Britain and Italy's Waldensian Church

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Britain and Italy's Waldensian Church


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


MOST people well-grounded in English literature have encountered the Waldensians once--in the famous sonnet written on 'the late massacre in Piedmont' when John Milton, despite encroaching blindness, was still consultant spin-doctor for Cromwell's very Protestant foreign policy. It begins, 'Avenge O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints ...', and it is probably the end of most Anglo-Saxon knowledge of the people once styled 'the Israel of the Alps'.

But that massacre in 1655 was only one episode in the turbulent history of this religious minority descended from the twelfth-century reforming revivalism of a born-again merchant of Lyons, Peter Valdo. His movement hoped to be accepted as the near contemporary Franciscans were but was anathematised and fiercely persecuted. By the time it adhered to the Protestant Reformation it survived mainly in the mountains between France and Turin. The community was largely in Piedmont but the dialect of its valleys was Provencal and the formal language of its Protestant worship for more than 300 years was French.

Milton's sonnet itself was only one episode in a long series of British connections with the Waldensians, not only in centuries when they were usually referred to as Vaudois but in the age of Italian unification when they became Valdesi. The alliance was most fervent in the decades after Waterloo, when it mainly involved evangelical Anglicans, and in the mid-Victorian era, when it was dominated by Scots Presbyterians, but the connection has continued.

It survives among relatively small groups of British enthusiasts and in a more generally diffused good-will on the Waldensian side, even if some of their English today is American-accented, the most obvious of their European links are with German Protestantism, and the greatest modern influence on their theology was Karl Barth.

Milton wrote one Waldensian sonnet but Wordsworth fitted four into his 'ecclesiastical' series. In the age when the Waldensians enjoyed the benefits of English enthusiasm for Protestantism, Italy, and the newly-fashionable Alps, Jane Austen's brother Henry wrote a pamphlet on their behalf, the young High Churchman Gladstone gave them an ill-natured visit and grudging donation, and the Duke of Wellington kept an account of them in his ante-room. That influential book, written by the East Anglian (later Northumbrian) clergyman W. S. Gilly, was read there by a one-legged Waterloo veteran awaiting audience, Charles Beckwith. This English officer born in Nova Scotia devoted the rest of his life to modernising the primitive schools of the Waldensian valleys and encouraging a tiny ethnic Church to become a Protestant mission to Italy. He made such an impact that Waldensians were reproached by their Catholic neighbours: 'You will not venerate the Virgin yet you worship an English colonel'.

Much of this is well-documented but neglected history, a marginal note to the complex story of the Risorgimento and Italian unification. But there are three reasons why this British-Waldensian connection deserves modern attention and new perspectives.

The first is that it was something more than a minor religious side-show in British and Italian history. It was an important part of the complex religious dimension to the Victorian love affair with Italy, probably the most passionate attachment the British ever allowed themselves towards any foreign country. Specialist and propagandist historians have tended to look at the religious phenomena in isolation from this cultural context.

The second is that it had both English and Scottish dimensions, closely allied yet in some ways distinct. Because the Waldensian connection went out of fashion in the twentieth century, these subtleties have been rather neglected by historians and some important but hitherto obscure Scottish sources (now in or destined for the National Library of Scotland) have remained unexplored. The third is that there are parallels or affinities between Victorian religious controversies and modern Christian dilemmas. …

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