The Waldenses have been persecuted for centuries. They are a Protestant sect dating back to at least the 12th century. Over the years countless Catholic popes, dukes and kings strove to destroy them, by bloody persecution, but all in vain. One period of intense persecution in the 17th century. The Waldense Alpine valleys, located in what is now northern Italy, were at that point part of the Dukedom of Savoy. The Duke of Savoy, at the urging of the Pope, tried again and again to eliminate this Christian minority.
Usually the Waldenses did not resist what Savoy was doing in time to really stop it. This was due, in large part, to their beliefs. They believed that it was wrong to resist or even mistrust their ruler, unless he was actually in the act of the destroying them. They trusted him and believed him to be a good ruler, just misguided by wicked advisors. They had no understanding of the doctrine of interposition, that the ruler can be removed if he was working against God’s law and his people’s good. They did not understand that a ruler who tried to destroy the Christians in his dominions was wicked, no matter what his advisors had recommended he do. But for many years the Waldenses did have an effective military commander, in the person of Joshua Janavel, also known as Giosuè Gianavello, though at times he stood nearly alone.
Janavel began as a person of no particular note, living near the town of Rora. In 1655, when our story begins, the Duke of Savoy had been increasing the restrictions on the Waldenses. They had been forced from out of the Piedmont up into the mountains, and now they were not allowed to leave an area comprising three alpine valleys. Then an army arrived. The Duke sent 800 infantry and 300 cavalry, and ordered the Waldenses to provide them housing. Most of the Waldenses did not see this for what it was – a way to get troops into the Waldense communities who could massacre them. Most made no efforts to organize a defense. Joshua Janavel was probably the only one to raise a group of militia. He was looked upon as too radical. His fellow countrymen believed he was just organizing rebellion against their legitimate ruler, and that he ought to just submit.
When the small town of La Tour was ordered to provide accommodation, they refused, because they simply did not have enough room. So the army, reinforced to 15,000 men, attacked – burning houses and killing all they met. The ill-prepared Waldenses did try to fight back, and had some successes against the enemy. After repeated attacks were beat back, with heavy casualties, the Catholic commander switched tactics. He met with representatives of the Waldenses and told them that this had all been a big misunderstanding. He said that the Duke had no problem with the settlements in the valleys, and that the attacks had just been due to undisciplined soldiers. Shockingly, the Waldesnses believed him. They returned to their homes, and accepted the troops to be quartered.
The army did not abandon it’s mission to destroy the Waldneses. On April 24th, Easter’s Eve, upon a signal being given, a general massacre began. The massacre was horrible. Children were ripped limb from limb. Pregnant women were ripped open. Families were slaughtered one by one as their loved ones were forced to witness the terrible scene. There was but one bright spot in this horrible day – Joshua Janavel. When the troops came towards Rora, he was ready to resist, though with a very meager force. His militia consisted of only him and six men, facing a battalion 500 to 600 strong. As the Catholics moved up the valley, Janavel and his men positioned themselves in a narrow pass, hiding behind rocks. As the soldiers approached, they let loose a volley. Their aim was true, and six soldiers fell. Quickly reloading, the Waldense militia continued to fire. With the sound of the shots bouncing from mountain to mountain, not seeing foe nor knowing what small numbers they faced, the battalions retreated. They believed that they surely faced a far more formidable force than seven untrained and inexperienced Waldneses.
Though frustrated that day in their plan to massacre Rora, the Catholics returned on the next day, joined by a new battalion. Janavel too had been reinforced, but not by a battalion. He now had seventeen men, but they were not well armed. Six of them didn’t even have firearms – only slings. Again, as the soldiers of Savoy climbed up a narrow defile, they were suddenly struck with a volley and thrown into confusion. This time Janavel and his bold warriors charged forward, leaping from rock to rock with loud shouts. The vanguard turned and fled. The panic spread, and soon the entire unit was fleeing.
Not long thereafter, a regiment came instead of a battalion. They fared no better. These eighteen brave warriors attacked again. This time they again miraculously turned back the regiment, but won even more success. Attacking the main army by rolling stones down the mountains, they actually won some positions.
The Catholics could not stand to be humiliated by this motley throng. The entire army of over 10,000 men moved against Janavel, who now had 30 to 40 men. He turned back a vanguard of picked men, and the fled before him, some so headlong in their flight that they actually ran off of cliffs to escape him. He also turned back the first of three divisions. But while focused in this unit of thousands, another division came into Rora a different way. They secured the town and massacred its inhabitants, capturing Janavel’s wife and daughters.
Janavel still remained at large, and along with Barthelemy Jahier, began a guerrilla war against the Catholic enemy. The Catholics set a price upon his head, and sent a letter threatening him that he had to convert to save his wife and daughters. Janavel wrote in reply,
There is no torment so cruel that I do not prefer it to the abjuring of my religion; and your threats, instead of turning me from it, confirm me in it all the more. As for my wife and my daughters, they know if they are dear to me! But God alone is Lord of their lives; and if you destroy their bodies, God will save their souls. May he graciously receive these beloved souls, and likewise mine, if it so happen that I fall into your hands.
