For a map of France with the Montaillou-Albi region encircled go to the following address, Then return to text with the back command. (The map is adapted from a map on the website


In the French Pyrenees, 25 miles north of the border with Spain, 50 miles directly inland from the Mediterranean Sea, lies the village of Montaillou and its neighborhood, where Catharism was dealt its death blow. Seventy-five miles north of there is Albi, the place that gave its name to the crusade to end Catharism. In 1318, however, about 65 years after the Albigensian Crusade seemed definitively to have achieved its goal, Jacques Fournier, the bishop of the Montaillou area, opened an Inquisition into the orthodoxy of the local population. During the seven years of the Inquisition it considered 98 cases of suspected heresy.  In the end, five of the accused were burned at the stake as heretics, and a number of others were penalized, especially by the confiscation of their goods. In the course of the proceedings the court obtained detailed testimony from 28 townspeople of Montaillou and its immediate neighborhood. The meticulously recorded and carefully preserved statements of these 28 provide two kinds of information. One is, of course, a description of the beliefs and practices of Catharism; the other is a view of the people themselves, of their occupations, their family relationships, and their village life. The court record is thus a rich source of insight into life in the 14th century.


Montaillou: the promised land of error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, professor of history at the CollŹge de France tells the story of the Cathars of Montaillou and surroundings. (Ladurie, 1978) This prize winning study of social life in a medieval village as well as a look at the religion of the people draws copiously from the court records. All that follows in this appendix is taken from Ladurie. The references to the original records are included here along with references to Ladurie’s text.


Spread  of  cathar beliefs in Montaillou

The Authié brothers, Pierre and Guillaume, were wealthy notaries in a village close to Montaillou. One time Pierre was reading a book which prompted him to say to Guillaume, “’How does it strike you, brother?’ And Guillaume answered: ‘It seems to me that we have lost our souls.’ And Pierre concluded: ‘Let us go, brother; let us go in search of our souls’ salvation.’ So they got rid of all their possessions and went to Lombardy, where they became good Christians; there they received the power of saving the souls of others.’” (p. 234) Returning in the year 1300, they acted as missionaries in Montaillou. Through family ties they influenced a number of households, some of which were already inclined to Catharism, or, perhaps more exactly, had not lost their feeling for it in spite of its supposed eradication by the Albigensian Crusade. A revealing conversation between two townswomen is:

‘Cousin, do you know that the Authiés are back?’

And I answered: ‘But where have they been?’

‘In Lombardy,’ she said. ‘They spent everything they had there and became heretics.’

‘And what are these heretics like?’

‘They are good and holy men.’

‘In the name of God,’ said I, ‘perhaps it is a good thing!’

And I went away. (p. 253, i, 318)


Within a decade of the arrival of Pierre and Guillaume Authié there were twice as many Cathar households in Montaillou as there were Western Christian households, and out of a total of approximately forty households in the village only two were completely free of Catharism. (pp. 28-30) Not all the Cathars were in Montaillou; a few were in nearby villages, but Montaillou was the only village that was mostly Cathar. The Spanish border, as mentioned above, was only 25 miles (in a straight line) from Montaillou, a convenient distance for persons exiled for one reason or another. Several shepherds had gone there, including one Guillaume Bélibaste, a Cathar who “settled down as a prophet to a little Albigensian colony in Catalonia.” (p.70) Eventually Guillaume was captured by the Inquisition and burned at the stake. (p. 218) Shepherding was a common occupation in the Pyrenees, and the role shepherds played in keeping Catharism alive is significant. Away from the villages and people of the lower lands during the summers, shepherd men and boys could meditate on the ancient Cathar traditions, handing them down to new generations. (p. 110)


Nature of Montaillou Catharism

The structure of Ladurie’s study is based on the environment and human social relations within it. Although religion, both orthodox and heterodox, permeates it, there is no central statement of Cathar beliefs, no Cathar creed or confession by which the reader can compare the heterodoxy of this small mountain area with Catharism in general, or even the Catharism of the earlier Albigensians, let alone that of the Cathars of Lombardy or the Waldenses of Piedmont. We shall summarize points Ladurie makes about the villager’s religion in Part Two. “An archaeology of Montaillou.”


