'They go about two by two, barefoot, clad in woollen garments, owning nothing, holding all things common like the apostles, naked, following a naked Christ. They are making their first moves now in the humblest manner because they cannot launch an attack. If we admit them, we shall be driven out.' So wrote twelfth-century churchman Walter Map in response to the early Waldensians. His words illustrate how eager were the late medieval 'heretics' to experience in their own time the vitality of the earliest Christians. They show too that members of the medieval religious establishment could feel severely threatened by attempts radically to renew the church. In the late Middle Ages there were three major movements which shared that goal: the Waldensians, the Lollards and the Czech Brethren. These movements differed in various ways, but they had significant similarities. Each of them reacted against a church which through wealth, privilege and power had moved far from the teachings of Jesus and the dynamic simplicity of the early Christians. Each of them emphasized preaching from a Bible in the language of the people. Each of them owed its strength to the dedicated involvement of laymen and laywomen. And despite the fact that in every case the church responded by Inquisition and burning, each of these movements survived into the sixteenth century to encounter the Reformation.

The Waldensians were first on the scene. This movement began in the 1170s with the conversion of a prominent merchant from Lyons named Valdes. (His precise dates are unknown but he died before 1218). Valdes was moved by a minstrel's recounting of the story ofSt Alexis, who had left his patrician Roman parents to live a life of apostolic poverty. He went for ...

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