. Of the Albigensian community they had nothing left to destroy. But what disappeared from sight by no means disappeared from memory or soul.
What believers in southern France had treasured for a thousand years—the joy of living with Christ, untrammelled by state church controls—could not be quickly extinguished. In fact, the crusade against the Albigenses did little else than confirm true seekers in their belief that the church of Rome was the “devil’s horde.” For every Albigensian believer that lost his life in southern France, three more joined movements of the Poor in other parts of Europe, and worried authorities scurried to find new tactics of suppression.
Once again Dominicans took the lead, followed closely by Francis of Assisi’s by now thoroughly catholicised and “orthodox” Friars Minor. Fratres praedicatores (preaching brothers) fast became fratres persecutores (persecuting brothers) as the mendicant orders became Rome’s hounds to sniff out the “heresies” of Europe. In nearly all important cities Dominicans took charge of the pope’s Holy Office.
Their technique was simple.
Dominican Inquisitors moved into an area. They proclaimed a period of grace during which “heretics” could voluntarily recant and receive pardon. Then, after a few weeks, they began to accept denunciations. All those accused, even anonymously, by two or more informers, they arrested and tried, often under torture.
A solemn oath to speak the truth, requested when Inquisition trials began, more often than not settled the case at once. Neither the Albigenses nor the Poor that followed them would swear. Therefore, accused men or women who refused the oath, invited Dominican suspicion and torture to extract more evidence. Believers had their toes and fingers pinched. Professional torturers pulled them up with ropes (often upside down), stretched their limbs on racks and wheels, burned them with coals, or poured boiling water down their throats. “Ou non valsenhe agols, val bagols,” (where kindness fails, sticks will succeed) the Inquisitors believed, and when “heretics” refused to recant they brought them before church and state officials to hear their sentence in an auto-da-fé (act of faith).
Following excommunication and the Roman church’s official curse, civil authorities led “heretics” promptly to the site of execution, usually a stake where they burned them alive. All their property fell into the hands of their persecutors that used the money they got from it to build new churches and monasteries, equip more crusades, and make the life of the upper hierarchy ever more luxurious.
Under powerful and gifted men, the Holy Office of Inquisition became Rome’s long shadow hanging over Europe.13 But the flower of faith, once blooming in Languedoc, had gone to seed and no amount of determined effort could exterminate it again.
The Witness Spreads
No matter how great the power of Roman Catholic armies and kings, no matter how glorious their churches, their music, or religious pageantry, those who sought rest for their souls kept looking elsewhere for direction. More often than not they looked to the Poor.
Unlike wealthy churchmen and conniving monks, the Poor led godly lives. Love for Christ drew them out of worldly comforts to set an example of honesty and justice for all. For this reason it did not take long, after their dispersion from southern France and Lombardy, until new groups of seekers formed around them.
From Lyon the Poor fled north through Toul and Metz into the Rhein valley. So numerous did they become in Toul by 1192 that the city published an edict against them. Nineteen years later, in 1211, authorities burned eighty in Strasbourg.
From Lombardy’s Christian communes—scholae like those of Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Como, and Pavia—messengers found their way north into Switzerland and beyond. So thoroughly did the witness of Lombardian brothers like Ugolo and Algosso, penetrate the region that by the mid-1200s one could travel from Florence in Italy to Cologne on the Rhein, lodging in believers’ homes every night along the way. Refugees followed the messengers north and scholae sprang up far more rapidly than Inquisitors could keep track of them.
Wherever they met, the Poor—or Waldenses, as they became known—learned from handwritten copies of the Scriptures they passed from place to place. Young people memorised them and the Scriptures became a guide for their life together. As persecution increased it became impossible to preach on street corners and in public meetings, but the strength of the movement only grew. In the words of one historian:
It was a clandestine world throughout, one that made the most of night meetings in stables and back rooms of little shops. Each generation was careful to transmit the faith to the succeeding one, the young sitting at the feet of elders, who in turn had received instruction from their parents. . . .
The Poor were constrained to keep the faith alive within the walls of their homes—indeed within the recesses of their own hearts. Yet if the streets were closed to them, they still had their gatherings in the kitchen, at their washing places by the streams, and in their shops. The Lombard schola thus lived again in the Waldensian home, a secure place where teaching and mutual strengthening in the faith could be carried on.14
Not only did brothers and sisters draw closer one to another in adversity, they drew closer to Christ, the living Word. An anonymous reporter from Passau on the Danube wrote in the thirteenth century:
All those men and women from Lyon, young and old, keep learning all the time, by day and by night. Tradesmen work by day and study by night. . . . Newly converted ones, after a few days, are already drawing others into the sect.”15
Believers wrote instructive letters one to another and met when they could for encouragement. But nothing did more for them than personal hunger for truth. Studying the Scriptures themselves (an illegal act in France after 1229 and in other countries soon afterward), they discovered what to believe and why, making it possible for a Roman Catholic Inquisitor to report of a “heretic”:
With wonderful liberty he told the court that he would not swear oaths, he did not believe in auricular confession, in the infallibility of church councils, the ceremony of the mass, blind obedience to the church, university degrees and titles, the use of worldly force by church leaders, and worldly rule by Christians.
