The Waldenses — Their Valleys
From Wylie’s History of Protestantism, edited by Dr Clive Gillis
British Church Newspaper
Faithful Archbishop Claude of Turin died but the battle continued.
Already Churches beyond the Alps had submitted to Rome, and yet that arrogant power was being humiliated on her own territory. She was venerated abroad but contemned at home.
The Bishops of Milan were again asked to accept the episcopal pall from the Pope, the badge of spiritual vassalage. Eventually pope Nicholas II succeeded in the 11th century. Petrus Damianus, Bishop of Ostia, and Anselm, Bishop of Lucca, were dispatched by the Pontiff to receive the submission of the Lombard Churches. Popular tumults at the submission show that the spirit of Claude still lingered at the foot of the Alps. Nor did the clergy conceal their regret. Papal legate, Damianus, informs us they maintained in his presence, "That the Ambrosian Church, according to the ancient institutions of the Fathers, was always free, without being subject to the laws of Rome, and that the Pope of Rome had no jurisdiction over their Church as to the government or constitution of it".
But if the plains were conquered, not so the mountains. A considerable body of Protesters stood out against this deed of submission. Of these, some crossed the Alps, descended the Rhine, and raised the standard of opposition in the diocese of Cologne, where they were branded as Manicheans, and rewarded with the stake. Others retired into the valleys of the Piedmontese Alps, and there maintained their scriptural faith and their ancient independence.
What we have just related respecting the dioceses of Milan and Turin settles the question, in our opinion, of the apostolicity of the Churches of the Waldensian valleys. It is not necessary to show that missionaries were sent from Rome in the first age to plant Christianity in these valleys, nor is it necessary to show that these Churches have existed as distinct and separate communities from early days. Enough that they formed a part, as unquestionably they did, of the great evangelical Church of the north of Italy. This is the proof at once of their apostolicity and their independence. It attests their descent from apostolic men, if doctrine be the life of Churches. When their co-religionists on the plains entered within the pale of the Roman jurisdiction, they retired within the mountains, and, spurning alike the tyrannical yoke and the corrupt tenets of the Church of the Seven Hills, they preserved in its purity and simplicity the faith their fathers had handed down to them. Rome manifestly was the schismatic, she it was that had abandoned what was once the common faith of Christendom. By that step she forfeited the title of the True Church to all who remained on the old ground. They indisputably inherited the valid title.
Behind this rampart of mountains, which Providence, foreseeing the approach of evil days, would almost seem to have reared on purpose, did the remnant of the early apostolic Church of Italy kindle their lamp, and here did that lamp continue to burn all through the long night which descended on Christendom. Their traditions invariably point to an unbroken descent from the earliest times. The Nobla Leycon, which dates from the year 1100 proves they did not owe their rise to Peter Waldo of Lyons, who did not appear till later. The Nobla Leycon is a poetic confession of faith. Its authors clearly demonstrate the difference between truth and the errors of Rome. How could a Church have arisen with such a document in her hands? Or how could these herdsmen and vine-dressers, shut up in their mountains (see illustration) have detected the errors against which they bore testimony, and found their way to the truths of which they made open profession in times of darkness like these? If we grant that their religious beliefs were the heritage of former ages, handed down from an evangelical ancestry, all is plain, otherwise we assert a miracle. Their greatest enemies, Claude Seyssel of Turin (1517), and Reynerius the Inquisitor (1250), have admitted their antiquity, and stigmatized them as "the most dangerous of all heretics, because the most ancient".
Alps like a great wall
Rorenco, Prior of St. Roch, Turin (1640), having access to all the Waldensian documents in the ducal archives, was employed to investigate the origin and antiquity of the Waldenses. As their bitter enemy he may be presumed to have made his report not more favorable than he could help. Yet he states that "they were not a new sect in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that Claude of Turin must have detached them from the Church in the ninth century". Thus did God provide a dwelling for this venerable Church. As one comes from the south, across the level plain of Piedmont one sees the Alps rise , stretching like a great wall along the horizon. These mountains present a line of towering magnificence. Pasturages and chestnut-forests clothe their base; eternal snows crown their summits. Some rise strong and massy as castles; others shoot up tall and tapering like needles; while others again run along in serrated lines, their summits torn and cleft by the storms of many thousand winters. At the hour of sunrise, what a glory kindles along the crest of that snowy rampart! At sunset the spectacle is again renewed as a line of pyres burn in the evening sky.
