The Time the Church Put a Pope's Corpse on Trial

Basilica of St. John Lateran, where the Cadaver Synod was held
Basilica of St. John Lateran, where the Cadaver Synod was held
iStock.com/Phooey

Plenty of odd things have been put on trial—animals, statues, a washerwoman's vat—but there's only one occasion in history that a dead body has gone before a papal court. The Cadaver Synod (Synodus Horrenda in Latin) has been called "one of the grisliest events in papal history," which, given the intrigues of the medieval church, is saying something.

The cadaver in question belonged to Pope Formosus, who suffered a series of dramatic reversals in both life and death. Born probably in Rome around 816, he was appointed bishop of the Italian city of Porto in 864 by Pope St. Nicholas I, who then sent him on a missionary expedition to Bulgaria. That went so well the King of Bulgaria wanted Formosus to lead an autonomous church there, but the request was denied by the then-current pope, John VIII, who thought Formosus was getting a little too big for his britches.

Nevertheless, Formosus remained a respected figure who played important roles in the church in France and Italy for decades—at least until he irritated John VIII enough to get excommunicated in 872. A later pope restored Formosus, and in 891 Formosus became pope himself. His five-year reign was relatively lengthy by the standards of the day, and it ended only when he died of a stroke in 896.

But in death, Formosus became famous for an even more dramatic reversal than any he had suffered in life. Yet another pope whom he'd annoyed, Stephen VI, had his nine-months-rotten corpse exhumed, dressed in papal vestments, perched on a throne, and forced to answer for his "crimes." Unsurprisingly, his answers weren't very convincing.

Pope Formosus
Pope Formosus in a 1588 portrait
Cavallieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A complete understanding of the events that precipitated the Cadaver Synod involves following the politics of the papacy, Holy Roman Emperors, and Western European aristocrats for several decades. But as Laura Jeffries distills it in Great Events in Religion, "Essentially, Formosus encountered such a fearsome posthumous reprisal because he chose the losing side in one of many struggles for political control after fall of the Carolingian dynasty in 9th century." In other words, the cadaverous pope's crimes weren't so much spiritual as political, and emerged in the chaotic period that followed the death of Charlemagne—the first Holy Roman Emperor—in 814.

There were two main issues: First, Stephen VI belonged to the house of Spoleto, a powerful Roman family Formosus had angered in 894 after asking a Frankish king, Arnulf, to invade Italy. At the time, Guido of Spoleto (also known as Guy III) was the Holy Roman Emperor, but he was seen as an aggressive ruler who had little respect for the rights and privileges of the Holy See. The invasion was a failure, but it still smarted, and the Spoleto family never forgot the challenge to their precarious authority.

The second factor, according to Elizabeth Harper at Atlas Obscura, may have actually been more important. Although he was very much dead, poor, decomposing Formosus posed a challenge to Stephen VI's legitimacy. Ironically, that was because Stephen VI could be accused of some of the same crimes Formosus was charged with. These "crimes" amounted to being a bishop in two jurisdictions at once—both in Porto and the diocese of Rome, the latter a role that comes with the papacy—as well as openly aspiring to the papacy. By Stephen VI's logic, the double bishopric, a violation of canon law, invalidated Formosus's whole papacy, including all his acts and appointments.

That invalidation was handy, since as Harper explains, "Formosus had made Stephen bishop, and Stephen had become bishop of Rome … 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. Stephen also might have been completely insane.”

In any event, Formosus's body was exhumed from its burial place at Saint Peter's Basilica, dressed in papal robes, and seated for trial at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There's no transcript of the trial, but Jeffries notes that by several accounts, "Stephen screamed and raved throughout the proceedings while a young deacon was forced to stand by and answer questions on behalf of the corpse." Partway through, an earthquake shook the building, presumably adding to the ominous vibe—although no one seems to have taken it as a sign to stop.

The assembled ecclesiastical authorities (whose gatherings are called a synod) found Formosus guilty on all counts. Since they couldn't kill him, he was stripped of his papal vestments and had the three fingers of his right hand that he'd used for consecration during his life severed. His body was buried in a common grave, but exhumed once again not long afterwards and thrown in the Tiber River.

However, Stephen IV suffered his own reversal, too. The outraged populace imprisoned him after the trial, and soon after that, some of Formosus's supporters strangled him to death in his cell.

Formosus's body didn't stay in the river long: Under the next few popes, it was pulled from the river, redressed in sacred robes, and reburied at St. Peter's Basilica. (It took a few popes to accomplish because they had the life expectancy of mayflies at that point.)

The period that followed was one of the most corrupt and tumultuous in the church's history, with rival factions jockeying for power and annulling one another's work if not outright killing each other. But there was one bright spot: In 898, Pope John IX wisely forbade the trial of any dead pope—or any dead person at all—in the future. Thus the Cadaver Synod would remain a unique, and uniquely terrible, event in history.

