Milton's sonnet "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont" (1655)
Peter Valdes (also known as Waldo) came into prominence in the last half of the 12th Century, as the leader of a religious group that came to be known as the Waldensians (or Waldenses). He was a rich merchant in Lyons, France, who around 1170 renounced his wealth in favor of a life of poverty, simplicity, and preaching. In this he was similar to a number of other medieval figures, like Saint Francis of Assisi (1181?-1226), who renounced a worldly life and ended up forming small communities dedicated to worship and service. Such persons and their followers often aroused the suspicion of church authorities. Sometimes, like the Franciscans, they were able to reach an accomodation. Waldo's lack of theological training, and his use of a local dialect Bible (instead of Saint Jerome's Vulgate Latin version, recognized by the Church), were soon complained of. The Waldensians sought papal approval from the Third Lateran Council (1179), but the outcome was that Waldo was forbidden to preach and, in 1184, declared a heretic and excommunicated. With time and persecution, the Waldensians departed further from Roman teaching. The rejected the authority of the pope, denied the existence of purgagory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead, criticized the veneration of saints and the adoration of the crucifix, and dispensed with certain of the seven sacraments. They also aroused alarum among secular authorities for refusing to swear oathes in court.
Waldensian communities sprang up in many places in Europe -- Spain, northern France, Flanders, Germany, Poland, southern Italy, Hungary -- but severe persecution (extending to active torture and execution) eventually reduced them to remote niches in the Cottian Alps of Italy and France. The partisans of the 16th-century Reformation recognized them as early defenders of their notion of true religion, and a series of conferences around the middle of the century resulted in their becoming in effect a branch of the Genevan (i.e., Calvinist) Church. This did not, of course, make them any less worthy as a target of Catholic repression. In the middle of the 17th Century, the Duke of Savoy unleashed a campaign to suppress the communities living in the Piedmont region of his domains. Milton himself may have had a hand in drafting the appeals sent by Oliver Cromwell to the Duke of Savoy urging him to end the persecution.
Milton's fmous poem is a response to one particularly flagrant atrocity that resulted during this larger crusade to re-establish the true faith.
John Milton (1608-74)
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont