Statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial at Worms, Germany
Peter Waldo, Valdo, Valdes, or Waldes (c. 1140 – c. 1205), also Pierre Vaudès or de Vaux, was a leader of the Waldensians, a Christian spiritual movement of the Middle Ages.
Relationship with Waldenses
Some authors have regarded Waldo as founder of the Waldensians. However, Eberhard of Béthune cited evidence showing that the name Waldenses appeared in documents (1170) more than 10 years before the major years of Waldo’s activism. Bernard, abbot of Foncald, wrote about the heretics who were known as “Valdensis,” who were condemned during the pontificate of Pope Lucius II in 1144, decades before Peter Waldo. These extant citation sources document that the name Valdenses had been applied to religious groups before Peter Waldo’s time.
Life and work
Most details of Waldo’s life are unknown. Extant sources relate that he was a wealthy clothier and merchant from Lyons and a man of some learning. Sometime shortly before the year 1160, he was inspired by a series of events, firstly, after hearing a sermon on the life of St. Alexius, secondly, rejection of transubstantiation when it was considered a capital crime to do it, thirdly, the sudden and unexpected death of a friend during an evening meal. From this point onward he began living a radical Christian life, giving his property over to his wife, while the remainder of his belongings he distributed as alms to the poor.
At about this time, Waldo began to preach and teach publicly, based on his ideas of simplicity and poverty, notably that “No man can serve two masters, God and Mammon.” Waldo condemned what he considered as papal excesses and Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation. He said that these dogmas were “the harlot” from the book of Revelation. By 1170 Waldo had gathered a large number of followers, referred to as the Poor of Lyons, the Poor of Lombardy, or the Poor of God. They evangelized their teaching while traveling as peddlers. Often referred to as the Waldensians (or Waldenses), they were distinct from the Albigensians or Cathari.
The Waldensian movement was characterized from the beginning by lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict adherence to the Bible. Between 1175-1185 Waldo either commissioned a cleric from Lyons to translate the New Testament into the vernacular, the Arpitan (Franco-Provençal) language, or was himself involved in this translation work. Regardless of the source of translation, he is credited with providing to Europe the first translation of the Bible in a ‘modern tongue’ outside ofLatin.
In 1179, Waldo and one of his disciples went to Rome, where they were welcomed by Pope Alexander III and the Roman Curia. They had to explain their faith before a panel of three clergymen, including issues which were then debated within the Church, such as the universal priesthood, the gospel in the vulgate or local language, and the issue of voluntary poverty. The results of the meeting were inconclusive. Waldo’s ideas, but not the movement itself, were condemned at the third Lateran Council in the same year. The leaders of the Waldensian movement were not yet excommunicated.
In 1180, Waldo composed a profession of faith which is still extant.
Driven away from Lyons, Waldo and his followers settled in the high valleys of Piedmont, and in France, in the Luberon, as they continued in their pursuit of Christianity based on the New Testament. Finally, Waldo was excommunicated by Pope Lucius III during the synod held at Verona in 1184. The doctrine of the Poor of Lyons was again condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when they mentioned the group by name for the first time, and declared its principles to be heresy. Fearing suppression from the Church, Waldo’s followers fled to the mountainous regions of northern Italy.