The Huguenots, Waldenses, and Catharians

The Huguenots

In Europe, the Reformation movement relied upon different groups of support: In Germany, on the sovereigns and soon afterwards on the people; in England, on the Royal House - although it was clearly more interested in independence from Rome, than in a new formation of faith; and in France, where the Reformation collapsed, it was supported by the noblemen and the property-owning classes.

Right from the beginning the political influence in France was apparent, and the ethnic polarity between the North and the South of France only added to the tension. The followers called themselves Huguenots: their reformed leader was the Calvinistic (rather than Lutheran) orientated theologian, Cornelis Jansen (1585-1638), who founded "Jansenism". A monastery situated near Paris called "Port-Royal" was used as a spiritual centre. Here significant intellectuals gathered, amongst whom the mathematician and respected thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is especially noted.

Royal troops storm a prayer room of the Huguenots. One of the numerous depictions of the fight between the monarchy and the rebellious, reforming nobles. The notorious "Bartholomew's Night", which followed the 'Parisian blood wedding', quickly resulted in a general public slaughter. The occasion for the persecution of the Huguenots on "Bartholomew's Night" was the wedding of Heinrich of Navarra and Margarete of Valois. Pulling the strings of the surprise attack on the Huguenots was the Queen Mother, Katharina of Medici. The Royal court remained Catholic, and in its distress chose the most radical and most unspiritual method of rule: the Huguenots were simply killed - a fateful prelude to the later reversed revolution.

After a cruel massacre had taken place in Vassy in 1562, under the false pretence of reconciliation. Huguenots from all over the country came to the celebration of a royal wedding in Paris, which was used as the occasion for a gruesome slaughter. The number of victims of this systematic extermination is generally said to have been in the "tens-of- thousands" throughout the country. This mass murder occurred during the night of 23rd-24th August, 1572; the notorious "Bartholomew's Night". Without a doubt, neither the Pope, nor the French church initiated this atrocity. However, when he received the message (which may have been incomplete), Gregory XIII (1572-1585) not only sang a Tedium in Rome, but after having received more detailed information, he even had a commemorative coin minted. This is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Roman church. Of course, just as the extermination of the German Protestants during the Thirty-Year-War was not successful, so the annihilation of the Huguenots was not completed. Even though many of their noblemen emigrated - amongst other places to Germany - the bitterness that remained in the country was so severe that finally freedom of religion had to be granted (Edict of Poitiers, 1577).

The Dutch catholic theologian Cornelis Jansen became Bishop of Ypers. Striving for Truth through his religious writings he became one of the leading figures of the Huguenots and their followers. The doctrine of "Jansenism" came out of his main work "Augustinus", in which he approved of Calvin's teaching of trusting in grace.

Those of the Huguenots who had emigrated stayed in contact with those at home. In foreign lands such as Germany, England, Russia, and also in Italy, they certainly did not disappear in shame, nor did they organise themselves into small church groups. Their industrious manner, which derived from their Calvinistic roots, greatly profited their host countries, both culturally and economically. Even at an old age, the German convert Gertrud von le Fort (1876-1971) prided herself on her Huguenot origins. It has to be mentioned that the French people also knew of the dynastic motives for the mass murder and of the central figure involved - the Queen Mother, Katharina of Medici (1519-1589). When she died, 17 years after "Bartholomew's Night", she had become such a hated and despised person in Paris that her death was only acknowledged with a kind of cynical satisfaction. A contemporary report stated that she "perished like a cat."