Since the fundamental difference between Cathars and the other Christians lies in their understanding of evil and evil’s origin, the first observation to make about Montaillou Cathars is that they did not hold the good God responsible for evil in the world. As the priest and Cathar Bernard Franca put it, “’On the one hand there are the works of the good God, Heaven, the earth, the water, fire, the air and the animals useful to men for food, for carrying, for work or for clothing; including edible fish! On the other hand the bad God has made devils and harmful animals, such as wolves, snakes, toads, flies and all harmful and poisonous beasts’” (pp. 291-292; i,358)


The following testimony of the parfait (“perfect,” or “good man”) Guillaume Bélibaste illustrates several facets of Cathar thinking about evil: that evil is all around us, that evil can overpower us, that there is a way to escape from being evil, but if we do not escape it the evil in us when we die must enter some human or animal (the doctrine of metempsychosis):

‘When a man steals away someone else’s possessions or commits evil, that man is none other than an evil spirit which enters into him: this spirit makes him commit sins and makes him abandon the good life for the wicked. Everything is full of souls. All the air is full of good and evil spirits. Except when a spirit has been dwelling in the body of a dead person who when he was alive was just and good, the spirit which has just escaped from a dead body is always anxious to be reincarnated. For the evil spirits in the air burn that spirit when it is among them; so they force it to enter into some body of flesh, whether of man or of beast; because as long as a spirit is at rest in a body of flesh, the evil spirits in the air cannot burn it or torment it.’ (p. 288; iii,179)


At the same time that these uncultured people believed that the air was full of supernatural spirits, they distingished magic powers from religious powers. Magic and superstitious attribution of power to incantations, spells, and the like were real to them. In some cases the distinction was lost. Such was the belief that “baptism prevented a man from being drowned or being eaten by wolves.” (p. 296)


The notion of “unclean” which figured in their religion was not at all a matter of sanitation or of cleansing rituals, but of abhorrence of flesh. One did not know what evil spirits, as mentioned above, might be in meat. And so, “’When Guillaume Bélibaste has touched meat with his hands, he washes them three times before eating or drinking.’” (p. 142, ii,31; i,325 )


Regardless of their religious orientation, the people of the region had a very relaxed attitude toward sex. Homosexuality was to them a condescension to the natural passions, but they held rape to be wrong. The faithful of the Roman Church did not consider consensual sex between man and woman, including fornication with prostitutes who enjoyed it, to be sinful. (pp. 148-152) To the Cathars all sex was fundamentally sinful, but in practice, fornication and adultery were no worse than marital sex and just as acceptable as long as they were for pleasure. Grazide Rives, a longtime mistress of the village priest, Pierre Clergue, both before and after her marriage, testified that “’A lady who sleeps with a true lover is purified of all sins… the joy of love makes the act innocent, for it proceeds from a pure heart.’” “’With Pierre Clergue, I liked it. And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin.’”(p. 159, i, 302-4)


The underlying Cathar attitude toward sex, their aversion toward it, shows in the morals expected of the goodmen, the parfait. “The duty of barrenness was incumbent only on the goodmen, not on mere ‘believers.”’ (p. 207)


In the general culture of the region the prime religious question was not theological, “Does God exist? What does he expect of me?” It was practical, “Will I be saved?” Religion, to the medieval European mind, was less a matter of one’s personal relationship with God than it was a possibility of a better life. Suffering, exemplified by that of Jesus, would end with death and happiness if the individual soul, who, by himself or herself was a sinner, was forwarded by the community of believers. In the Roman Church the priest and the sacraments acted in the name of the Christian community to cleanse the dying sinner and send him or her to a better life. For this function the Cathars had the goodmen, who functioned as spiritual leaders, the consolamentum, a near-death ceremony of liberation from this world administered by the goodmen, and the endura, a final death fast after the consolamentum. (pp. 223-230)


It was not only on the deathbed that Cathar and orthodox practices were parallel or similar. There were Cathar sympathizers who were known to attend (Catholic) Mass often and “By a kind of dual belief which was not then regarded as shocking, they even showed a special Catholic piety to some particular saint, Béatrice offering coloured candles at the altar of the Virgin and Pierre Maury donating fleeces to the altar of Saint Anthony.” (p. 265) All but the leading Cathar figures appeared in the parish church from time to time for baptisms, mass and communion, and other standard religious practices. (pp. 319-314)


Some of Montaillou’s rejection of Catholic beliefs and practices arose simply as logical consequences of their basic beliefs. For instance, they abhored crosses in spite of their veneration of the Christ who suffered on a cross. The reason was that the cross was evil, it was the instrument of suffering. (p. 302) Similarly they held the administration of the sacraments by priests to be ineffective because the Church was immoral and the priests were personally immoral. The goodman Guillaume Authié claimed that “’We goodmen can absolve anyone of his sins. Our power of absolution is equal to that of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Whereas the Catholic Church does not possess this power, because it is a bawd and a whore.’” (p. 297, i, 282-3)


Particularly abhorrent to the Cathars was the way the Church dealt in indulgences. (According to Catholic belief an indulgence is a shortening of the time a soul must spend in Purgatory for not being good enough at death to go directly to heaven.)

