Cathars and Waldensians in the High Middle Ages


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

In the High Middle Ages, heresy became widespread, and the Christian Church began to see it as a threat. Despite the efforts to stop heretics, they expanded from individuals to wandering preachers, and then to international movements. Cathars and Waldensians were two of these major movements. Read on to see if they succeeded and reached their goal.

Memorial to Cathars burned at the stake in for heresy
Cathars and Waldensians were widely executed by the Church.
(Image: Dan Shachar/Shutterstock)

The High Middle ages witnessed a rise of heresy in different forms. The reasons were numerous, and so were the results. Heresy started as occasional individuals and expanded to strong movements. To understand Cathars and Waldensians better, one must first know how heresy began and grew in the High Middle Ages.

Learn more about the Medieval Inquisitions.

A Brief History of Heresy

Heresy referred to any belief or ritual that opposed Christian teaching and the Church. It widely developed when all the religious reform movements failed, and people were disappointed. Heresy got stronger as people became more literate and demanded to read the Bible, which was regarded as a sin. Next, wandering heretic preachers went around France and Italy until the mid-12th century. In what remained of the 12th century, international heretic movements were formed.

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The international movements made great contributions to future reforms that finally succeeded. Two of the main movements were the Cathars and Waldensians.

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The Cathars and their Beliefs

The founder of this movement is not historically known. They were first noticed in Germany in the 1140s, and by the 1160s, they could be found in many places in Europe, especially in southern France and northern Italy.

Theologically, Cathars were dualists, and their core belief strongly opposed Christianity. They believed that God did not create the world we live in, and He only created heaven. Who created our world? Satan. Thus, heaven was good, and our material world was evil and corrupt. In their belief, God and Satan had equal power, and Satan was luring angels out of heaven. These angels were sent to our world as humans with no memory of their divine origin. God then sent Jesus to remind people that they should go back to heaven. The Cathars deemed the means of returning to heaven was consolamentum.

Christmas concept: worship and praise God
Consolamentum was the key to salvation for Cathars. (Image: Paul shuang/Shutterstock)

Consolamentum was a ritual to make sure one’s soul goes back to heaven. If a person died without the ceremony, their soul would be passed to another human being, not heaven. Normal Cathars received Consolamentum very close to their death, but not their preachers. Cathar preachers or ‘perfecti’ received Consolamentum early in life and had to live by the preachers’ rules afterward: celibacy for life and not eating anything that was in any way the product of sexual intercourse, which meant, no meat, no eggs, no cheese. Normal people had to fast (called “endura”) after Consolamentum and stop eating and drinking. Hence, they had to receive nutrients very close to their death, or endura could kill them.

Learn more about Those Who Prayed-The Monks.


Waldensians were not only different from, but also critical of the Cathars. Peter Valdez – or Waldo – founded this movement, in 1173, by giving up all his significant wealth and choosing to live as begging wanderer. He lived in the town of Lyons, in south-central France. His wife accepted his decision, and Valdez started a different life.

He gained followers while wandering and preaching, despite lacking an official permit. Waldo and his preachers were stopped by the local bishop and moved to Rome, where they met the Pope in 1179. In the 1180s, Waldensians were officially announced as heretics. Waldo was never arrested, but condemning Waldensians led them into actual heresy.

Ancient statue of two monks with Bible at the Charles Bridge in Prague
Waldensians insisted on the literal interpretation of the Bible. (Image: Oleg Senkov/Shutterstock)

Peter Valdez and other Cathar preachers, men and women, were called ‘Barba’s. if a Barba came into town, other Waldensians would meet them secretly, confess to their sins, shelter them, and help them get to the next town. They preached that sacraments were useless for salvation. They also condemned the Catholic clergy as being unworthy of holding religious office. However, their most distinctive characteristic was that they insisted on a literal interpretation of the Bible. They insisted on the right to read the Bible for themselves.

Waldensians tried to live strictly based on the Bible. For example, because the Bible said, ‘Swear not at all’, Waldensians avoided swearing. This was used as a technique to find Waldensians: they asked an accused person to swear an oath, and if they did not, they were Waldensians.

Both Cathars and Waldensians contributed a lot to the religious reforms of the next centuries, despite all the efforts to stop and execute them.

Common Questions about Cathars and Waldensians

Q: Who were the Cathars and Waldensians?

In the second half of the 12th century, two major international heretic movements emerged: the Cathars and the Waldensians. The Cathars had no single founder that history knows about, unlike the Waldensians, whose founder was Peter Valdez.

Q: What were the beliefs of the Cathars?

The Cathars believed that God and Satan were equally powerful, which is incomplete contrast to Christian beliefs. Their beliefs were significantly different from their concurrent heretics, Waldensians. However, both Cathars and Waldensians were regarded as heretics by the Christian Church.

Q: Did the Cathars believe in reincarnation?

Yes. Cathars believed in reincarnation, and that created a way for the Church to identify them. The Church would make accused heretic kill a chicken, and if they refused, it was proof that they are Cathars. Cathars and Waldensians both had beliefs that the Church used to recognize and arrest them

Q: What did Waldensians believe?

Waldensians condemned the Catholic clergy as being unworthy of holding religious office. They also insisted on literal interpretations of the Bible and the right to read the Bible for oneself. They were pacifists and did not swear. Killing chickens was a test to find Cathars, and Waldensians had to swear in front of the Church.

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