Flying Waldensians

We’re about halfway through my Magic & Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe course and I haven’t even got to the witch trials yet, most likely much to my students’ frustration.  For foundation, I drag them through centuries of medieval history and theology to get them to understand the initial connection between witchcraft and heresy.  I could probably accomplish this task in a much shorter time, simply by presenting the image below in full context.

These flying women are included in the marginalia of the manuscript version of Martin le France’s long poem Le Champion des Dames (The Champion of Women), dated circa 1440.  You will notice that they are identified as “vaudoises” at the top, which could generally refer to witches, but more likely is a specific reference to the Waldensians (Waldenses, Vaudois), a heretical sect who existed on the fringes of medieval Christian society from their emergence and almost-immediate condemnation in the later twelfth century.  The Waldensians were essentially reformers, emphasizing the authority of the Bible over the Church, but their zealous preaching led to their gradual demonization by branding them as disciples and servants of Satan.  The Waldensians of the later middle ages, like the witches of the early modern era, were said to worship their master at inverted/perverted “sabbats” in which they are envisioned paying homage to a goat/devil.  Another text from the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Tinctoris’s Traite du crisme de Vauderie, includes a graphic illuminated image of a Waldensian sabbat—note the flying figures in the sky.

Martin le France and Johannes Tinctoris MSS at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.

The association of a well-known heresy and witchcraft through the sabbat demanded some sort of travel mechanism, as everyone knew that demonic rituals were held in faraway places–the inaccessible “blue mountain”, the dense Black Forest, the isolated “field of the goat” (Akelarre in the Basque Country).  What better way to get there than on a flying broom?  The alluring image of dangerous and demonic agents utilizing a familiar household object to reach their secret destinations immediately caught on, and remains very much in play today.

Raphael Tuck Halloween Postcard from the 1910s.

14 responses to “Flying Waldensians

  • thedailydish

    Fascinating. I’d ever heard of the Waldensians before. It’s so strange how rumor turns to tradition!

    • P

      Hi , I just read the article and also found it interesting although I know about the waldensians as I am one of them! My family tells me the tradition appeared as we had to escape through the mountains during the persecutions in the waldensian valleys and nobody could find us. So the idea of flying away…

      • Sierra

        Im trying to trace back my family line and have been trying to find any waldensians. Would you have any other information on their true practices? It seems Im finding a lot of criticism on it but interested in the true meaning!

      • daseger

        The Waldensians were a proto-Protestant movement, so any text tracing the origins of the Reformation would be helpful.

      • Barbara Guenther

        Israel of the Alps, History of Waldensians found on Amazon.

  • markd60

    This is a very interesting post. It makes me think about a lot of things.
    It would be easy to use the Bible against the Christians, their leadership seems to refer to it and ignore it when it is convenient.

  • ceciliag

    Other than desperately wanting to be one of your recalcitrant students.. why the broom?.. why do the witches ride a broom? other than it being a convenient domestic object.. c

  • Bernadette

    Very interesting, never heard of Waldensians before, and I am a big fan and collector of old postcards, love that one of the witch.

  • 1familyman

    Reblogged this on Past Yesterday and commented:
    After Lateran Council IV The ‘Imperial Church’ put an end to the introduction of any new religious order by establishing Canon 13 which forbids the establishment of new religious orders, lest too great diversity bring confusion into the Church. The Franciscans, the Benedictines, Capuchins, and the Carmelites made it just in time. Interestingly, Valdo, founder of the Waldensians was burned at the stake after the judgement he received from a Benedictine monk. Suppose they had to control the competition.

    Why are these churches called Waldensian as well as protestant?

    VALDO (hence Valdese = Waldensian), a merchant of Lyons who lived only a short time before St. Francis, following a deep spiritual crisis, decided to follow the example of the apostles, living literally as a disciple of Christ. Accordingly, he sold all his possessions and dedicated himself to the preaching of the Gospel. It was not his intention to defy the Church when he made this decision but rather, trying to live like the apostles, he wanted to help bring about its renewal; instead, he and his adherents were excommunicated.
    The Waldensian movement, also known as “the poor of Lyons” in France and “the poor Lombardi” in Italy, continued to spread through Europe, meeting with favour among the people.

    Like all so-called “heretical” movements, it was soon repressed and persecuted by the civil and religious authorities. Despite the difficulties and the pursuit of the Inquisition, the movement maintained its unity and spread throughout mediaeval Europe. The Waldensians established their communities mainly in the areas of the Cottian Alps, Provence, Calabria and southern Germany. Their itinerant preachers were called “barba” (a dialect word for “uncle”, meaning a distinguished person), from which word derived “barbetti”,a popular name used until recent times in Piemonte.

  • Monica

    I am part of the Waldensian community and I had never heard the story of the women on the flying brooms.
    Further proof of the ignorance of Catholic church and of its determination to create a stigma around everything and everyone who dares to be different.
    Go heretics! 🙂

    • Joe

      Not a made up stigma Monica. The habit of riding brooms was very real, and much more repulsing than their contemporary depiction. Witches and other spiritualist freaks would lather broomsticks with lotions laced with all kinds of hallucinogenics, which would get into the bloodstream in a way I’m sure needs no further description (have another look at the picture if you’re still unsure).

      A ritual that was still practiced before the revolution — see for example La Voisin and her network of murderers so coveted by the elites. The Church wasn’t always wrong on these issues…

      • Hilda Warren

        Such a stupid comment do your research about the waldensians they were not witches they were christians, it was the papacy who started the rumour about them being witches and they were definitely not witches

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