With such clarity, nothing could stop the witness of the Poor from exploding through German lands.
The Poor in German Lands
Nothing, of what is left today, testifies more powerfully to the Waldenses’ activity in northern Europe than the records of the Inquisition itself. Dammbach in Austria, St. Michael am Bruckbach bei Seitenstetten, Rabenbühel, Derfl, Unterwölfern, Holzapfelberg, Weistrach, Schwamming—village after village, Hof after Hof, produced its convinced believers, and more often than not, its martyrs.
Like the Albigenses, years earlier in southern France, these German believers were common people, most of them illiterate. They were busy wives in wimples with children clinging to their skirts, farmers threshing their wheat or making hay together, and young people anxious to please God. In fact, many of them were people on whom the Roman Catholic church had made slight impressions.
Long before arrival of the Poor, the rulers of German lands had accepted Christianity. Counts and nobles had ordered the people baptised and forced them to attend mass. But for many in rural areas the Christian religion remained a matter of state and high society. Beneath their “Christian” obligations (getting their children baptised and attending mass several times a year) rural Germans kept many beliefs of their pagan ancestors alive. They feared the dark. They feared the great forests around them (believing them inhabited by strange spirits) and lived in frequent violence and misery. Men mistreated women and children grew up to lead wild, unhappy lives. Then came the Poor, not only teaching, but living like Christ.
Was this the real church? Unlike what they had heard before, the Gospel taught by the Poor called for drastic changes from sinful to holy living and brought rich and poor, high and low, men and women, onto the same level in Christ. It separated the sincere from the light-hearted like Alpine farmers separated their sheep from the goats. And even the brothers that came with the message stood in sharpest contrast to black robed priests from Rome. Like the people they spoke to they were tradesmen and farmers with common names: Ulrich a shoemaker from Hardeck, Johann a wool spinner from Dichartz, Hans, a smith from the valley of the Enns. . . .
Because it spoke to their hearts, Germans from the Alps to the North Sea, and from the Netherlands to Austria, listened gladly to the message of the Poor and passed it on. Hermann, a brother from the Mistelgau, and a man named Johann travelled up the Danube valley and through Swabia. Nikolaus, a miller’s son from Plauen, and Konrad, from Sachsen, carried it through Hessen, Thüringen, and the German lowlands past Hannover to Bremen. By the mid-1200s the Inquisition reported large concentrations of the Poor in Württemburg and Bavaria, in Sachsen and the Low Countries, and an estimate of eighty thousand in Austria—an alarming situation it could by no means leave unchallenged.
Already in the 1230s—while the crusade against the Albigenses in southern France tailed off—German princes organised massive Ketzerjagde (heretic hunts) with the help of the Dominican order. They burned Waldensian believers in Vienna, in Hamburg, in Bavaria, in Erfurt, and in towns of the Brandenburg region around Berlin. Four hundred died in Stettin (Szczecin) on the Baltic, and untold others in Flanders, the Alsatian region, and Switzerland.
Seeking a place to escape, some believers dug underground catacombs, earning for themselves the name of Grubenheimer (cave dwellers) or turilupini (those who live among wolves). Others fled east to Latvia and Russia. But none, perhaps, made a more significant decision than the Poor that fled, in the 1480s, to the Czech territories of Bohemia and Moravia.
1 From a letter recorded by Eusebius (AD 263-339) in his history of the Church.
2 From Short History of Bosnian Bogomils, Mediaeval Cathares History
3 Catholic Encylopedia: Petrobrusians
5 Ephesians 4:25
6 From a sermon preserved in a hand-written copy of a Provençal New Testament at the St. Pierre palace library in Lyon.
7 From the records of the Inquisition in Languedoc, early 1300s.
8 Gioacchino entered English histories as Joachim of Fiore.
9 From a translation by J. H. Robinson, in Readings in European History, Ginn, Boston, 1905, pp. 381-383
10 From De nugis curalium quoted in Beiträge zur Sektengeschichte des Mittelalters
11 Tourn, Giorgio, and Associates, You Are My Witnesses: The Waldensians across 800 Years, Claudiana Editrice, Torino, 1989
13 Nowhere did the Holy Office of Inquisition become a more dreaded and powerful force than in Spain and its colonies, where it monitored all of life until the nineteenth century. In 1908 the pope renamed it the “Congregation of the Holy Office,” and in 1965 it became the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” with increasing emphasis on promoting Catholic doctrine and less on combating heresy. Its offices are in Vatican City.
14 Tourn, Giorgio, You are my Witnesses