Pierre Valdés

“In 1173, at Lyons in France,” begins a chronicle written eight hundred years ago, “there lived a man, Pierre Valdés by name, who had made himself a fortune by wicked usury [by charging interest on loans]. On a certain Lord’s Day he joined a crowd gathered to hear the words of an itinerant preacher. He was smitten by what he heard. He took the preacher to his house and heard more. The next morning he hurried to the priests’ school to ask what he should do for his soul. The priests told him many things. Finally he asked their teacher what the most safe and certain way was to God. The teacher told him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go sell everything you have and give your things to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.’”

The old chronicle describes what happened afterward:

Pierre Valdés went to talk with his wife, at once. He gave her the choice of staying with him or of staying with his possessions he had decided to abandon: his ponds, orchards, fields, houses, rents, vineyards, mills, and fishing rights. She was much displeased at having to make this choice, but decided to keep the real estate.

With some of his money Pierre made restitution to everyone he had treated unjustly. He gave another part of it to his little daughters he placed in the care of the sisters of Font Everard. But the greatest part of his money he gave to the poor. A very great famine oppressed France and Germany at that time. Pierre Valdés gave bread, vegetables and meat to every one who came to him. He did this three days a week, every week from Pentecost to the feast of St. Peter’s bonds.

On the day of the Assumption of the blessed Virgin, while Pierre was in the middle of town throwing money to the poor, he cried, “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Some men of the town came running up to take him, thinking he had lost his mind. But stepping up to where all could hear him he said, “Fellow-citizens and friends, I am not insane, as you think. I am only avenging myself on my enemies—money and created things—who kept me their slave this long. All this time I have been more concerned about money than God. All this time I have served created things instead of the Creator. Now I know that many of you will accuse me for doing this openly. But I do it for my own good and for yours. I do it so any who see me have money in the future may accuse me with reason of being crazy. I do it so you may learn to put your hope in God and not in riches.”[1]

Another writer of those times, Etienne de Borbonne (a man not in sympathy with Pierre’s decision), also described what happened when Pierre followed Christ:

He sold everything he had and because he no longer valued the things of this world he threw his money into the streets, to the poor. Then, pretending he stood in the office of the apostles, he began to preach the Gospel to them. In this way he managed to gather a great number of men and women around him. He taught them the Gospel as he understood it and even though they were of the most ignorant and lowest classes, he sent them out to preach in surrounding villages.

These men and women, foolish and illiterate, went everywhere through the country. They entered houses, preached in squares and churches, and induced others to do the same. But because of their ignorance, they spread many errors and scandalous teachings. So Jean, Bishop of Lyons, called them into account and forbade them to explain the Scriptures or teach others. They talked back to him, and pretending to be Saint Peter answering the chief priests, they said, “We must obey God rather than men. God commanded us to teach the Gospel to every creature.”

A third contemporary writer, Pierre de Pilichdorf, wrote:

A wealthy citizen [Pierre de Valdés] of the southern frontier of France heard how the Lord said to a youth, “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor.” He also heard the Lord’s words to the youth (who went away sad, because he was rich and had many possessions): “It is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Then he heard of Peter who told Christ, “Look, we have left all things and followed you.”

When he heard these Scriptures, Pierre de Valdés, concluded that no one on earth followed Christ anymore. But he resolved to do so. He sold everything he had and gave it to the poor. Then he lived in poverty himself. Some who saw what he did were touched in their hearts, and did the same. . . . After a time of living in poverty, these people remembered that Christs’ disciples were not only poor. They also preached. So, in like manner, they began to go among the people and preach the Word of God. When this was reported to the Lord Bishop [Bishop Jean de Lyons] he commanded them to stop, because ignorant and uneducated people have no right to preaching of the Word of God. But they refused to obey and thought the bishop and his court were only jealous of their success. Then the [Roman Catholic] church excommunicated them. But they persisted in their activities and earned for themselves official condemnation.

Some who knew Pierre de Valdés said this. Some said that. It is hard, after eight hundred years to reconstruct exactly what happened. But of one thing we have ample evidence. Pierre de Valdés, a rich man turned to Christ. His life changed completely, and the world has never again been the same.

People called Pierre de Valdés and his friends the “Poor in Spirit” or the “Poor of Lyons.” Dressed in rough clothing and sandals they went out, two by two, tell the world about Christ. The English theologian, Walter Map, who met them on a trip to Italy, described them in 1179:

These people have no fixed residence. They go around two by two, barefooted and dressed in woollen tunics. They own nothing. Whatever they use they hold in common, after the manner of the apostles. Naked, they follow a naked Christ. As of now their impact is still negligible, because their following is still small. But if we were to leave them alone, I do not doubt they might yet be the ruin of us all.[2]

Within a few years “the Poor” had scattered across Europe. In northern Italy some lived in large communities. In most other places persecution kept that from happening. Catholic orders and governments spent fabulous sums of money to suppress them—drowning or burning hundreds alive, as in the mass executions at Strasbourg, in Flanders, and at Toulouse. But no one could uproot the seed Pierre de Valdés had allowed to sprout in his life. Grown up and gone to seed many times since, it still flourishes in the body of Christ.

Main source: Robinson, J. H., Readings in European History, Boston: Ginn, 1905

[1] From a translation by J. H. Robinson, in Readings in European History, Ginn, Boston, 1905, pp. 381-383

[2] From De nugis curalium quoted in

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