The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580 by Ewan Cameron

The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580This book carefully sifts the historical evidence in order to demonstrate that much of the historiography of the Waldenses is smoke and mirrors. How can this be?

1 – the Waldenses were a rural community whose lore was oral and proverbial rather than written. There is very little we can say for certain about them.

2 – the accusation of Waldensian heresy was taken up by the Reformers and turned into a matter of pride. These retrospectively projected Protestantism on this particular, stubborn and somewhat religiously autonomous people. “They were special only because propagandists paid so much attention to them” (262).

3 – the Waldensians responded to medieval corruptions by developing self-reliant patterns of practice and piety, preferring their own confessors and variations in rites and practice. Rather than a monastic reform, which was more characteristic of the middle ages, they relied on their informal clergy, known as barbes.

77 “Waldensian teaching was that because priests lived too fast and loose, they had lost the power to absolve sins, or even administer sacraments, according to some; the barbes, by constrast, were saintly men, imitators of the apostles, and had at least as much, or possibly more power, when compared to the priests.”

253 “The first striking feature of the Waldensian heresy to emerge from this examination is its lay character.” This was a departure from the medieval order, which is what made them suspect to those who kept records.

254 “Equally, the most distinctive features of heretical practice were those which were on the fringes of religious behaviour. They were: a preference for intermarriage and the maintenance of a close community; a conscious avoidance of casual blasphemy, to the point of seeming sanctimonious; the use of separate rituals in burial; and the cultivation of special emblems, like the barbes’ needles. In contrast to these signs, the worship and beliefs of the Waldenses were distinguished by irregularity and conventionality.”

“The popular nature of this dissent, finally, is most important. Its popular character lay most visibly in its failure to use logic to sort out the implications of its beliefs.”

256 “In their doctrines we have seen little evidence to place the Waldenses amongst the precursors of the reformers.”

258 Cameron stresses the importance of the rural setting. There is more difference between rural and urban reformations than between differing rural phenomena. “In the countryside protestant and catholic could mix, and in the case of the Valtelline even share places of worship.”

261 “The Waldenses reveal themselves simply as a group of people dedicated to their distinct, communal vision of their own importance and their own holiness, a group which refused to be bullied or distracted by outsiders unless for the most pressing of reasons.” To what is this owing? Mostly their setting in deep valleys of difficult access in the Alps (12).

Sometimes that’s what research achieves. It is an interesting historiographical lesson.

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4 thoughts on “The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580 by Ewan Cameron

  1. In May I taught a Church History seminar session on the Waldensians. This author may be just as much a propagandist as those he indicts among the Reformers. Romanists have slandered the followers of Peter Waldo for centuries, and some of this appears to get repeated in this work. The lack of documentation and mountain valley seclusion may be due in part to the violent and torturous attempts to exterminate them, some of which would put ISIS to shame. Recently an RCC Arch-Bishop and a Pope apologized to these “heretics” for the horrors that were inflicted on them in the name of the Roman papal authority. There is most definitely another side to this “historiography.” See the following resources on the Waldensians from my file for some of this.

    Chris Accardy, “Calvin’s Ministry To The Waldensians,” Reformation and Revival 10:4 (Fall 2001), pp. 45-60.

    American Waldensian Society at http://www.waldensian.org/ [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    Dictionary of the Christian Church, eds. F. L. Cross, and E. A. Livingstone, 3rd ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 1997; original title: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church), pp. 1714-1715, s.v. “Waldenses, also Vaudois.”

    W. Robert Godfrey, “Peter Waldo and the Waldensians,” Tabletalk Magazine (1 SEP 2012), on Ligonier Ministries at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/peter-waldo-and-the-waldensians/ [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    Dennis McCallum, “The Waldensian Movement From Waldo to the Reformation,” on Xenos
    Christian Fellowship at http://www.xenos.org/essays/waldensian-movement-waldo-reformation [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    James Edward McGoldrick, Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History, ATLA Monograph Series, No. 32 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994), pp. 70-85.

    Sherman Roddy, “Waldenses,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, eds. Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), pg. 548.

    Giorgio Tourn, The Waldensians: the first 800 years (1174-1974), trans. Camillo P. Merlino, ed. Charles W. Arbuthnot (Torino, IT: Claudiana Editrice, 1980).

    “The Waldensians” (18 JUL 2011), on The Reformation at http://www.thereformation.info/waldensians.htm [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    “Waldensians” on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldensians [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    “A Waldensian Time Line,” on The Reformation at http://www.thereformation.info/waldensian_time_line.htm [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    “Waldensians: Medieval “Evangelicals”,” Christian History 22 (1989); on Christianity Today at
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-22/ [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    Waldensian Trail of Faith at http://www.waldensiantrailoffaith.org/ [accessed 9 MAY 2017].


    James Aitken Wylie, History of the Waldenses, 4th ed. (New York: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., n.d., 1979 reprint of 1880 edition); on Hathi Trust at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo1.ark:/13960/t0dv23s89;view=1up;seq=13 [accessed 9 MAY 2017]; and on Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/cu31924099176046 [accessed 13 MAY 2017].

    Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Pope Apologizes to ‘First Evangelicals’ for Persecution” (7 JUL 2015), on Christianity Today at http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/july/pope-apologizes-to-first-evangelicals-for-persecution.html [accessed 9 MAY 2017].

    1. Yes, this is just one book’s argument, and limited only to the end of the phenomenon. It does sound like something you ought to read, however. Perhaps I have misunderstood Cameron’s argument. Oxford Historical Monographs may err, but I’d mistrust the sources you list (are you kidding me? you put historiography in scare quotes and then quote Wikipedia and popular evangelical publications? “Waldensians, Medieval ‘Evangelicals'” says it all, talk about “historiography”!) or my own ability to understand a book long before I mistrust historiography they endorse.

  2. I agree that it is something I should read, that is, if a local library has a copy given the price for this volume! To put any concerns at rest I used those who wanted to read “evangelical” back into this group as bad examples when I taught the seminar. Also, I would point out that my resource list above intentionally includes a wide variety of sources for a local church audience. I would commend to you those by W. Robert Godfrey, James Edward McGoldrick, and especially Giorgio Tourn, and James Aitken Wylie on this subject as worth considering. I mean no disrespect to Cameron. He probably is aware of the works by Tourn and Wylie, and his own work may be a worthy counter to some of these sources. Without aligning myself with the Waldensians theologically or ecclesiologically I still argue that their side of this sad historical era has not often been given an objective hearing due to the “powers that were” both controlling the extant documents, and destroying any that did not toe their line (along with those who opposed them).

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