The Cadaver Synod

Over the years the Catholic Church has seen its fair share of controversy, barbarism, and outright mania. Today, however, we will be delving into the bizarre, a tale that includes a trial, a living Pope, and the corpse of another.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The Papacy of the 9th and 10th century was a turbulent institution. A rapid succession of pontiffs and the turbulent nature of European politics created an often manic state of affairs in the Vatican, and this event perfectly encapsulates that mania.

The Cadaver Synod is arguably one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever come across, and if it weren’t so hilariously strange, it would probably be very disturbing. The ecclesiastical trial of the late Pope Formosus began in 897AD and would result in a trial that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python sketch.

The Trial of the Century

The incumbent Pope, Stephen VI, ordered the exhumation of Formosus’ corpse with the aim of trying the deceased with perjury and for ascending to the Papacy through illegal means and practices.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what I am here…how does one try a dead man? He cannot defend himself (because he’s, y’know, dead) and his lifeless body would likely flop to the ground.

Propped up on a throne, Formosus’ corpse is subjected to questioning by Pope Stephen VI

Well, Pope Formosus’ corpse was brought to the Basilica of St John Lateran, and propped up on a throne to appear as if he were actually alive. Dressed impeccably this would’ve been an awe-inspiring sight – were it not for the fact he was decomposing.

Furthermore, he was provided with legal representation in the form of a deacon. I imagine this would be one of, if not the, most difficult contracts any lawyer could take – But I’m sure that in 2018 someone would at least attempt it.

Stephen VI then proceeded to list off the crimes of the late Formosus, which according to sources at the time included ‘transmigrating sees in violation of canon law, of perjury, and of serving as a bishop while actually a layman.’

Formosus’ representative is claimed to have stood by the throne and provided responses to Pope Stephen’s questions and accusations. When asked why he had acted as he did, the deacon hilariously mumbles “because I am evil” – hardly the soundest legal defence.

As one can imagine, the trial was a sham and a foregone conclusion. Formosus was found guilty of his crimes and he was stripped of his titles and vestments. Sources allege that upon being found guilty, Pope Stephen cut off three of Formosus’ fingers on the right hand – A symbolic gesture, as it is the hand he had used in life to grant blessings.

In a final act of humiliation, his body was buried in a graveyard for foreigners, where several years later it was exhumed again and cast into the Tiber River.

The Basilica of St John Lateran, a stunning spectacle.

Was Pope Stephen VI Mad?

Now, anyone who attempts to try a dead body and cuts off their fingers is clearly mad, right? We could be correct here. There is evidence that points toward Pope Stephen being mad – besides the aforementioned trial. He is said to have been prone to fits of rage and melancholy.

It could be that Pope Stephen VI suffered from mental health issues, however, the underlying reason for this trial is more than likely political.

As I mentioned earlier in this piece, the political climate inside the Vatican, across Italy and Europe at the time was tumultuous at best. Several factions in Italy laid claim to several different regions and titles, infighting was commonplace and bloodshed was a regular occurrence.

Basically everything you need for a real cluster of madness.

Pope Stephen-VI-Rome-History
Pope Stephen VI

Pope Stephen VI was aligned with powerful figures who had opposed Formosus during his time as the Bishop of Rome. It is suggested that Stephen was acting on behalf of his political allies in an attempt to defame the image and legacy of Formosus – who is said to have been well-liked among commoners.

He would not last long it seems. The exhumation and trial of a corpse was considered by many to be far too macabre. Within a few months of the Cadaver Synod, Stephen was deposed and imprisoned. His successor reversed his decrees and actions, restored the legacy of Pope Formosus and topped it all off by having Stephen VI strangled.

Pope Formosus

In the aftermath of Formosus’ body being dumped in the Tiber, rumours circulated claiming that his body had been washing up on the shores of the river, performing miracles and curing the sick.

The ludicrous nature of this trial earns it a place as one of Europe’s strangest historical events.

Interested in other bizarre events throughout history? Read about the “Dancing Plague” here: Historic Hysteria: The Dancing Plague of 1518



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