Janavel was tried by the Catholics, and condemned to have his flesh torn apart by red hot pincers, his body divided into quarters, and his head displayed as a warning for other would-be rebels. The only problem – they didn’t have him. He continued to fight from the mountains, regardless of the threats made against him and his family. While Janavel was incredibly courageous, he was not invincible. During one battle in 1655 he received a grave wound. He did, however, to the surprise of many, make a complete recovery.
Janavel’s force of outlaws numbered, at one time, as many as 600. The Waldenses, with their Duke against them, had only Janavel and his band to defend them. The outlaws attacked the soldiers who were plundering their people. At times they took the war to the enemy, marching down into the plains, and forcing Catholic towns and villages to pay money, which was used for the outlaws and their defenders. Through the experience of living his life in the valleys, as well as spending much time on campaign there, Janavel was intimately familiar with the terrain of the Waldenses’ homeland. This served him well when he needed to choose strong points from which to resist much larger Catholic forces. At one point, a Catholic army composed of six regiments moved into the valleys, but nearly miraculously Janavel’s forces drove them back, inflicting hundreds of casualties.
The war continued for eight long years. Eventually the Duke, since he was frustrated in his efforts to eradicate the Waldenses by force, made a truce with his people. Part of this included a general amnesty for those who had fought against him. But specifically exempted from this was Joshua Janavel. Instead of being able to live in peace in the land he had fought so hard for, he lived in Geneva in exile.
Although many miles away, Janavel still cared deeply for his native land. Decades later, in the 1680s Janavel noticed changed taking place. He believed that increased persecution was coming, so he wrote to his people with advice to prepare them to stand strong against it. He recommended:
- That the preachers gather all the Waldenses together, exhort them, and lead them to covenant to be faithful together until death.
- To not allow any troops to be quartered in the valleys. It was by this pretext that the 1655 massacre had been able to take place.
- To organize themselves into militia units and train for military service.
- To gather wheat to store in a secure place in the mountains so they could take refuge from their foes.
Sadly, Joshua Janavel’s people did not heed his advice. Not long thereafter there was another Easter Massacre and through more naivety, most of the people fell to the sword or too captivity. For a while, things were looking very dire. Janavel by this time was too old to return to fight again. But some, called the Invincibles, did escape the massacre and began a guerrilla war like Janavel had done years before. Because of this thorn in the side of the Duke of Savoy, along with pressure from Protestant countries, the Duke agreed to release the Waldenses and exile them to Protestant countries.
Although the surviving Waldenses were finally living in a Protestant country, after hundreds of years of persecution, many still longed for their Alpine homeland. They began plotting an escape from exile. Although Janavel was too old to go with them, he met with them to give his expert advice. Some has survived in writing to the present:
If our church has been reduced to so great an extremity, it is our sins that have been the cause. It behooves us, then, every day to humble ourselves more and more before the Lord, … and when any mishap occurs to you, be patient, and redouble your courage, so that there shall be nothing firmer than your faith. …
When you are come into the country of the enemy, seize two or three men of the place where you happen to be [as hostages.] You will treat them with all the tenderness possible. …
You will always keep sentinels posted at the summits of the mountains, that you may not be surprised … and in order to keep the passes free from one valley to another. …
[A] place of sure retreat … shall be … where was the most ancient retreat of our fathers…. Spare no labour nor pains in fortifying this post, which will be your most secure fortress. Do not quit it unless in the utmost extremity…. You will, of course, be told that you cannot hold it always, and that rather than not succeed in their object, all France and Italy will gather together against you…. But were it the whole world, and only yourselves against all, fear ye the Almighty alone, who is your protection.
The severest penalties must be inflicted upon any one who abandons his post.
Have scouts in the level country, to keep you informed of the movements of your adversaries.
On the field of battle give quarter to no one; for how will you keep prisoners? You can neither employ your men to guard them, nor your provisions to feed them; and upon leaving you, they will make known your position to the enemy.
… [S]pare innocent blood, or blood which there is no need to shed, that you may not have it to answer for before God; and in particular, see that you never allow yourselves to be seized with fear or with anger; for if you put your trust in the Lord, be assured that he will never forget you, and that his sword will be around you as a wall of fire against your enemies.
Aided by Janavel’s help, the Waldenses set out on their “Glorious Return.” It was not easy, and they had many obstacles to overcome, natural as well as military, but eventually they triumphed and was able to live in their homeland again. Janavel himself had not long to live. He died on March 5, 1690 of edema, at the age of 73.
Joshua Janavel was used in remarkable ways in Waldense history. While everyone else was acquiescing to the Duke’s commands, he was preparing to fight. When thousands came against his home, they were driven from before him and a handful of companions. When warfare was to many of his countrymen an unthinkable last resort, he had the knowledge and foresight to plan for the future. In the face of impossible odds, he did not lose heart, but with all his trust in God, resolved to fight to the bitter end.