About the year 1400, says Jones, the church historian, a violent outrage was committed upon the Waldenses who inhabited the valley of Pragela, in Piedmont, by the Catholic party resident in that neighborhood. The attack, which seems to have been of the most furious kind, was made towards the end of the month of December, when the mountains were covered with snow, and thereby rendered so difficult of access, that the peaceable inhabitants of the valleys, were wholly unapprised that such an attempt was meditated; and the persecutors were in actual possession if their caves, before the former seem to have been aware of any hostile designs against them. In this pitiable plight they had recourse to the only alternative which remained for saving their lives, - they fled to one of the highest mountains of the Alps, with their wives and children, the unhappy mothers carrying the cradle in one hand, and in the other, leading such of their offspring as were able to walk.

Their inhuman invaders, whose feet were swift to shed blood, pursued them in their flight, until night came on, and slew great numbers of them before they could reach the mountains. Those that escaped were, however, reserved to experience a fate not more enviable.

Overtaken by the shades of night, they wandered up and down the mountains, covered with snow, destitute of the means of shelter from the inclemencies of the weather, or of supporting themselves under it by any of the comforts which Providence has destined for that purpose. Benumbed with cold, they fell an easy prey to the severity of the climate; and when the night had passed away, there were found by their cradles, or lying upon the snow, fourscore of their infants, deprived of life, many of the mothers also lying dead by their sides, and others just upon the point of expiring. During the nights, their enemies were busily employed in plundering the houses of everything that was valuable, which they conveyed away to Susa. A poor woman, belonging to the Waldenses, named Margaret Athode, was next morning found hanging upon a tree.

In 1487, a lieutenant and his troops came against the people of the valley of Loyse. The inhabitants, apprised of their approach, fled into their caves at the tops of the mountains, carrying with them their children, and whatever valuables they had, as well as what was thought necessary for their support and nourishment. The lieutenant, finding the inhabitants all fled, and that not an individual appeared with whom he could converse, at length discovered their retreats, and causing quantities of wood to be placed at their entrances, ordered it to be set on fire. The consequence was, that four hundred children were suffocated in their cradles, or in the arms of their dead mothers, while multitudes, to avoid dying by suffocation, or being burnt to death, precipitated themselves headlong from their caverns upon the rocks below, where they were dashed to pieces; or if any escaped death by the fall, they were immediately slaughtered by the brutal soldiery.

“It is held as unquestionably true”, says Perrin, “amongst the Waldenses dwelling in the adjacent valleys, that more than three thousand persons, men and women, belonging to the valley of Loyse, perished on this occasion. And, indeed, they were wholly exterminated, for the valley was afterwards peopled with new inhabitants; not one family of the Waldenses having subsequently resided in it; which proves beyond dispute, that all the inhabitants, and of both sexes, died at that time.” (Perrin’s History, book ii., chap. 3.)

On the 25th of January, 1655, a public document appeared, which has since been but too well known by the title of “The Order of Gastaldo.” Thus runs the preamble: “Andrew Gastaldo, Doctor of the Civil Law, Master Auditor Ordinary, sitting in the most illustrious Chamber of Accounts of his royal highness, and Conservator-General of the holy faith, for the observation of the orders published against the pretended reformed religion of the valley of Lucerne, Perouse, and St. Martino, and upon this account especially deputed by his said royal highness.”

After stating the authority which had been vested in him by the Duke, on the 13th of the same month, it proceeds “to command and enjoin every head of a family, with its members, of the reformed religion, of whatever rank, degree, or condition soever, without exception, inhabiting or possessing estates in the places of Lucerne, Lucernetta, S. Giovanni, La Torre, Bubbiana, within three days after the publication of these presents, to withdraw and to depart, and to be, with their families, withdrawn out of the said places, and transported into the places allowed by his royal highness, during his good pleasure, etc., under pain of death and confiscation of houses and goods; provided always that they do not make it appear to us within twenty days following, that they are become Catholics, or that they have sold their goods to the Catholics. Furthermore, his royal highness intends, and wills, that in the places, (to which they were to transport themselves,) the holy mass shall be celebrated in every one of them; and that for any persons of the said reformed religion to molest, either in deed or word, the missionary fathers, and those that attend them, much less to divert or dissuade any one of the said religion from turning Catholic, he shall do it on pain of death, etc.”

It is not difficult to conjecture, says the narrator, what must have been the distress and misery consequent upon a compliance with such an order as this, and more especially in such a country as Piedmont, at such a season on the year. Thousands of families, comprehending the aged and infirm, the sick and afflicted, the delicate female and the helpless infant – all compelled to abandon their homes in the very depth of winter, in a country where the snow is visible upon the tops of the mountains, throughout every month of the year. All this surely presents a picture of distress sufficient to rend the heart.

On the first issuing of this edict, the Waldenses sent deputies to the governor of the province, humbly representing to him the unreasonableness and cruelty of this command. They stated the absolute impossibility of so many souls finding subsistence in the places to which they were ordered to transport themselves; the countries scarcely affording adequate supply for their present inhabitants. To which they added, that this command was expressly contrary to all their rights, as the peaceable subject of his highness, and the concessions which had been uniformly granted them, of maintaining, without molestation, their religious profession. But the inhuman governor refused to pay the least attention to their application. Disappointed in this, they next begged time to present their humble supplication to his royal highness. But even this boon was refused them, unless they would allow him to draw up their petition and prescribe the form of it. Finding that what he proposed was equally inimical to their rights and consciences, they declined his proposal. They now found that the only alternative which remained for them was to abandon their houses and properties, and to retire, with their families, their wives and children, aged parents and helpless infants, the halt, the lame and the blind, to traverse the country, through the rain, snow and ice, encompassed with a thousand difficulties.

“The world was all before them, whence to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.”

But these things were only the beginning of sorrows, to this afflicted people. For no sooner had they quitted their houses, than a banditti broke into them, pillaging and plundering whatever they had left behind. They next proceeded to raze their habitations to the ground, to cut down the trees and turn the neighborhood into a desolate wilderness; and all this without the least remonstrance from Gastaldo. These things, however, were only a trifle in comparison to what followed.

But the reader will best learn this sad story from the parties who were interested in this melancholy catastrophe; and the following is a copy of the letter which some of the survivors wrote to their Christian friends, in distant countries, as soon as the tragedy was over:


“Brethren and Fathers!

“Our tears are no more of water but of blood, which not only obscure our sight, but oppress our very hearts. Our pen is guided by a trembling hand, and our minds distracted by such unexpected alarms, that we are incapable of framing a letter which shall correspond with our wishes, or the strangeness of our desolations. In this respect, therefore, we plead your excuse, and that you would endeavor to collect our meaning from what we would impart to you.

“Whatever reports may have been circulated concerning our obstinacy in refusing to have recourse to his royal highness for a redress of our heavy grievances and molestations, you cannot but know that we have never desisted from writing supplicatory letters, or presenting our humble requests, by the hands of our deputies, and that they were sent and referred, sometimes to the council ‘de propaganda fide,’ (a council established by the court of Rome, for propagating the faith, or, in plain English, for extirpating heretics.) at other times to the Marquis of Pionessa, (This unfeeling man seems to have sustained the station of prime-minister in the court of the Duke of Savoy, and commander-in-chief of his army.) and that the three last times they were positively rejected, and refused so much as an audience, under the pretext that they had no credentials nor instructions, which should authorize them to promise or accept, on the behalf of their respective churches, whatever it might please his highness to grant or bestow upon them.

“And by the instigation and contrivance of the Roman clergy, there was secretly placed in ambush an army of six thousand men, who, animated and encouraged thereto by the personal presence and active exertions of the Marquis of Pionessa, fell suddenly, and in the most violent manner, upon the inhabitants of S. Giovanni and La Torre.

“This army having once entered and got a footing, was soon augmented by the addition of a multitude of the neighboring inhabitants throughout all Piedmont, who hearing that we were given up as a prey to the plunderers, fell upon the poor people with impetuous fury. To all those were added an incalculable number of persons that had been outlawed, prisoners, and other offenders, who expected thereby to have saved their souls and filled their purses. And the better to effect their purposes, the inhabitants were compelled to receive five or six regiments of the French army, besides some Irish, to whom, it is reported, our country was promised, with several troops of vagabond persons, under the pretext of coming into the valleys for fresh quarters.