Bélibaste had no words strong enough to attack the retailers of indulgences who went from door to door with their wares, taking one farthing’s profit for themselves for every thousand pardons, which they had bought wholesale in Rome, where the Pope would sell a few tens of thousands of days of indulgence for 10 to 20 livres tournois, half the price of a house. (p. 334, ii, 24-6)


In the final analysis the strength of the Montaillou Cathars lay not in their theoretical understanding of, but in the belief that their Catharism was true Christianity, practiced at some sacrifice in the face of a religious institution that had gone wrong.(p. 325) Or, as Guillimette Argelliers put it, “Those goodmen are good Christians. They keep the Roman faith which was kept by the Apostles Peter, Paul and John, and so on.” (p. 254, iii, 103}


Source for Appendix A

LeRoy Ladurie. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error. New York: George Braziller, 1978.



In chapter 3 we saw who the Waldenses were and the role they played in history. Here we take a close look at one Waldensian settlement which Roy Gordon visited..


For a map of Calabria in southern Italy showing Guardia Piemontese lying within an encircled area go to Return to the text by using the back command. (Map adapted from Michelin 564 Regional map of Molise, Campania, Puglia Basilicata, Calabria, 2003.)


General History

Although it is clear that the Waldensian settlements in Calabria were made in the fourteenth century by Waldenses moving down the Italian peninsula from Piedmont in the northwest, their dates and order of founding are uncertain. According to one account (Comba 1889), the first settlement in Calabria was near the town of Montealto, where the Waldenses built the village Borgo degli Oltremontani, literally, “Town of People from Across the Mountains.” Later another village, San Sisto dei Valdesi, was built about a mile away. The most widely-known Waldensian church in southern Italy was that of San Sisto. Later Vaccarizzo, Argentina, and San Vincenzo were built; and, finally, the walled town of Guardia Piemontese. Another account (Cantú 1865-1866) adds a town by the name of Rose.  Still another account (Lea 1887-1888) names an eighth Waldensian town, La Rocca, and differs in other details; e.g. it notes Guardia as the first Waldensian settlement, and gives the name Borgo d'Oltremontani as a synonym for Guardia.


The Waldensian communities in Puglia lay in the mountains of the Italian peninsula’s central ridge, a little over one hundred miles north of the Waldensian communities in Calabria. According to Waldensian tradition the first colonies in Puglia were settled indirectly from French Provence, rather than from the secondary parent community in the Alps between France and Italy. Waldenses who fled Provence in the time of Pope Boniface IX (in the late 14th century when the papacy was seated in Avignon) moved briefly to Piedmont, where they were joined by other Waldenses. They then moved south to Puglia, where they founded four exclusively Waldensian villages: Monteleone, Faito (southwest of Lucera), La Cella (Celle) and Montecorvino (near Ariano). Around 1500, more Waldenses came to Puglia from Piedmont and settled in another town, Volturara (west or southwest of Lucera), not far from the first four.


The number of Waldenses in Calabria in the early 16th century is quite uncertain. One authority (Gay 1912) says that, in all, several thousands had moved southward into Calabria since settlement began there.  But this is over a period of some two centuries.  Another authority gives an estimate of ten thousand for the Waldensian population there in the year 1530. (Lea 1887-1888) Still another writer, himself a Waldensian, gives the number as only four thousand at the time of the Reformation. Guardia is said to have had fifteen hundred inhabitants around the mid-16th century (Cantú 1865-1866). The present population  of Guardia (1960s) is a little over eleven hundred.


There are no estimates of the total Waldensian population in Puglia. But by the 16th century they were numerous enough that that province was regarded as the southern headquarters of the sect.



While the Waldenses in the parent community in the Alps were frequently persecuted, those of Calabria and Puglia lived peacefully as agriculturists for over two hundred years, until the mid-16th century. In the second half of the century, however, there were violent persecutions of the south Italian Waldenses. In 1560, an inquisitor arrived at the nearby city of Cosenza, and toured Guardia and the neighboring Waldensian towns of Montealto and San Sisto. In 1561, Guardia and San Sisto were razed and burned, and at an auto-da-fé sixteen hundred survivors were killed. (Lea 1887-1888) The Waldenses in Pugliawere not treated so harshly as those in Calabria, but, after seeing the example of Guardia, most of them became Catholics.


Description of Guardia Piemontese

This town which Roy Gordon visited lies close to the sea about 150 mles south of Naples on the western slope of the central mountainous ridge of the Italian peninsula. The name Guardia Piemontese itself means 'Piedmontese fortress' in obvious reference to the immigration of Waldenses from Piedmont.

Records for the town being scanty, parts of its history can only be reconstructed from non-written sources: oral tradition, local customs, distinctive dialect, and the ruins of structures.


