The Weight of History
In the spring of 2014, I lived for 3 months in the little village of Bobbio Pellice, in northern Italy. My time there was spent mentoring artists, making art, and basking in the beauty of the snow-capped Alps. But I was not long at ease. As I learned the turbulent history of this pastoral valley, my perspective on the place dramatically changed.
In the 1180s, Peter Valdo walked over the Alps to this valley from Lyon, France. He’d recently been excommunicated by the Catholic Church and expelled from France for wanting to read the Bible in his own language. Four hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, Valdo was encouraging others to follow the teachings of Jesus, living simple, authentic lives.
Persecuted almost relentlessly for their faith, Waldensian history is alternately tragic and heroic. For centuries they were forced to live high in the mountains; to descend meant death. Yet death followed them up into the hills, as they were often hunted down, tortured, and slaughtered mercilessly.
Today, the hills surrounding Bobbio Pellice are littered with the remnants of this story. The terraced landscape, crumbling stone houses and sheep pens, mountain-top monuments, and caves for secret meetings, all speak of a people scraping a living from the stony hillsides, clinging to their identity.
As I roam these hills, entering these empty homes and caves, I’m left wondering: who lived here, and when? How did this community operate in the stony hills? How many died from cold or starvation or torture? Which of these cliffs were they tossed from, babies first, parents to follow? How did the rest survive?
The stones remain silent, guarding their mystery, as a verse from the book of Hebrews haunts me:
They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them.