The darkness of the Volkerwanderung and its affect on the historical record.
The origins of the Waldensians are obscure and represent I believe an insolvable puzzle. As I have stated elsewhere the Institution-mindset I think is part of the problem. One will not find buildings with charters and universities etc… with names and dates to signify the commencement of this movement. Also, there is the presupposition of the Episcopal and plural-Episcopal Presbyterian mindset which cannot grasp the Visible Church as a multitude of scattered congregations whose bonds do not consist in Form, but rather in commonality and fellowship based around the Word.
It is reasonable to believe as the Old Catholic Church continued its slide into apostasy, here and there remnant groups began to form. It was happening in the East with groups like the Paulicians. They are often portrayed as being Gnostics, but we will address this at the appropriate time. For now suffice it say the charge is false, and all too common a label to pin on the Medieval 'heretic'. Were they dualistic? Well, even their critics admit they weren't Manichaean. What is the source of the dualism that they and so many of the Western European heretics are accused of? In many cases it is a doctrine concerning the Kingdom, a dichotomy between Christ's people and kingdoms of this world, or as it has been termed elsewhere, a rejection of the Sacralist principle.
What makes it all the more confusing is there were indeed Manichaean, Gnostic-type dualists running around as well. These groups like the Cathars or Albigenses taught a Neo-Platonic theology of emanations and spirit versus matter. To make it even more confusing there were some of their cells which apparently became Waldensian and some Waldensians that apostatized and turned Cathar. There were many of them in the locale I've called elsewhere The Heresy Belt, stretching from the Pyrenees through Southern France and down into Northern Italy virtually to the Adriatic.
One of the main problems historians have is thinking of these groups as creed delineated Denominations rather than as individual cells and congregations. I realize for certain Polity adherents this is troublesome, but to those who insist the Scriptures are sufficient even for Polity and thus argue for Congregationalism…the medieval model is not merely a problem, but the ideal.
Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries was entering the High Middle Ages. The chaos of the Volkerwanderung (c300-700) and the semi-chaotic Early Middle Ages (c.600-1000) had settled down. What was the status of 'heresy' during those times? We don't know for sure. There are only hints.
The Wandering of the Peoples or Migration Period or Volkerwanderung was the time of people like Patrick of Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, it was the time of stories like Beowulf, a time of legends and darkness. Were there people in those times who rejected the apostasy? Certainly. The entity we call the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to form but did not hold universal political power or anything near to it. A heretic in Anglo-Saxon England was not going to be bothered, but because at that time the definition of heretic was still somewhat nebulous. There were still Odin worshippers and quasi-Druids running around. But there is reason to believe their numbers were few. We have people like the Gaul Vigilantius in fifth century Barcelona, but it seems clear that he was already in a minority. Make no mistake, a time of darkness and apostasy was rapidly coming upon the church. And when one considers the incessant war and chaos and the impulse for people just to survive, it would not be surprising that as the 8th or 9th century dawned we would find little in the way of faith on the earth.
Probably the brightest light in terms of the historical record is one Claude or Claudius of Turin. Reputedly a Spaniard from the Pyrenees regions, he had served in the court of Louis the Meek or Pious, king of France, who later in 814 or 817 sent Claude to serve as Bishop of Turin in the Piedmont, the frontier in northwestern Italy adjacent to France, at the time unstable and dangerous due to Saracen raids. This region was known even from earlier times not so much for the Heresy which would come later, but for resisting the growing power of the Papacy in Rome. The north had their own rites and liturgy and considered themselves to not be under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Popes did not have enough power as of yet to stretch out and take one such as Claude. Charlemagne was dead and though the newly created Holy Roman Empire was not lifeless it would regress for awhile until its revival in the 10th century.
Claude was reviled by the monks as a blasphemer and heretic and even his own diocese in Turin largely rebelled against his words.
"Being obliged to accept the bishopric, when I came to Turin, I found all the churches full of abominations and images; and because I began to destroy what everyone adored,everyone began to open his mouth against me. They say, we do not believe that there is anything divine in the image; we only reverence it in honour of the person whom it represents. I answer, if they who quitted the worship of devils, honour the images of the saints, they have not forsaken idols they have only changed the names. For whether you paint upon a wall the pictures of Peter or Paul, or those of Jupiter, Saturn, or Mercury, they are now neither gods, nor apostles, nor men; the name is changed, but the error remains the same. If men must be adored, there would be less absurdity in adoring them when alive, while they are the image of God, then after they are dead,when they only resemble stocks and stones."
Only fragments remain of his writings, which is no surprise considering he was not appreciated by the hierarchy. He wrote commentaries on nearly all the books of the Bible borrowing from men like Augustine and Jerome. Schaff admits "He was a great admirer of Augustin," but then like the good Sacralist he is adds, "but destitute of his wisdom and moderation." Spoken like a true churchman, one Philip Schaff.
