John Milton’s Sonnet XVIII—sometimes known as “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”—was written against a background of religious dissent and persecution. While serving in Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State as its secretary of foreign tongues, Milton received preliminary news of trouble between the French Catholic Duke of Savoy and a small, isolated sect of Protestants who lived in the French Alps. These Protestants were known as the Waldensians or Vaudois and were thought to have preserved a simple scriptural faith from earlier times.
The Waldensians were founded in the 1100’s by a Lyonnais theologian and reformer named Peter Waldo. The Roman Catholic Church was disturbed by Waldo’s lack of theological training and his translation of the Latin Bible into French. Waldensian views were based on a simplified reading of the Bible that emphasized moral rigor. They confessed, celebrated Communion, fasted, and preached poverty, but did not pray for the dead or venerate saints. The movement spread rapidly to Spain, northern France, Flanders, Germany, and southern Italy and into Poland and Hungary. Rome’s responses ranged from excommunication to active persecution and execution. By the end of the thirteenth century persecution had virtually eliminated the sect in most of Europe, and by the end of the fifteenth century the members were confined by treaty to the French and Italian valleys of the Cottian Alps.
By Milton’s time, the...
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