In Lyon situated in the Rhone Valley there appeared in the late 12th century a man named Valdesius or Valdes. The story goes that he was a rich man who was convicted by a poverty tale told by jongleur. Valdesius much like Francis of Assisi was so shaken up he forsook his material goods, left his family after making provision for them and took to preaching and begging. The Passau Anonymous and others tell variations of this same tale.
Another chronicler, the Laon Anonymous reports him beginning to preach in 1177. This lay preaching caused a stir because of its moralistic tone, rather critical of the clergy of the day. Remember this is just a few years before the Papacy of Innocent III. This is a hundred years after Canossa and Hildebrand. The church which we certainly can now only call Roman Catholic had really come into its own. It has become rich and powerful but is not yet fully organized. There are still vast areas lacking parish priests, the people are ignorant, and in many cases the nobles and landholders are not kindly disposed to the Roman prelates, many of whom are quite wealthy. So a group of deliberately poor wandering preachers criticizing the vice and riches of the spiritual lords was bound to draw crowds.
This began to grow into a movement and even contemporary accounts admit they 'mingled with other heretics,' which of course assumes there were other already existing groups. In no way does this mean all these groups were good. We know of a few, but very little about them. There was in northern Italy a group called the Humiliati which seemed to embrace some kind of severe asceticism. There were the Sandalati, itinerants named for the wooden shoes they often wore. There was also a group known as the Poor Lombards which we will return to.
As mentioned elsewhere, the Cathars were also very active in the south of France and northern Italy. They represented a Syncretism, an odd conflation of Christian ideas and terms with different Manichaean and Neo-Platonic influences. For the most part, these groups though very popular were not Christian.
The Valdesius group apparently became known as the Poor of Lyon and was operating loosely within the confines of Roman authority. This ended in 1184 at the Council of Verona where this type of lay preaching with the particular focus on Apostolic poverty was condemned. Some of the Humiliati had joined with the Lyon group and thus the Humiliati were also condemned. Up until this point, this Lyonist group was operating alongside of and within the church.
Valdesius and many of his followers did not accept the ruling of the council and journeyed back toward the Alps into southern France.
At this point in the record the Italian group known as the Poor Lombards becomes more prominent. Some have suggested they were started by Valdesius, but there is also evidence to indicate they already existed.
For the next generation or so, we have these two groups, which seem to be loose categorizations at best operating and to some degree interacting on either side of the Alps. The Lyon group particularly venerated Valdesius as a great leader, seemed more concerned to stay within the confines of Catholic church acting instead as a substitute for preaching in areas where the Cathars so dominated, that there were virtually no Catholic clergy. So right away we see a conflict between the Lyon group and the Cathars over issues of doctrine. But the Lyon group struggles as to their identity, are they sort of protesting Catholics, or outside of the Catholic church?
The Lyon group also suffered from several prominent defections, and the attempt by these defectors to establish a parallel group called the Poor Catholics. In the end, these groups faded away and the Lyon group dispersed into small groupings. With the coming of the Inquisition they reached a crisis and were almost wiped out. While maintaining the validity and use of Roman sacraments their followers in many cases were willing to turn away from them when the fires of persecution came.
The Lombard group in Italy flourished and took a hard line against the Catholic ritual and hierarchy. They insisted on only following the Bible and thus ran into difficulties when they had contact with Lyonists who were still nominally Catholic. There is also record of a surprising amount of theological development on their part. With the rejection of Oaths and Purgatory, we see a critique of the Church exercising the sword against the Cathars, a doctrine of traduceanism, as well as an overall rejection of Catholic additions to life and worship.
Six men from each party met at Bergamo in 1218 and tried to reach some kind of consensus. The Lombards were reticent to elevate Valdesius, refused to allow additions to the Scripture, and the conference broke down over the validity of the Catholic Mass.
The Lyonists would administer sacraments in remote areas where there were no Catholic Bishops available. But the Lombards refused the Sacraments from the corrupt Catholic priests, administered their own, and had established their own theological schools and apparently even some hospitals, which may have functioned also as inns or way-houses for the travelling faithful. We even know they sent a report of the Bergamo meeting to other Lombards in Germany. This would be a fairly stunning achievement for a group founded only thirty years before by Valdesius, and proceeding with all of these things in a hostile environment. It would seem, especially with the German connection, this was an older group.
The issue of the validity of the Catholic Mass raises some of the complexities of Medieval Underground life. I've discussed these in the previous post on the Logistics of the Underground, wherein I describe the different geographical and political situations believers would find themselves in and how they could respond.
With the division between the Lyonist and Lombard groups we see two strong strains in what we will come to call Waldensian thought and practice.
There were those who went all the way and rejected the Roman Catholic Church and all that went with it. For these folks, their lives were truly out-law. You either had to live somewhere removed, possibly buried in the middle of a town, or have a unique situation where your local lord or priest just didn't care if you attended church or not.
You nominally went along with Catholic practice and lived as a Nicodemite. You attended Mass, gritting you teeth through it or not, and then assembled with the devout at night and in secret. There were some who apparently attended the Mass out of vital necessity. They would suffer punishment or death if they didn’t. And for some you might just as easily refer to them as nominal Waldensians. They did believe in the Catholic rite and succession but apparently just liked the teaching and the Bible-focus of the Waldensian congregations. These folks are in some ways the most baffling because they risked all but didn't seem to truly hold to the convictions.
A final note on Valdesius. We have no record of his first name being Peter and we have every reason to believe he died in southern France. Yet, we have unsubstantiated stories of Peter Waldo dying in Bohemia? The name Peter is not found until perhaps a century after the death of Valdesius, which was certainly before the Bergamo conference in 1218.
So who is Peter Waldo? Apparently there was some confusion in the passing down of the story, or what is more likely, there was someone else, well known, named Peter who ended up in Bohemia and had a profound influence on the congregations there. In time he was conflated with Valdesius? At least it is a possibility.
We have a record of a group of Waldenses discovered in Strasbourg in 1212. They reported to the Bishop that they had three leaders, men who headed other groups of Waldenses. One was in Strasbourg, one in Milan, and one in Bohemia. Obviously these were well established groups exhibiting organization and discourse between the different regions. This would seem almost too soon for a group founded by Valdesius. It's possible that he did make it to Bohemia, but to be so widespread as an underground movement seems unlikely. In addition, the groups in Germany and Bohemia were definitely more of the Lombard variety rather than the quasi-Catholic Lyonist sect with which Valdesius is associated.
In the 1230's everything would change. The Papacy now realized that within Christendom were masses of people who rejected the Pope, his authority, and hierarchy. From this point on there are many records, but the tale is often a sad one. We have reached the time of the Inquisition.