“This great multitude, by virtue of a license from the Marquis of Pionessa, instigated by the monks, and enticed and conducted by our wicked and unnatural neighbors, attacked us with such violence on every side, especially in Angrogne, Villaro, and Bobbio; and in a manner so horribly treacherous, that in an instant all was one entire scene of confusion, and the inhabitants, after a fruitless, skirmish to defend themselves, were compelled to flee for their lives, with their wives and children; and that not merely the inhabitants of the plain, but those of the mountains also. Nor was all their diligence sufficient to prevent the destruction of a very considerable number of them. For in many places such as Villaro and Bobbio, they were so hemmed in on every side, the army having seized on the fort of Mareburgh, and by that means blocked up the avenue, that there remained no possibility of escape, and nothing remained for them but to be massacred and put to death.

“In one place they mercilessly tortured not less than a hundred and fifty women and their children, chopping off the heads of some, and dashing the brains of others against the rocks. And in regard to those whom they took prisoners from fifteen years old and upwards, who refused to go to mass, they hanged some, and nailed others to the trees by the feet with their heads downwards. It is reported that they carried some persons of note prisoners to Turin, viz., our poor brother and pastor, Mr. Gros, with some part of his family. In short, there is neither cattle nor provisions of any kind left in the valley of Lucerne. It is but too evident that all is lost, since there are some whole districts, especially S. Giovanni and La Torre, where the business of setting fire to our houses and churches was so dexterously managed, by a Franciscan friar and a certain priest, that they left not so much as one of either unburnt. In these desolations, the mother has been bereft of her dear child; the husband of his affectionate wife. Those who were once the richest among us are reduced to the necessity of begging their bread, while others still remain weltering in their own blood, and deprived of all the comforts of life. And as to the churches in S. Martino and other places, who, on all former occasions, have been a sanctuary to the persecuted, they have themselves now been summoned to quit their dwellings, and every soul of them to depart, and that instantaneously and without respite, under pain of being put to death. Nor is there any mercy to be expected by any of them who are found within the dominions of his royal highness.

“To conclude, our beautiful and flourishing churches are utterly lost, and that without remedy, unless our God work miracles for us. Their time is come, and our measure is full! O, have pity upon the desolations of Jerusalem, and be grieved for the affliction of Joseph. Show forth your compassions, and let your bowels yearn in behalf of so many thousands of poor souls, who are reduced to a morsel of bread, for following the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. We recommend our pastors, with their scattered and dispersed flocks, to your fervent Christian prayers, and rest in haste.

April, 27th 1655.” Your brethren in the Lord.

These painful recitals convey but an imperfect idea of the cruelties inflicted upon the Waldenses, by the enemies of pure Gospel.

“They cast some,” says Claude, “into large fires, and took them but when they were half roasted. They hanged others with ropes under their arms, and plunged them several times into wells, till they promised to renounce their religion. They tied them like criminals on the rack, and by means of a funnel, poured wine into their mouths, till, being intoxicated, they declared that they consented to turn Catholics. Some they cut and slashed with pen-knives; others they took up by the nose with red-hot tongs, and led them up and down the rooms till they promised to turn Catholics.”

Yet true were the lines of Luther, with reference to that noble band of martyrs, in different countries and times:

“Flung to the heedless winds,

Or on the waters cast,

Their ashes shall be watched,

And gathered at the last:

And from that scattered dust,

Around us and abroad,

Shall spring a plenteous seed

Of witnesses for God.”

From what has been already said, it is sufficiently obvious, that during the long period of the earlier Christian centuries, religious liberty was nowhere enjoyed. There was not a place upon the face of the earth, where men were wholly free to worship God according to their own individual convictions of duty.



From: Fish, Henry C. The Price of Soul-Liberty and Who Paid It. Rochester: Backus Book Publishers, 1983, pages 35-44