In 1179, some Waldensians went to Rome, where Pope Alexander III forbade explanation or critical interpretation (exegesis) without authorization from the local clergy. They disobeyed and began to preach according to their own understanding of the scriptures. Seen by the Roman Catholic Church as unorthodox, they were formally declared heretics by Popes. The members of the group were declared schismatics in 1184 in France and heretics more widely in 1215 by Pope Innocent III during the Fourth Council of the Lateran's anathema. The rejection by the Church radicalized the movement; in terms of ideology the Waldensians became more obviously anti-Catholic—rejecting the authority of the clergy. In 1211, more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics at Strasbourg, beginning several centuries of persecution that nearly destroyed the movement.
Outside the Piedmont, the Waldenses joined the local Protestant churches in Bohemia, France, and Germany. After they came out of clandestinity and reports were made of sedition on their part, the French king, Francis I issued on 1 January 1545 the "Arrêt de Mérindol", and armed an army against the Waldensians of Provence. The leaders in the 1545 massacres were Jean Maynier d'Oppède, First President of the parlement of Provence, and the military commander Antoine Escalin des Aimars who was returning from the Italian Wars with 2,000 veterans, the Bandes de Piémont. Deaths in the Massacre of Mérindol ranged from hundreds to thousands, depending on the estimates, and several villages were devastated.
In 1655 the Duke of Savoy commanded the Vaudois to attend Mass or remove to the upper valleys, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. In a most severe winter these targets of persecution, old men, women, little children and the sick "waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received." There they found refuge and rest. Deceived by false reports of Vaudois resistance, the Duke sent an army. On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre, the horrors of which can be detailed only in small part. The massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Europe. Oliver Cromwell, then ruler in England, began petitioning on behalf of the Vaudois, writing letters, raising contributions, calling a general fast in England and threatening to send military forces to the rescue. The massacre prompted John Milton's famous poem on the Waldenses, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont".
Massacre of the Vaudois of Merindol (1545)
In 1685 Louis XIV guaranteed freedom of religion to his Protestant subjects in France. The cousin of Louis, The Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II followed his uncle in removing the protection of Protestants in the Piedmont. In the renewed persecution, an edict decreed that all inhabitants of the Valleys should publicly announce their error in religion within fifteen days under penalty of death and banishment and the destruction of all the Vaudois churches. Armies of French and Piedmontese soldiers invaded the Valleys, laying them waste and perpetrating cruelties upon the inhabitants.
After the French Revolution, the Waldenses of Piedmont were assured liberty of conscience and, in 1848, the ruler of Savoy, King Charles Albert of Sardinia granted them civil rights.
Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont" (1658).
The massacre of the Waldenses in 1655.
The young woman being tortured is said to be Anna,
daughter of Giovanni Charboniere of La Torre.