It’s not often realised that the supposedly historically clear-cut distinction between a Protestant northern Europe and a Roman Catholic southern Europe is not that clear-cut at all. For example, in Britain, Roman Catholic families, known as recusants, have never abjured their original faith since the great split the reformation created in the Christian faith.
Indeed, some of these families have retained high positions among the English nobility to this day; for example, the Duke of Norfolk, the first duke of the peerage, is the Queen’s (who is also head of the Church of England) second cousin. His main seat is at Arundel castle, Sussex.
Arundel also possesses one of Europe’s finest Roman Catholic cathedrals.
In Southern Europe many Roman Catholic communities renounced Papist doctrine to form their own protestant sects. Indeed, the first signs of Protestantism were felt as far back as the 12th century with the Waldensians.
The Waldensians take their name from a merchant from Lyons called Valdo, who around the year 1170 sold his assets and began to preach the Gospel to his fellow citizens with the idea of renewing the church. The Catholic hierarchy reacted by excommunicating him. (Later Saint Francis of Assisi decided to follow the same life of poverty, but the Roman Catholic Church acted rather differently and accepted his order of friars).
The followers of Valdo continued their preaching despite being excommunicated, forming small communities forced, because of constant repression, to lead a clandestine existence. Their faith was inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and its fundamental tenets: the rejection of violence, the Roman Catholic oath of allegiance to the Pope, and the association of the church with political power.
Despite violent persecutions and the ruthless work of the Inquisition, the Waldensians kept their faith throughout the middle Ages. The areas where they largely settled were the Western Alps, Provence, Calabria and southern Germany.
Thus, both recusants in northern Europe and Protestants in southern Europe regrettably had their fair share of martyrs and for centuries had to practise their faith behind closed doors – hence the number of priests’ holes found in aristocratic English country homes and the secret locations of protestant sects in Italy.
Coughton Court, a National Trust property in England and home of the recusant family of the Throckmortons, has a whole secret section where Holy Mass could be celebrated:
Milton, during his visit to Italy in 1638, was fully aware of the situation and heard of the terrible massacre of the Valdensians by the troops of Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy in Piedmont in April 1655,
As a result Milton wrote one of his finest and, certainly, most angry sonnets: “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”.
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
Lucca played an important part in preserving emerging protestant and, especially, evangelical ideas. Indeed, it welcomed the Waldensians as it welcomed Protestantism.
Thanks to enlightened rulers and to the establishment of a press which printed one of the first bibles in the Italian language and thanks also to the mountainous area of the Garfagnana surrounding the city to the north, Lucca has historically been more generous to those of evangelical faith than most other areas of Italy. Even here, however, papist power used to make life for Protestants in Lucca almost impossible.
The Diodati were a noble family and had the Orsetti palace built for them by the great Luccan sculptor and architect Nicolao Civitali. However, despite the fact that, in the Republic of Lucca, the Protestant reform saw the adherence of a considerable number of citizens, including members of the aristocratic ruling class, the Diodati were forced to leave for Geneva because of their belief in the Protestant Reformation. (The palace is now seat of Lucca’s mayor, Alessandro Tambellini, who kindly showed us round this magnificent building – see my post about this at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/a-meeting-with-the-mayor-of-lucca/)
The reason for the Diodati’s exile was that the Pope, suspecting what was happening in the Republic, began to exert diplomatic pressure on the government of Lucca. Lucca always rejected the Inquisition and the Jesuits, but fearing that the Pope and his army might invade Lucca, many distinguished Protestant Lucchese left the Republic. Fortunately none suffered physical violence but, rather, were helped by exiled Lucchesi.
Exiles included Michele Burlamacchi (1532-1590), Benedetto Calandrini, Pompeo Diodati, Michele Burlamacchi and his wife Chiara Calandrini, Teodoro Diodati (1573-1650) who studied medicine in Leiden, and moved to England, where he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1616. Among Teodoro’s patients was Prince Henry, the heir to the British throne and a brilliant young man.
Prince Henry lived at Charlton House in the borough of Greenwich, London with his tutor Adam Newton but sadly died of typhoid fever aged only 18, a real tragedy for the nation.
It’s thus that his younger, less intelligent brother Charles became heir to the throne (and I think we all know what happened to him….).
Another Lucchese, Giovanni Diodati (1576-1649), became a Protestant theologian, professor of linguistics, and the translator of the Bible in Italian and French. Giovanni’s translation of the Bible in Italian stands comparison with England’s own King James Version in the beauty of its language and that fact that it is still used in church services today. Indeed, only four years separate the Italian translation (1607) from the English one (1611).
We were privileged to meet a great evangelical leader and scholar, former pastor of the Waldensian church in Lucca, Domenico Maselli , at a conference he participated in on that powerful mediaeval countess, Matilda, the lady who ordered the building of our famous devil’s bridge. (See https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/borgo-a-mozzanos-matilde/ for more on this and Maselli who regretfully died the following year).
In Lucca’s via Galli-Tassi there’s an evangelical Valdensian church with a very active congregation. A friend, who also directs a choir I sing in, is organist at this church.
There also used to be substantial numbers of Waldensians in the hills above Barga, especially at Piastroso and Renaio. They were protected by an old edict which stated that anyone living above 700 metres was free to practice whatever faith they wished.
Today, the mountain congregations have all but disappeared through emigration but every year, in July, the Waldensian evangelical community elsewhere meet up at the local inn in Renaio, called’ Il Mostrico’, for an ‘al fresco’ lunch, a prayer meeting and a talk about their community.
I turned up, by chance, towards the end of this year’s Renaio gathering and was impressed by the welcome I received and the beauty of the spot.
In the nearby school there was an exhibition of photographs depicting aspects of the group. How much history, how many ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ must there be in these evocative photographs!
The principal message of the Waldensian sectors is the oft stated but all too often disregarded one that ‘God is Love.’
It’s both an easy and a difficult message to follow. Words like ‘tolerance’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘apology’, all too often remain in one’s mind rather than in one’s actions.
I felt that both the Old Catholic recusants of England and Italy’s Waldensians must have survived to this day principally because they had the strength to forgive those who perpetrated the terrible persecutions they suffered in the past and because they were able to apologise for the persecutors before God himself.
I wish we all had the same power to forgive and forget. It would make the world such a better place!