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Cadaver Synod: The Trial of a Dead Pope’s Body

The Catholic Church’s most infamous trial was held in 897 by Pope Stephen VI, during which the corpse of Pope Formosus was exhumed and put on trial.

Jean-Paul Laurens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By The Historian, who writes on Medium

Many strange things have been placed on trial in the past, including animals, statues, and even a washerwoman’s vat. However, The Cadaver Synod takes the top spot as one of the most bizarre and macabre events in the history of the Catholic Church. It has often been referred to as “one of the grisliest occasions in papal history.”

In 897, Pope Stephen VI held a synod, or church council, in Rome, where he exhumed the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, who had died six years earlier. The council, which came to be known as the Cadaver Synod, put Formosus on trial, finding him guilty of perjury and violating church law. He was then posthumously stripped of his papal title, and his body was thrown into the Tiber River. The Cadaver Synod was a controversial and bizarre episode in the history of the Catholic Church, and it continues to fascinate historians and the general public alike.

Pope Formosus

Cavalieri, 1588, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Formosus was born in Rome in 816 and was named bishop of the Italian city of Porto in 864. He was then dispatched on a missionary trip to Bulgaria by Pope St. Nicholas. This trip was so successful that the King of Bulgaria personally asked Formosus to lead an independent church there. However, the request was turned down by the pope in office at the time, John VIII. John VIII was not happy with Formosus’s increasing influence and believed that Formosus had grown too large for his pants.

Formosus was a revered figure who held significant positions in the church in France and Italy for decades. That is till he displeased John VIII to the point of being excommunicated in 872. However, he was reinstated by a later pope before being elected a pope himself in 891.

The Infamous Trial

Jean-Paul Laurens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By the norms of the time, Formosus’ five-year rule was rather long, and it came to an end when he passed away from a stroke in 896. However, Formosus gained notoriety for a spectacular reversal that occurred after his death rather than before. In addition to John VIII, Formosus had also irritated Stephen VI, another pope in the Catholic Church. Stephen VI had Formosus’ nine-month-rotting corpse excavated, dressed in papal robes, seated on a throne, and made to answer for his “crimes.” Naturally, his responses didn’t seem to be very persuasive.

Following the politics of the papacy, Holy Roman Emperors, and Western European nobility over several decades is necessary to fully comprehend the circumstances that led to the Cadaver Synod.

Laura Jeffries summarises in Great Events in Religion,

“Formosus suffered such a horrible posthumous vengeance mostly because he took the losing side in one of several conflicts for political dominance after the fall of the Carolingian kingdom in the 9th century.”

In other words, the cadaverous pope’s crimes originated during the turbulent time that followed the passing of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, in 814, and were more political than spiritual.

In other words, the cadaverous pope’s crimes originated during the turbulent time that followed the passing of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, in 814, and were more political than spiritual.

The Major Reasons That Lead to The Trial

There are mainly two reasons that lead to this trial. Firstly, Formosus enraged the house of Spoleto in 894 by encouraging the Frankish King Arnulf to invade Italy. Stephen VI was a member of this influential Roman dynasty, and Guy III, also known as Guido of Spoleto, was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. However, the latter was regarded as an arrogant leader who showed little regard for the privileges and rights of the Holy See. Although the invasion was unsuccessful, it nevertheless hurt, and the Spoleto family never forgot the threat to their tenuous rule.

According to Elizabeth Harper at Atlas Obscura, the second element might have even been more crucial. Even though Formosus was essentially dead, his deteriorating body posed a legitimacy issue for Stephen VI. Ironically, this was due to the possibility that Stephen VI could be prosecuted for some of the same offenses as that of Formosus’.

These “crimes” consisted of openly aspiring to the papacy and serving as a bishop in two jurisdictions simultaneously: Porto and the diocese of Rome. The latter of which is a role that comes with the papacy. Stephen VI believed that the double bishopric, disobedience of canon law, rendered the entire papacy of Formosus illegal, including all of his deeds and appointments.

Stephen VI’s Reasoning For The Trial

Stephen VI’s reason for desecrating this poor corpse could have been to shore up some political alliances with a faction that hated Formosus. Still, more than likely, it was to cover for the fact that Stephen was guilty of the same things he was accusing Formosus of.

According to Harper:

“Formosus had made Stephen bishop, and Stephen had become bishop of Rome (a title that comes with the papacy) while he still held that post. But if Formosus could be found guilty of that same crime (being a simultaneous bishop of two places), his actions would be null, and Stephen wouldn’t have been a bishop when he was elected pope.”

In any case, Formosus’s body was removed from Saint Peter’s Basilica where it had been interred, dressed in papal robes, and brought to the Basilica of St. John Lateran for trial. The trial’s proceedings were not recorded, but according to multiple reports, Stephen yelled and raved throughout the proceedings while a young deacon was compelled to stand by and answer questions on behalf of the dead.

Formosus was declared guilty on all counts by the gathered religious authority (whose meetings are referred to as synods). He was stripped of his papal robes and had the three fingers on his right hand that he had used for consecration throughout his life amputated because they could not kill him again. His body was laid to rest in a common burial, but soon after, it was dug up again and dumped into the Tiber River.

The Aftermath of the Trial

Stephen IV, however, also experienced a setback. Following the trial, the furious people put him in jail, and soon after, several of Formosus’s supporters strangled him to death in his cell. Formosus’s body was taken out from the river, dressed in sanctified robes, and reburied at St. Peter’s Basilica during the reigns of several successive popes.

Following that, the church experienced one of the most corrupt and turbulent periods in its history, with competing factions vying for control and obstructing one another’s efforts, if not outright murdering one another. However, there was one silver lining: Pope John IX in 898 sensibly prohibited future trials of any deceased popes or anyone else who had passed away. As a result, history would continue to remember the Cadaver Synod as a singular and dreadful occurrence.

In conclusion, the case demonstrates how susceptible all men are to moral faults, jealousies, and abuses of authority. The doctrine of papal infallibility is unaffected by this statement because it does not depend on the impeccability of the popes.



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