Reformation City Guardia Piemontese
Occitan is still spoken here to this day
The town of Guardia Piemontese lies in the southern Italian region of Calabria, on the picturesque coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its precise origins are not known. However, the suffix “Piemontese” reflects the arrival of the Occitan-speaking Waldensians, who fled to Calabria from bloody persecution in the Cottian Alps in the Piedmont during the last quarter of the 14th century. Guardia Piemontese has been closely linked to the history of the Waldensians ever since.
The Waldensians date back to the 12th century, when followers of the wealthy citizen Peter Waldo of Lyon (who died around 1205/18) started to gather in public. Nowadays, very little is known for sure about Waldo. But this much is clear: This rich man from Lyon appears to have been inspired to convert and lead his life according to the Apostles by a vernacular translation of their works. After covering his wife’s and two daughters’ needs, he distributed his wealth amongst the poor and started preaching in the city’s streets and squares about finding value in life from renouncing property and violence. He is said to have sought an official preaching licence at the Third Lateran Council in Lyon in 1179, but to no avail. Despite this, Waldo quickly gained followers and founded a piety movement that was quickly swelled by ranks of itinerant preachers. These “Poor of Lyon” were excommunicated in 1184 as a result of conflict with the Church. Waldo had been expelled from Lyon three years earlier. It is not known where he went, nor when he died.
The new movement, which lacked central coordination, took inspiration from other organisations. As a result, various unaffiliated groups and streams emerged in southern France and northern Italy. In addition, the establishment of the Inquisition in 1231 forced many Waldensians to flee, or drove them underground and out of public sight. Travelling preachers, who observed the commands of poverty and celibacy, delivered their message in clandestine gatherings. Followers of the Waldensians started to gather in Spain and Austria during the 13th century, in central Germany, the Margraviate of Brandenburg and Bohemia at the start of the 14th century, and at various locations throughout southern Germany and Switzerland during the 14th century.
As early as the start of the 14th century, the Waldensians began to settle around Calabria. Those forced to flee from the Inquisition in Piedmont started to arrive in the town of Guardia, which hovers 500 metres above the sea, in 1375. The local feudal lord granted them refuge. The Waldensians in Guardia Piemontese adopted the survival strategy of assimilating local culture, having their children baptised and regularly attending worship, mass and Holy Communion. They did not practise their faith in public and only received pastoral care in private from Waldensian itinerant preachers, who visited for a few days every two years or so. They lived harmoniously alongside the Catholic inhabitants this way for almost two hundred years.
In 1532, the Waldensians from the Alpine valleys decided at the “Synod of Chanforan” to develop a church from the hitherto scarcely organised movement. As they converged with the Reformation in Geneva during the years that followed, the Waldensians in Calabria also asked the city to send preachers. Gian Luigi Pascale (c. 1525-1560) arrived in response and, among other things, oversaw the construction of a church in Guardia Piemontese.
In 1560, Cardinal Michele Ghislieri, who would later become Pope Pius V, invoked a crusade against the Waldensians in Calabria. Under the threat of persecution, they retreated from the surrounding villages into the fortress town of Guardia. On 5 June 1561, the feudal lord’s henchmen massacred 2,000 Waldensians, killing many women and children. The survivors of this mass murder were forced to profess Catholic faith. The traditions that the Waldensians brought from the Piedmont to Calabria, such as the Occitan language and certain customs, have survived over the centuries right through to the present day.
On 5 June 2011, 450 years after the massacre in Guardia, the Waldensian Church opened a museum and cultural centre in the town. The Waldensian Church and the municipal authorities now collaborate closely in cultural affairs. Numerous ecumenical events have been planned together with the local Catholic community to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.