Viewed from the coast the rebuilt present day town is impressively situated on a hill rising steeply from the sea to an elevation of about 1700 feet. Slopes fall away on all sides, and are especially sharp toward the north and west. To the south, a deep valley separates Guardia from Fuscaldo, a neighboring historically Italian speaking town. To the east the slope is less steep and fields extend across a shallow valley and upward toward the crest of an inland range, the Catena Costera. Guardia is reached by a steep road that winds upward through olive orchards and chestnut and oak groves from Guardia Piemontese Marina, which is a beach resort maintained by the people in Guardia itself. This marina is a major source of Guardia's income; agriculture is another.


At Guardia parts of a main gate and the ruins of a tower (the castello), are all that remain of the old fortifications. A low retaining wall surrounds the town as a protection from erosion of its surface down the surrounding slopes. The remnants of the old wall rise about fourteen feet above present street level and as much as forty feet above the outside ground level. Rising to these heights and made of stone and mortar six or seven feet thick, the old wall was obviously built by people anticipating trouble beyond the attacks of local brigands. The many fragments of roof tile which are mixed with the mortar in the old wall suggest that it was built after the town had been already in existence for some time.


On the northwest edge, or higher part of the town a tower was built; also, according to townspeople, the old Waldensian church. The outline of surviving stretches of the old wall indicate that the size of the old Waldensian town was about the same as that of modern Guardia Piemontese. The distance from the ruins of the tower in the north to the southernmost fragments of the old wall is about two hundred and fifty yards. The tower rises about fifty feet above street level, it is about thirty-five feet in diameter and is octagonal in cross-section. Most of the structure is intact, although pieces have fallen away and its base is overgrown with sage and fennel. Sections of the old wall near the tower rise as much as twenty-five feet above street level.


Although the tower was once the tallest structure in the town, a metal water tank built in recent years just to the north now rises above it--rather spoiling the appearance of the town as seen from the coast. I was told that government workmen preparing the site for this tank destroyed an old inscription on the rocks, written in the French dialect, which translated read: "Here lie a Valdensian mother and child who died of hunger".


Townspeople say that there were originally four gates for entering the town but only one, the main gate, called Port du Sang, facing eastward at the end of Via dei Valdesi, still exists--and it has been largely rebuilt. It is called Port du Sang because, it is said, when Guardia fell the slaughter was so great that blood ran down the streets and through this gate. The oldest and narrowest street in town is Via Pascali, named for a  Waldensian leader, martyred in Calabria. After its conquest the town was rebuilt and its streets broadened. Via Pascali, however, is said to be much as it was.


Apparently the old Waldensian church was demolished when Guardia fell, but in 1962 the outline of the floor plan, located in a slight depression near the base of the tower, could still be seen. The site was being prepared for a new building. Recently some human bones have been unearthed in its foundations.


Fate of the population

Until the military suppression of 1561 the Waldenses had been attempting to preserve their faith by isolating themselves culturally from the surrounding population: They "...strictly prohibited marriage with the natives; they used their own language and their faith was kept pure by biennial visits from the barbes or travelling pastors of the sect." (Lea 1887-1888) When Guardia fell survivors were commanded to give up their native tongue for Italian. (Lea 1887-1888) It was also "prescribed that all should wear the yellow habitillo with the red cross", identifying themselves as heretics.


When Guardia fell, a large number of survivors were killed, as mentioned above, or forcibly converted to Catholicism. Others were imprisoned, and a price put on the heads of any who escaped. Children were scattered among Catholic families living at least eight miles from the Waldensian settlement.


To further suppress Waldensian doctrines, survivors were forced to marry outside the community.  People say at Guardia that, because there was no marrying within the town, it came to be known as “the place where love is illegal.” Despite all such regulations, a distinctive Gallo-Italian dialect, known locally as 'Guardiolo,' survives. A number of Guardiolo poems and songs have been recorded; for instance, La Pioveo la Faie Suleigl. Even today, the pre-school children of Guardia do not learn Calabrese, the local Italian dialect, but communicate with the people of neighboring towns in standard Italian, learned in the public schools. Most French surnames disappeared, but this is not surprising if the larger part of the male population was slain or dispersed when Guardia fell.


When they were permitted to give up the "yellow habitillo," the women returned to their original Waldensian costume. This style, identified by skirts of red cloth, sleeves of black velvet, and hair plaited with black ribbons, is said to have been brought from the Valley of Angrogna in Piedment. (Cantú 1865-1866) It is, however, quite different from those I saw around Torre Pellice, also in Piedmont. One especially interesting feature of the women's dress is that they wear bows of coarse rope over their heads and across their breasts. They claim that the wearing of these ropes, by which they could be led about, was required after the fall of Guardia as a penance for being Waldensian, and as a symbol of bondage. But, they add, they gradually worked the rope strands into their headdresses and clothing; and so, in time, these pieces of rope came to be a decorative part of local costume. Until around 1935, marriages were performed with the women wearing that local costume. In fact, women are said before that time to have refused to marry in other dress. Now only a few old women wear the costume, but many insist on being married in it.


