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Waldensians, Women, and Preaching as a Political Act

One Sunday around 1173, in Lyons, a wealthy financier named Waldo heard a traveling singer tell the story of St. Alexis, the son of a Roman senator who fled his family, became a beggar, and took to a life of prayer and service. Moved, he hurried to talk to a theologian, who told him of Jesus’ exhortation: if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor. And so he did.

One Sunday around 1173, in Lyons, a wealthy financier named Waldo heard a traveling singer tell the story of St. Alexis, the son of a Roman senator who fled his family, became a beggar, and took to a life of prayer and service. Moved, he hurried to talk to a theologian, who told him of Jesus’ exhortation: if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor. And so he did. He gave all of his real estate to his wife—the chronicler specifies, his “lands, waters, woods, meadows, houses, rents, vineyards, mills, and ovens”—and gave his money to the poor. He apparently made a bit of a show of handing out his money, and people started to think he had lost his mind. In fact, that seems to have been the point. Once a decent crowd had gathered, he found a perch and began to preach:

My friends and fellow townsmen! Indeed, I am not, as you think, insane, but I have taken vengeance on my enemies who held me in bondage to them, so that I was always more anxious about money than about God and served the creature more than the Creator. I know that a great many find fault with me for having done this publicly. But I did it for myself and also for you: for myself, so that those who may henceforth see me in possession of money may think I am mad; in part also for you, so that you may learn to fix your hope in God and to trust not in riches.[1]

This whole conversion is a script that Francis of Assisi would follow almost to the letter a little over thirty years later. But while almost everyone knows the Franciscans, the Waldensians have largely been forgotten. Waldo’s followers scarcely survived a decade before being condemned as heretics. They were driven gradually underground over the course of the next century, but—uniquely among medieval heretical groups—managed to cling to existence until finding comraderie with some Reformed communities in the 16th century. Some Waldensian communities still exist today, and are counted among the Protestants.

What made the difference to their historical fate, more than anything else, was their attitudes to authority. Francis went out of his way to defer to the clergy. Waldo belonged to a new tradition of lay “apostles” whose preaching was partly an act of defiance against the clergy, who were seen as complacent and corrupt. Yet the ecclesiastical structure been growing increasingly well defined over the course of the twelfth century, and it was also increasingly integral to the broader authority structures of European life. In that context, an assault on clerical privilege was an act of political dissent.

The fact that an untrained layman insisted on preaching was provocation enough, but the Waldensians also allowed women to preach. Throughout the twelfth century, women had been finding more and more ways to makes themselves part of European “religious” life—which is to say, a life that “renounced the world for Christ,” turning away from mainstream practice and towards a more rigorous identification with Christ and the apostles. In a number of popular renewal movements, men and women traveled together. Women claimed to be living the vita apostolica along with men. This all seemed very dangerous to the people in charge, who tried their best to channel the groups into more stable, more traditional, and more strictly gender-segregated forms of life. The Waldensians upped the ante by allowing women to preach publicly, and by publicly defending their right to do so. One doesn’t expect to find open defenses of women’s right to preach in the late twelfth century, but the Waldensians do.

The people speaking out against the Waldensians—who are, unfortunately, our main sources for their beliefs—were very clear that authority was the crux of the issue. One of the most interesting records of the theological issues at stake comes from a public debate held in Narbonne around 1191, summarized by a Promonstratensian abbot called Bernard of Fontcaude (d. c. 1192). He mentions two scriptural texts the Waldensians used to defend the practice of women’s public preaching: the example of Anna the prophet in Luke, and the exhortation in Titus that “the older women are to teach what is good.” Regarding Anna, he notes that Luke says she spoke of Christ, not that she preached or taught. “Preaching and speaking are not the same. Everyone who preaches or teaches speaks, but not everyone who speaks preaches or teaches.”[2] The difference being, of course, that preaching or teaching is speaking with authority. (He also says, noting Anna’s extraordinary virtue: “bring me such a woman, and I will gladly listen—not to her teaching, but to her confession of her sins to God, and her offering of praise to the Lord.”) He puts an even finer point on the matter in responding to the text from Titus. There it says that all teachers must be sound in faith, but “she is not sound in faith who is not obedient.”[3]

In his book Against the Heretics, Alan of Lille (d. c. 1203) summed up the entire movement by saying “they are called Waldensians after their heresiarch Waldo, who, led by his own spirit and not sent by God, contrived his own sect. Without the authority of the prelates, without divine inspiration, without understanding, and without education, he presumed to preach.”[4] Presuming to preach: that was the foundation of the Waldensian heresy.

The dispute here is about the act of preaching itself, and not about what was said. Especially in the early days, the Waldensians were impeccably orthodox. Many saw themselves, in fact, as preachers against the Cathars, a rigorist and possibly Manichean heresy taking root in southern France. Waldo’s official confession of faith is not only perfectly straightforward on a doctrinal level; it obsessively distances him from every potentially heretical idea in the air at that time. (He begins by affirming the Trinity, and ends by insisting he doesn’t condemn people who eat meat.) The one major intellectual work to come out of the early Waldensian movement, Durand of Osca’s Liber Antiheresis, was a point-by-point refutation of Cathar beliefs. No, doctrinal orthodoxy was not the problem. The problem was that people who weren’t supposed to preach were preaching, and they refused to stop when they were told.[5]

We tend not to think of preaching as a form of political action, and of course, there are many cases when it’s not. There are many cases when preaching is devoid of any political significance whatsoever, and many others in which the political significance lies in the words, not in the act. But it’s important to remember that the act itself can be political: preaching is essentially a work of authority, and as such, when done by certain people, at certain times, in certain places, the very act can reinforce—or undermine—broader structures of power.


[1] The main source for this story of Waldo’s conversion is the Laon Anonymous, or the Chronicon universale laudunense. The Latin text can be found in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, SS. XXVI, p. 447, lines 32ff. The English translation I’m following here is from Wakefield and Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 200–203

[2] Bernard of Fontcaude, Adversus Waldensium sectam liber 8.7 (Patrologia Latina 204, col. 827C). As far as I know, there is no English translation of this text.

[3] Ibid., 8.5, col. 827B.

[4] Alan of Lille, Contra haereticos II, ch. 1 (Patrologia Latina 210, col. 377C). Again, unfortunately, no English translation exists.

[5] For good overviews of the Waldensians, see Euan Cameron, Waldenses (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000); and Gabriel Audisio, The Waldensian Dissent, trans. Claire Davison (New York: Cambridge, 1999).


2 thoughts on “Waldensians, Women, and Preaching as a Political Act

  1. It is interesting that Waldo was then influenced by St Alexis. An Anglo-French life of St Alexis appears in the St Albans Psalter and seems to have been of value to Christina of Markyate.

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