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.

Before the turn of the millennium, the Papacy of the 9th and 10th century was a turbulent institution. A rapid succession of Pope’s 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 one can only imagine from a comedy sketch.

The current Pope, Stephen VI, ordered the exhumation of Formosus’ corpse with the intention 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.

Pope Formosus, Pope Stephen VI, Cadaver Synod.
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 present at the trial. Dressed impeccably he might have been an awe inspiring sight – were in 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 2017 someone would at least attempt it.

Pope Stephen VI then began accusing said corpse of his crimes, 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”

What a terrible lawyer (although I’m sure there have been worse).

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 claim that upon being found guilty, Pope Stephen is alleged to have 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.

Basilica of St John Lateran. Rome, Italy
The Basilica of St John Lateran, a stunning spectacle.

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 was prone to fits of rage and melancholy.

The underlying reason for this trial is more than likely political however. As mentioned before, papal politics and the political climate in Italy – and indeed across 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 the norm.

Basically everything you need for a real cluster of madness.

Pope Stephen VI
Pope Stephen VI

Pope Stephen was aligned to 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.

Pope Stephen VI would not last long it seems. The exhumation and trial of a corpse was considered by many to be far too macabre for a representative of god – even by the standards of the time. 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
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. One can imagine it being adapted into a film, similar to the Death of Stalin or other dark comedies.

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



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