The entrance to Waldensian territory is a low hill serving as a defense against those with hostile intent. West of Turin the Castelluzzo stands as sentinel at the gate. As one approaches La Torre the Castelluzzo rises higher and higher. It is indissolubly linked with martyr-memories, and borrows a halo from the achievements of the past. How often, in days of old, was the confessor hurled sheer down its awful steep and dashed on the rocks at its foot! And there, commingled in one ghastly heap, growing ever the bigger and ghastlier as another and yet another victim was added to it, lay the mangled bodies of pastor and peasant, of mother and child!
We recall Milton's well-known sonnet:
"Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughter'd saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold.
... in Thy book record their groans
Who were Thy sheep, and in their ancient fold,
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that roll'd
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
The valley of Luserna (that is, of Light. It is now known as the Pelice - pronounced pel lee chay - Valley, as the embarrassing past is slowly covered over) is a grand gorge through which runs the Pelice river. Rora, or Valley of Dews is a vast cup, some fifty miles in circumference, its sides luxuriantly clothed with meadow and corn-field, with fruit and forest trees, and its rim formed of craggy and spiky mountains, many of them snow-clad. Angrogna the Valley of Groan we shall speak of more particularly afterwards*. Beyond lies a further four valleys like the rim of a wheel enclosed by a line of lofty and craggy mountains defending the entire territory. Each valley is a fortress, having its own gate of ingress and egress, with its caves, and rocks, and mighty chestnut-trees, forming places of retreat and shelter, so that the highest engineering skill could not have better adapted each several valley to its end. It is not less remarkable that, taking all these valleys together, each is so related to each, and the one opens so into the other, that they may be said to form one fortress of amazing and matchless strength. All the fortresses of Europe would not form a citadel so enormously strong.
"The Eternal, our God," says their pastor Leger, "having destined this land to be the theatre of His marvels, and the bulwark of His ark, has, by natural means, most marvelously fortified it". The battle begun in one valley could be continued in another, and carried round the entire territory, till at last the invading foe, overpowered by the rocks rolled upon him from the mountains, or assailed by enemies which would start suddenly out of the mist or issue from some unsuspected cave, found retreat impossible, and, cut off in detail, left his bones to whiten the mountains he had come to subdue.
These valleys are lovely and fertile, as well as strong. They are watered by numerous torrents, which descend from the snows of the summits. The grassy carpet of their bottom; the mantling vine and the golden grain of their lower slopes; the chalets that dot their sides, sweetly embowered amid fruit-trees; and, higher up, the great chestnut-forests and the pasture-lands, where the herdsmen keep watch over their flocks all through the summer days and the starlit nights: the nodding crags, from which the torrent leaps into the light; the rivulet, singing with quiet gladness in the shady nook; the mists, moving grandly among the mountains, now veiling, now revealing their majesty; and the far-off summits, tipped with silver, to be changed at eve into gleaming gold.
In the heart of their mountains is situated the most interesting, perhaps, of all their valleys. It was in this retreat, walled round by "hills whose heads touch heaven," that their barbes or pastors, from all their several parishes, were wont to meet in annual synod. It was here that their college stood, and it was here that their missionaries were trained, and, after ordination, were sent forth to sow the good seed, as opportunity offered, in other lands. Let us visit this valley. We ascend to it by the long, narrow, and winding Angrogna. Bright meadows enliven its entrance. The mountains on either hand are clothed with the vine, the mulberry, and the chestnut. Anon the valley contracts. It becomes rough with projecting rocks, and shady with great trees. A few paces farther, and it expands into a circular basin, feathery with birches, musical with falling waters, environed atop by naked crags, fringed with dark pines, while the white peak looks down upon one out of heaven. A little in advance the valley seems shut in by a mountainous wall, drawn right across it; and beyond, towering sublimely upward, is seen an assemblage of snow-clad Alps, amid which is placed the valley we are in quest of, where burned of old the candle of the Waldenses ... This was the inner sanctuary of the Waldensian temple. The rest of Italy had turned aside to idols but the Waldensian territory alone had been reserved for the worship of the true God.
*Clearly the Sports Utility Vehicle, the winter sports enthusiasm and the depopulation of the valleys has changed things drastically in the last 30 years but these basic topographical truths remain. We need to take in Wylie‘ s description and dwell on the plethora of old engravings to appreciate the Waldensian miracle. The testimony that when the dragon was wroth with the remnant of the seed of the woman and went to make war against her she was both nourished and sheltered from much harm for a time and times and half a time in this mountain fortress is at the heart of our Protestant heritage.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism and edited by Dr Clive Gillis.