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Since the 12th cent. the name ‘Waldenses’ has been applied to several groups of heretics. In the 16th cent. one group adopted Calvinism and formed a ‘Waldensian’ Protestant Church, the ‘Chiesa Evangelica Valdese’.

The earliest sources attribute the foundation of the ‘Waldensian’ heresy to one Valdes; the form Waldo and the addition of Peter to his name are later. Valdes was a rich citizen of Lyons; c.1170–3 he underwent a conversion, gave his wealth to the poor and began to live on alms and preach. His way of life was approved by Alexander III in 1179, so long as he and his followers refrained from preaching except at the invitation of the clergy. In 1180 Valdes subscribed a profession of orthodox belief, but soon afterwards he and his followers broke the Church's ban on unofficial preaching and in 1182/3 they were excommunicated and expelled from Lyons. At the Council of Verona (1184) they were included with the Cathars and others in the general condemnation of heretics. At this stage the movement was characterized by itinerant lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and works of charity.

Around the time of Valdes's death (which occurred between 1205 and 1218), the movement was split by a series of schisms. One group, known as ‘Poor Lombards’, established in and around Milan and Piacenza, in 1205 broke with the group centred in Lyons. The ‘Lyonnais’ themselves split in 1207 when Valdes's former follower Durand of Osca led some of them back to Catholic obedience. Others returned to Catholicism in 1210. By the 1220s there were Waldenses in what is now Germany. It seems that they confined their preaching to known sympathizers, distrusted the Catholic clergy and the sacraments offered by them, had doubts about prayer for the dead and purgatory, and insisted on their right to preach. By the 1290s there were Waldenses in the SW Alps, Austria, and elsewhere. From the 14th cent. a more attenuated form of heresy characterized the various groups: they entertained doubts about the Church's rites but in many cases continued to participate in them. Soon after the outbreak of the Hussite schism in Bohemia, contact was established between the German Waldenses and the Bohemian heretics.

The Waldenses of the SW Alps, who had by 1500 spread to parts of Provence, Calabria, and Apulia, quickly took an interest in the Protestant Reformation, but not until between c.1555 and c.1564 did they form distinct Protestant Churches with settled pastors sent by J. Calvin from Geneva, a Genevan confession and ordinance. With the advent of Protestantism, the Waldenses lost their separate identity except in the parts of the Alpine valleys which fell under the Dukes of Savoy. From 1561 they were usually tolerated but sometimes persecuted. In 1848 the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese was given full civil rights in Piedmont–Savoy. Its worship is still based on 16th-cent. Genevan Protestantism.

Subjects: Christianity — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).

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