The relations between Guardia and the nearby Catholic town of Fuscaldo remain strained after all these centuries because in Guardia people claim that the taking of their town was made easier by treachery. At midday, they say, when many of the men were away working in the fields, a detachment of troops came to Guardia accompanied by a group of people who were supposedly prisoners taken into custody during a disturbance at Fuscaldo. The captain of the troops, claiming there was no jail space at Fuscaldo itself, asked leave to imprison his “captives” temporarily at Guardia. Once inside the town walls, the “prisoners” broke loose and, although even the Waldensian women joined in the fighting, the town was soon captured. This explains how we know that the walls and buildings were not knocked down in the taking of the town, but later were razed.


In discussing their history, the townspeople of Guardia reveal a curious ambivalence. I was told on several occasions, "We are Catholics, and really not interested in religious disputes." On the other hand, although Catholic now (there are two Catholic churches within the town's narrow confines), they are proud of, or at least speak most sympathetically of, their Waldensian forbearers. Although the historical details they recount may be inaccurate, they discuss them without reserve. Why do they still cherish these stories of the town's defense, the costumes with penitents' ropes, such street names as Via Valdesi, their distinctive dialect, and so on? Despite the shortage of space, the tower and the old wall fragments are left standing, although there is a faction that wants to tear the tower down, claiming that it is unsafe.


In recent years, Waldensians have come again from Piedmont and established a missionary church at nearby Entabula. But their ministers are said to get a cool reception in Guardia, and all but two or three families remain Catholic.


Provenćal language

Although the Provenćal language is preserved only at Guardia Piemontese (strangely, as that is the settlement that suffered the most), words similar to those used in Guardia appear in an Italian dialect spoken at Mormanno and Laino, in the northern extremity of Calabria, about thirty miles from Guardia. (Rohlfs 1952) At Faito, too, there is still a strong Provenćal influence. Thus Waldenses may have settled other sites in the area not noted in available historical sources. Or, perhaps, refugees from Guardia spread their language to those towns. On the other hand, Rohlfs states that in 1921 when he visited the towns of San Sisto and San Vincenzo, which were once definitely Waldensian, not a trace of the Provenćal language remained. (Rohlfs 1952) It has also been claimed that two of the towns listed as Waldensian, La Cella and Faito, already existed as French settlements in the 12th century, and were occupied not by Waldenses but by other Provenćal-speaking colonists brought here by Charles of Anjou. (Morosi 1890)


Today, in spite of roads, communications, and public schools, which have drawn the small Calabrian towns closer together, especially by propagating a standard Italian language, many neighboring towns have surprisingly little contact. One unifying factor consists of the young people’s meeting and working together in the numerous marinas along the coast. The effect is to link the hill towns above the coast, and even some distance inland, as they have never in the past been linked. Old people and the centers of conservatism, are still in the hill towns. Like other Italian communities, Guardia has its little group of old men who have worked for years in the U. S., returned to their native home, and speak English. On the other hand, the driver of the bus going to Guardia spoke German, and having fought with the Germans during World War II, railed against this 'Old Guard' of repatriots from America who lived high on their American pensions.


Sources for Appendix B

Cesare Cantú. Gli eretici d’Italia  Discorsi storici.  Vol.I or Vol.II? Torino: Unione tipografico-editrice, 1865-1866.

Emilio Comba. History of the Waldenses of Italy, from their Origins to the Reformation. London: Truslove & Shirley, 1889.

Teofilo Gay. Histoire des Vaudoise refaite d’apres les plus recentes recherches. Florence, 1912.

H. C. Lea. History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. New York, 1887-1888.

G. Morosi. “Il dialetto franco provenzales di Faeto e Celle nell’Italia Meridionale,” in Ascoli’s Archivo Glottologico, XII, pp. 33-79. (1890).

Gerard Rohlfs. “Colonizazione gallo-italica nel Mezzogiorno d’Italia.” In An den Quellen der romanischen Sprachen, pp. 80-85. Halle, 1952.



This appendix was enriched by information from R. Robson’s Old Believers in Modern Russia in February, 2013.


In 1997 Roy Gordon and his son, Robin A. Gordon visited a settlement of Russian Old Believers in Woodburn, Oregon, between Salem and Portland in the Willamette River Valley “The men,” Roy observed, “were wearing beards and the women were wearing old Russian costumes: skirts and scarves.” The casual observer might mistake them for the better known Amish or Mennonites, not only for their appearance but also for their obvious intention of living a traditional and communal life. Their traditions, however, as well as their geographic origin, and their practice of the Christian religion, were very different from those of the Amish and Mennonites.