Claude traced the image worship to Pelagianism and actively taught Divine Grace and the Sovereignty of God. He said,
"Whoever seeks from any creature in heaven or on earth the salvation which he should seek from God alone, is an idolater."
He condemned the practice of prayers for the dead and the superstitions associated with the sign of the cross, saying, "We should bear it, not adore it."
Thus he banished pictures, crosses, and crucifixes from his churches, and opposed pilgrimages. He was something like the last Puritan of his age, an age that was in reality the dawn of something new. The High Middle Ages would mean a consolidated Christendom and a time of darkness but great deeds for the underground church.
Paschalis I, the Bishop of Rome censured him and several other ecclesiastics opposed him. As usual when one didn't follow their image worship they would turn to the accusation of Arianism or Adoptionism. We see these misleading accusations repeated all throughout the Middle Ages. They would use arguments like, you must an Arian because if you believed Christ was divine you would adore His image. The Adoptionist argument was along the same lines.
Claude's last act was somehow tied in with a charter pertinent to an already existing monastery in the nearby Val di Susa. This Valley lies in the heart of what would later become known as the Waldensian Valleys and it is due to these connections and the Waldensian tradition that Claude is often considered their originator.
19th Century scholarship debunked this, but you'll pardon me for being a little skeptical of 19th century scholarship which has given us many false and foul things. I will argue that it was likely Claude had some followers and perhaps near his death feared for them and was helping to establish something of a ecclesiastical buffer for them…it's quite possible, but we can't be sure.
The common view today is the Waldensians originated with Peter Waldo in the late 12th century, although many of the Waldensians themselves rejected this claim, and insisted the group dated back to the time of Pope Sylvester and the Donation of Constantine. This is unrealistic to argue for a continuous succession all the way to the fourth century. To make it even more confusing there were some asserted that Peter Waldo started them at the time of Pope Sylvester, placing Waldo about eight centuries too soon.
What are the arguments against the Peter Waldo founding theory?
There are several answers to this.
1. The common Waldensian argument was that they weren't named after Peter Waldo, but rather he was Valdesius and the name Waldensian or Vaudois as they are often called on the French side of the Alps does not signify this Valdesius but rather means Valley Dweller in the local Roumant patois.
2. Or, they had been called something else but since Peter became such an important figure, they were after called by this name.
3. Or, that Peter became an important figure and thus became known as Peter the Waldensian, the Valley Dweller.
All things considered, we just don't know. It would seem there was dissent long before Waldo and rather Valdesius showed up in the 12th century. He interacted with other existing dissent groups. That alone tells us there were others before him. The crux of the proto-protestant position often revolves around a rejection of Sacralism, epitomized in the Donation of Constantine. It was the Church becoming a political power that led the underground to cry….the Antichrist of Scripture is here!
That said, though unable to prove it, I think it plausible and even probable that dissent began to appear in earnest in the 9th century resulting from the formation of the Holy Roman Empire and the appearance of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals including the Donation of Constantine.
The Paulicians had already split in the East, but the East in general has a different character, more divided and sectarian. In the West, the mid-ninth century would be a starting point. Claude was likely not alone and anyway had died just a few years before these documents came into circulation. So was he the founder? Maybe, but there were probably numerous groups forming up around that general time period. Historians are often baffled at where 'heresy' turns up. It's obvious there were groups of people buried back in the hills. There must have been generations during some of those dark times when it seems that Faith had disappeared from the earth.
As I've written elsewhere many of the historians date the origins of these groups from the time they appear in ecclesiastical records. But this is to argue from silence. When one considers the state of the Roman Church in the 9th-11th centuries, as well as the state of Europe in general, it is not surprising there are no records. Between Viking, Magyar, and Saracen raids, inter-kingdom strife, and the disarray and near collapse of the Papacy...I will continue to contend, heretics had pretty free reign. Depending on their situation they would have to be discreet, but even Claude in the ninth century couldn't be silenced, though the Pope and other prelate were against him. They had no teeth as of yet, and half pagan rulers are hardly interested in waging war on their own subjects to please the creatures of an often rival bureaucracy and power.
It was only with the Hildebrandian ere in the late 11th century that we see the shift occur. And then as we near the Papal zenith of Innocent III, suddenly these folks begin to appear on the radar. And then with the onset of the Inquisition in the 1220's and 30's, suddenly we have copious records. It makes sense.
Lack of documentation for the 9th-11th century does not disprove the existence and presence of a Medieval Underground. And rather than interpreting the tens of thousands of them appearing suddenly in the 12th and 13th century it makes more sense to assume these groups were already long standing as their own lore suggests.