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Early French Protestants: the Vaudois

France’s miserable relations with Protestant dissenters wasn’t limited to those who followed John Calvin. In the 1540s, another sect of Protestants known as the Vaudois started to become a thorn in Francis I’s side.

The Vaudois were concentrated in the south, mostly in Provence and Piedmont. The group was composed mostly of peasants, as opposed to the more intellectually minded nobles who gravitated towards Calvinism. It was difficult to spot a Vaudois from a Catholic, since the group kept an outward image that was indistinguishable from their Catholic neighbors. They communion and said confession to the local priest and attended the local Catholic church. Inwardly, however, they differed from the Catholics in several beliefs.

With a reverence for nature, they rejected the idea that a service must be held inside of a consecrated church, and they rejected the ideas of religious images that filled a local parish church. Even more concerning for the Catholics, the Vaudois rejected the veneration of Mary and the saints, oath-swearing, and the belief in purgatory.

Rising from the same peasant stock, their priests were known a barbes, and had used their ability to read and write to serve as pastors. Like the Catholics, they led celibate lives, and like their flocks, they had no idea to win over converts. The Vaudois were content to tend to existing believers, accepting the fact that their movement would experience little if any growth. Vaudois were persecuted starting in the fourteenth century, but in France, Louis XII stopped the persecution.

In 1532, Calvin’s representatives started converting the barbes into Calvinists, but it would be decades before the rank and file of the Vaudois would join them. From the Calvinist point of view, I can understand why they would want to unite as many Protestants in France under one banner, but in the Vaudois’ case, I think it raised their profile so much that they quickly became a target from the crown.

Persecution and jealousy from Catholics in southern France

In 1540, Francis sentenced nineteen Vaudois who refused a summons to appear before the Parlement of Aix to death by burning. Their families would also be punished by having their property confiscated and banishment from France. Luckily for them, an advisor convinced them that the Vaudois were not only hard working Frenchmen but loyal ones, and Francis lifted their senetence. Still, the Vaudois were repeatedly “asked” to abjure their Protestant beliefs.

By 1543, the new leader of the Parlement of Aix turned his eye towards the Vaudois who owned large tracts of lands her coveted. The time was ripe for self-serving persecution. During the winter of 1544-5, he sent several reports accusing the group of sedition. At the same time, the Papacy was gearing up to tackle heretics across western Europe. In April of 1545, armed with Papal support, he unleashed attacks across Provence. All the inhabitants of Cabrieres save twelve “examples” were killed. Twenty-five women and children in Murs were suffocated in a cave after troops set fire to the entrance. None of the people were given the chance of a trial or even appeal. About 2700 people were killed with only 600 surviving the extermination. Many survivors fled to safety in Genava. Francis I shrugged off the criticism that followed, and it was only during his son, Henry II’s reign that the men responsible were even tried. They were eventually acquitted.