Bogomil influence

The story of the Russian Old Believers begins with the Bogomils, who who were the principal link in the perpetuation of Gnostic Dualism in medieval Europe. Originating in Thrace (Bulgaria) in the tenth century, the Bogomils spread west in the twelfth century. Their faith was copied by the Cathars, who kept it alive for two hundred more years. (See Chapter 3.)  The tenth century also saw the conversion to Christianity of the Slavic peoples north and east of Bulgaria. Elements of Bogomil Gnostic Dualism followed into Slavic lands, but they did not give rise to a distinct church. Rather, the Christian faith of the people here and there came to contain traces of it, such as creation stories that added Gnostic legends to Genesis, and legends based on the power of Satan. Of greater significance, the people of these Slavic lands were prone to Gnostic and Dualist views, such as the body’s being the prison of the soul. Some asserted that  we not only receive Christ, but we become Christ. In so doing we become God and therefore incapable of committing sin. (Obolensky 1948, Runciman 1947, Haxthausen 1972, Miliukov 1942)


Ferment in the Russian Church




As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Christian Church in Russia carried a great burden of history. When the Western or Latin Church and Eastern or Greek Church formally split, in 1054, the Eastern Church ceased to acknowledge Rome as the center of Christianity and the center of empire. In the view of the Eastern Church Constantinople, its religious and political center, became the “Second Rome.” In 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, it was no longer the center of a Christian empire, and it could no longer function as the center of the Church. Accordingly, from the Russian point of view Moscow, the only free Christian capital,  acquired the mantel of being the ‘Third Rome.” Clergy and laity alike felt strongly about their unique lineage from the ancient Church.


While the Russian Church was basking in its sense of importance, it had severe problems in maintaining order and decorum. Festivals for Christian celebrations, contained practices of drinking, dancing, entertaining, and abandonment of social restraint that remained from pre-Christian days. The clergy, furthermore, became known for worldliness and laxity. Beside accusations of immorality and laziness, they were observed to take it upon themselves to take shortcuts in the long liturgy. By the eighteenth century the Russian faithful were suffering from some of the stresses that had brought about the Protestant Reformation in the West two hundred years earlier. This was compounded by seeing the world from a pessimistic Dualist point of view along with Gnostic searching for the religious knowledge that was missing in the Church.


The Nikon Affair

In the mid-seventeenth century there was a reform movement, known as the Zealots of Piety, among the Russian clergy. Although the reform was favored by Aleksei Mikhailovich, Tsar from 1645 to 1676, (Crummey 2011, 33-38) it did not immediately stimulate revolt in the Russian Church. That changed after Bishop Nikon became the Patriarch of Moscow, the head, the Patriarch, of the Russian Church.


Elevated to the Patriarchate in 1652, Nikon was eager to reform the Church. Supported by the Tsar, he launched decrees aimed at correcting the lives of the clergy and obtaining more revenue from them. These actions alone earned him the dissatisfaction of some of the clergy. He also had the text of the liturgical books revised in accord with contemporary scholarship. He changed some practices of worship, including the way in which Russians were to hold their hand as they made the sign of the cross to bless themselves. The “new” way, holding out three fingers of the right hand rather than two, was in reality the older, standard practice of the Eastern Church. Another return to true old tradition was in the style of liturgical vestments. In addition, Nikon also ordered many icons to be removed from churches. The icons affected were, he judged, of inferior quality, and his goal was to replace them with better ones, but they were what clergy and people were used to and venerated.


The liturgical reform decrees, like the clerical reforms, were met with resistance that grew quickly under the autocratic Patriarch Nikon. Within six years he had created so many enemies that he was deposed.


On the one hand, his reforms survived him; they became the standard of the Church in Russia. On the other hand, in less than twenty years the animosity toward him of a substantial minority of clergy and lay people turned into a secession from the Church of the people called, ever since, the Old Believers.


Recent scholarsip has brought to light some confusion in the use of term “Old Believer.” The word is properly used to translate the Russian Staroobriadchestvo, which applies to those who reacted to Nikon’s reforms. The term Raskol, which means “separatist” or “schismatic,” refers to the Staroobriadchestvo as well as other Russian groups that separated from the Russian Church for other reasons. “Raskol,” is the more general term. (These distinctions are explained in Michels 1999, 21-64 and 106-120; Crummey 2011, 5-16; and Conybeare 1962, 5-9.)


The Staroobriadchestvo rebels came within a decade of Nikon’s death to populate the area around Moscow and as far north as the White Sea. Some of them, named Popovsty, “Priested”, retained the Church’s institutional structure, especially notable in their retention of clergy. After an initial period of separation a portion, but only a portion of the Popovsty were absorbed back into orthodoxy, 


The more radical of the rebels, the Bespopovsty (“Priestless”), distanced themselves from the clergy, and worshipped without them. They “ ... repudiated the priesthood, the sacraments and divine service, ceased the worshiping of icons, celebrating the order of marriage, the baptism of children, and the burial of the dead according to church rituals.” (Miliukov 1942, I, 75) They did, however, have monasteries with monks who were not priests. After the Nikon storm had passed by they remained permanently estranged from the Russian Church.