Waldenses and Catharians

A return to the roots of Christianity, to an apostolic life with classless brotherhood, to voluntary poverty and daily association with the Gospel - With this reform programme, which initially showed loyalty to the Church, two 12th century movements were a potential source of great enrichment for Christianity: the "Waldenses" and the "Catharians". Unfortunately, the initial relationship between them and the "official" church soon turned into such severe hostility, that Rome proclaimed their extermination by fire and by the sword. Both movements came out of the wealthiest and most highly educated areas of Europe at that time, in the land of the Troubadours: Provence and Aquitania. They spread across Northern Italy and far into Germany in their protest against the church, which had become paralysed by feudalism and political quarrels for power. The ideals of poverty and brotherhood which they practised, made the nobility and its property-orientated hierarchy look obviously unjust - even without any of their zealous preaching - such that even the Franciscan movement, which emerged shortly afterwards was met with much distrust (i.e. Francis of Assisi, approx. 1181-1226; Dominican, approx. 1170-1221; Conversion of Peter Waldo, 1176; and Pope Innocence III's Proclamation of a crusade against the Catharians and Waldenses, 1208). After the break-up with the "Roman Church" and the rapidly evolving persecution of heretics, these reformation movements had in the meantime developed their own controversial theology; condemning most of the Sacraments, as well as the hierarchy of offices, as being anti-Evangelical/Protestant. Right from the start the Waldenses caused much annoyance, because they - contrary to the official teaching - believed that the validity of the sacraments depended on the worthiness of the priest.

By 1176, the reformer Peter Waldo had already founded, in Lyon, the movement which was to be named after him: the "Waldenses". Opposing a merciless, feudalistic world, he put into effect the "poverty ideal" of the Gospel. Likewise, this foundation of being poor beggars formed an answer for his followers "the Waldenses", and similarly for the Catharians. Peter Waldo (1148-1217), who was a rich merchant from Lyon, followed the advice which Christ gave to the rich young man and gave all he owned to the poor, to henceforth live his life in much simplicity and for the proclamation of Christian charity. The number of his followers increased rapidly despite persecution by the Inquisition. After many years of travelling to further the Reformation, Peter Waldo went missing. However, his followers held a convention in Bergamo in 1228, to co-ordinate the various doctrines which had arisen in the meantime. Even though the number of followers was relatively insignificant, the Fellowship of the Waldenses still exists today in Germany, as well as elsewhere in Europe. However, they never joined any of the Protestant or Reformed churches, although many of their ideas were later adopted by the Reformers.

Unlike the Waldenses, whose basis was their own interpretation of the Gospel, the Catharians (in France they were called "Albigenses" after the town Albi, which was their Headquarters) brought a number of ideas into their doctrine. Their religious ideas were dominated by a vigorous dualism between good and evil, spirit and matter, the God-given soul and the sinful body, and consequently strong contempt for the world. They were, therefore, not possibly suitable to be called a common church. Although they referred to Christ and the Gospel, the Catharians were certainly not the forerunners of the Reformation (despite the word "heretic" being derived from their name in the German language: "Ketzer"). The only similarity that can be seen is in their rejection of the Catholic Church structure; their sacraments and their ministry. This dualism could also be seen in the division of their members into the "perfect" ones, who lived in a strictly ascetic and also vegetarian manner, and the other remaining members, the "believers". Of the sacraments, they only believed in the laying on of hands to be appointed by Christ, the so-called “CONSOLAMENTUM", whereby one could obtain the position and duties of a "perfect one". For this reason, most believers waited until their hour of death had come. The persecution of the Catharians, which was also supported by some bishops, was so brutal that nowadays it is even disapproved of in Roman Catholic representations of church history. Since the persecuted faced death in a heroic and uncompromising manner (Montségur, 1244), esoteric ideas which largely came from the Troubadours (for example, in the administering of the "Grals-tradition") are remembered in literature and art (Wagner) to this day, beginning with Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the Order of St. Dominic (Franciscan movement) also succeeded in making some true conversions. Their founding basis was preaching the Word, and they portrayed the idea of poverty and brotherhood, just as their opponents did. Many of its members were killed after being handed over to the Inquisition. The Catharians and their influence no longer existed from the middle of the 14th century onwards.

by Bruno Moser

Translated from the German: "Die Hugenotten, Waldenser und Katherer"