 Members of a third group of rebels were called Stranniki, or “Wanderers,” although “Fugitives” is also an apt translation, because they were extremists who created many enemies. They were “the most militant in their rejection of the government, the established Orthodox Church, and all their works … .” (Crummey 2011, 24) They were also known for being great ascetics who abstained from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, expected absolute chastity of the members, and wore only sandals made of bark. (Conybeare 1962 and Chrysostomus 1972)


During the remainder of the seventeenth century the Staroobriadchestvo were bitterly and bloodily put down by the Tsar’s forces. The main reason was not what they believed, but their rebellion: they rejected the good order, spiritual and civic, of Russia. To the persecuted, however, it was a matter of suffering for a cause, an act of religious martyrdom.


Other Old Believer movements rooted in the north


Nikon’s reforms were a catalyst for the malcontents in the Russian Church. There was, for instance, a group called the Khlysty, whose beliefs and usages point to their being descendants of the Bogomils. The history of the Khlysty can be traced back to the fourteenth century, where they were already in the Russian North. In addition to their Gnostic/Dualist characteristics they carried asceticism to its limits. In particular they were so averse to sex that they they would not eat meat because it is the product of copulation. (Conybeare 1962, 339-361) They taught, too, that the Holy Spirit entered them, spoke in tongues, and caused them to dance wildly until they were in a trance.


Still more extreme were the Skoptsy, an offshoot of the Khlysty in the middle of the 18th century. To the common Gnostic beliefs about Jesus the Skoptsy added details taught them by their founder Selivanov: "Christ is not dead and never died. He wanders the earth in the form of a sexless being and is today incarnate in Peter III, who did not die as is recorded in history. The body placed in the tomb was not his, but that of a soldier who resembled him."  (Haxthausen 1972, 129) The Skoptsi are most known for their defining act of worship, castration of themselves and others as a means of ensuring celibacy.



Another group that carried their zeal to extraordinary lengths was the Morelshchiki of northwestern Russia, who interpreted the New Testament statement about “baptism by fire” so literally that they practiced group self-immolation not only as a way of fleeing murderous persecution, but as an annual ritual. A German traveler in the 1840s was informed of a case of Morelshchiki mass suicide that had occurred “several years ago.” Adding that earlier travelers wrote about instances of this macabre rite, he described it without mentioning the source of the report:

Accompanied by special ceremonies, a large deep pit is dug and surrounded with straw, wood, and other combustible materials. A small community of these fanatics, numbering twenty, thirty, fifty, or even one hundred individuals, gather in the middle of the pit, ignite the pyre, while breaking into savage song, and cremate themselves with stoic indifference. Sometimes they assemble in a house which they have surrounded with piles of straw and then set fire to it. The neighbors gather around without disturbing them, for they are holy and are 'receiving the baptism of fire.' (Haxthausen 1972, 128)



Spread of Old Believers throughout Russia

When the Patriarch Nikon imposed his reforms on Russia, the country extended north and east of Moscow, but the lands to the south and west of Moscow belonged to the Polish-Ukrainian Commonwealth. In 1667, nine years after Nikon was deposed, the Commonwealth lost the Ukraine by treaty to Russia. Thus the impact of Nikon’s reforms was not as immediate in the south as it was in Moscow and north. Still, because there was discontent with the laxity of the Church, the movement to resist the reforms and retain the old practices gained adherents, more Old Believers or Raskol in the newly annexed areas. The principal groups in question were the Dukhobortsy and the Molokanye, both of which eventually spread throughout Russia.


The Dukhobors, whose documented existence dates from about 1785, were not Gnostics, but they were strongly Dualist. Their asceticism went beyond abstemiousness to include turning away from the enjoyment of the beauties of nature. (Conybeare 1962, Haxthausen 1972, Miliukov 1942)


The Dukhobor way of life was too rigid and harsh to attract large numbers of people. Their impact on Russia religious life became great around 1860 through the related group, the Molokanye, which had been founded about the same time as the Dukhobors and whose beliefs were similar, except for a more Gnostic view of Christ, who, according to them, did not in reality suffer on the cross. Molokanye practices, while also similar, were less rigorous, and can be described as puritanical. They took their very name, which meant “Milk Drinkers,” from the Russian word for milk (moloko), which they drank during Lent because they did not observe the customary Lenten fast. (Conybeare 1962, Haxthausen 1972, Runciman 1982, Hardwick 1993)


Persecution of Old Believers

All sources of Old Believer history concur that there were many and vicious tsarist government persecutions of them, starting with Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich at the time of the reactions to Nikon’s reforms. At times when Peter I, the Great, tsar from 1682 to 1725, saw them as threats to the national unity he was building, he was harsh on them. Most tsars that followed him treated the dissidents mercilessly, but Catherine II, the Great, Tsarina from 1762 to 1796, was indulgent toward them. The tsars who followed Catherine were generally displeased with the Old Believers, but only Nicholas I (1825-1855) hounded them and punished them severely.


“Harshness” toward the dissidents sometimes meant torture and death. For example, in an inquisition held in Moscow from 1745 to 1752 

Victims [the Khlysty] were racked every day, searing with hot irons being the most approved method of torture. Five were burnt alive in public, 26 condemned to death, the rest to the knout, deprivation of their noses, exile, etc. (Conybeare 1962, 361)


From Tsar Peter the Great through Nicholas I, the periods of persecution also signified the physical destruction of Old Believer churches and monasteries. Repressive taxes were often used in an effort to bring them back into the Russian Church. (Crummey 2011, 161-164)


Modern status of the Old Believers

In spite of the efforts of various tsars to eliminate them, or at least to keep their numbers down by repressive measures, the Old Believers multiplied in the nineteenth century. Estimates of their numbers vary widely, but it appears that a reasonable count of them around 1850 was ten million out of a total population of about sixty million. By 1880, when there may have been thirteen million of them, the Russian Ministry of the Interior listed the Bespopovsty as the largest component, at 55%. The next largest group was the Popovsty, 28%. The Dukhobors and Molokanye were not listed by name, but were either among the 16 ½% “unascertained’ or among the Bespopovsty. The Khlysty accounted for a mere one half of one percent. (Conybeare 1962, 239-249)


Recent studies, based on more complete documentation, calculate the number of nineteenth century Old Believers at ten percent of all Russians. A greater proportion of the local population in the outlying areas of the empire consisted of Old Believers who had gone there to escape persecution, but also to live a more Christian life, away from the loose religiosity of the cities. The faithful of the periphery tended to be the priestless Old Believers, whereas the congregations that maintained a clergy were more to be found in central Russia. Among the differences between the latter and the Russian Orthodox Church was their belief that their less centralized relation of parish to ecclesiastical region carried on the good tradition of the Church, which had been corrupted by the reforms of Nikon. (Robson 1995, pp. 20-39)           


The 1905 Act of Toleration in Russia allowed the Old Believers to organize and hold regional and national conferences. Their staunch religiosity, however, served them poorly under the Communist regime after 1917. Emigration had already begun at least a hundred years earlier, when some found haven in Turkey and its tolerant policies toward non-Muslim faiths. Heading east, and finding Siberia not a safe refuge, a contingent went to the Harbin area of Manchuria (China). Eventually Communist China no longer welcomed the Russians, so they migrated from there to Brazil and to Canada. (Colfer 1985, 5-8)


After World War II some of the Brazilian and some of the Turkish Old Believers found their way to Oregon with the help of the U. S. government and the Tolstoy Foundation. These are the ones Roy Gordon found in  1997. Although some of those who came from Brazil moved to Alaska, where they could more easily live their traditional lifestyle, it was estimated in 2000 that there were about 10,000 Old Believers in Oregon, the largest concentration in the United States. (Kramer 2001)


Sources for Appendix C

A. Michael Colfer. Morality, Kindred and Ethnic Boundary: A Study of the Oregon Old Believers. New York: AMS Press, 1985.

Frederick Conybeare. Russian Dissenters. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.

Robert O. Crummey. The Old Believers & the World of Antichrist. Madison, Wisconsin: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

-----     Old Believers in a Changing World. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 2011.

Susan W. Hardwick. Russian Refuge: religion, migration and settlement on the North Pacific rim. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993.

August von Haxthausen. Studies on the Interior of Russia. Ed. S. F. Starr, trans. E. L. M. Schmidt. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972. (First German edition in 3 vols.: vol. 1 and 2 Hanover, 1847; vol. 3 Berlin, 1852)

Andrew Kramer. “Three centuries on, Russian Old Believers hang on in Oregon.” Berkeley Daily Planet, Berkeley, California, November 24, 2001.

Georg Bernhard Michels. At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia. Stanford, California: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999.

Paul Miliukov. Outlines of Russian Culture. Part I, Religion and the Church in Russia. Ed. Michael Karpovich. Philadelphia: A Perpetua Book, 1942.

Dimitri Obolensky. The Bogomils. A Study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1948.

Roy R. Robson. Old Believers in Modern Russia. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1995.

Steven Runciman. The Medieval Manichee, A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982.