From Abe Lincoln Chia Pets to FDR Baseballs: 11 Products to Celebrate President’s Day

iStock.com/malerapaso
iStock.com/malerapaso

While President’s Day originated in 1885 as a holiday celebrating George Washington, it has now grown to recognize all 44-and-counting chief executives in U.S. history. If you’re feeling truly patriotic, check out these 11 incredible products inspired by some of the most distinguished leaders to hold America's highest office, and feel free to gift them to your favorite future politician.

1. George Washington’s Teeth Magnet

George Washington's illustrious hair may have been totally real, but his teeth certainly weren’t. In fact, Washington had only one real tooth left in his head when he was sworn in as president, and he wore several sets of dentures throughout his life (though none of them were made of wood, as the legend claims). Mount Vernon has one of the last surviving sets—made of human and cow teeth—in its collection, and fans can get a copy of the historic chompers in the form of a fridge magnet.

Buy it from George Washington’s Mount Vernon for $10.

2. John Adams Mouse Pad

A John Adams mousepad
MyHeritageWear, Amazon

Compared to the other Founding Fathers, John Adams doesn't get much love. There's reason to admire the pugnacious leader, though: He may have been the nation’s second-ever president, but he was second to none when it came to dishing out insults. If you’re looking for a subtle way to pay tribute to Adams, this mouse pad will do the trick. After all, who doesn't want a president at their side in the office?

Buy it on Amazon for $10.

3. Founding Fathers Gift Box

If you’re looking for other ways to honor the Founding Fathers, this commemorative gift box includes four hefty Old Fashioned tumblers bearing the likenesses of old-fashioned presidents James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. The glasses—which are made in America—are the perfect way to toast the country's early leaders. They'd also be a great accessory for your next Drunk History marathon. (As would Fishs Eddy's many other politician-themed kitchenware products, for that matter.)

Buy it from Fishs Eddy for $22.

4. Abraham Lincoln Chia Pet

A Chia Pet Abraham Lincoln
Chia, Amazon

Honest Abe is known for a great many things: leading the United States through the Civil War, abolishing slavery, and—according to Hollywood—maybe being a vampire hunter. However, we rarely celebrate his very lush head of hair. (Though a few strands of it did sell for $25,000 in 2015.) This Chia Pet planter offers a way to spice up your kitchen while honoring the classic elegance of the 16th president's silhouette. The handmade statuette grows a full head of presidential chia-sprout hair in one to two weeks and includes quotes from President Lincoln transcribed on its sides.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

5. Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy

A set of three Edmund Morris books on Theodore Roosevelt
Random House, Amazon

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographical trilogy on Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt from Edmund Morris is a must-have for all the TR fans out there. Written over the course of more than 30 years, Morris's opus is considered essential reading for any Roosevelt scholar, and it's well worth the money. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the first volume in 1979, it's a “splendid, galloping narrative of the great galloper. The insights are keen. The pages turn quickly. There are few who will not get from it a more satisfying conception of the man almost everyone thinks he knows … It is one of those rare works that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.”

Buy it on Amazon for $78.

6. FDR Collectible Baseball

Like many Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an intense love of baseball. He even argued that the national past time was an essential morale booster during World War II, ensuring that the league could continue playing throughout the war. He made eight Opening Day appearances during his presidency, and this collectible baseball is a perfect monument to one of them. The custom ball features a photograph of FDR throwing the ceremonial first pitch for the 1935 Opening Day game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.

7. "Dewey Defeats Truman" Ceramic Tile

The result of the 1948 presidential election between incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey was, by all accounts, one of the greatest upsets in history. Nearly every analyst at the time got their predictions wrong, including the Chicago Daily Tribune (now just the Chicago Tribune), which led to the famous photograph that helped cement the election's legacy in American politics—and media history—forever. While history nerds would surely appreciate a copy of the actual newspaper, this option from the National Archives is a joyously clever alternative.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.50

8. JFK for President Mug

For political history buffs and design obsessives alike, this mug is a throwback to the campaign posters made by John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. The mug is emblazoned with JFK's own smiling mug as well as his 'Leadership for the 60's" slogan. (You can see one of the originals at the Library of Congress.)

Buy it from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for $15.

9. Lyndon B. Johnson Bobblehead

A Lyndon Johnson bobblehead depicting the president holding a dog
Royal Bobbles, Amazon

Lyndon B. Johnson—who assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—is best known for his "Great Society" programs and his role in passing laws like the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. This bobblehead in his likeness from Royal Bobbles, however, represents another side of LBJ: his love for dogs. Johnson and his family were often photographed with their beloved beagles, Him and Her, as well as subsequent White House pets Freckles, Edgar, Blanco, and Yuki. (Royal Bobbles doesn't specify which dog this design is based on.) Standing over 8 inches tall, the bobblehead comes with a collector’s box to keep it pristine, because you'll want to display it prominently.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

10. Presidential IQ Trivia Game

The 'Presidential IQ' card game on a table
Presidential IQ, Amazon

If you're like us, you love some good-old-fashioned trivia—and almost 250 years of presidential history has left us with a bevy of facts to mine for questions. Featuring 1200 questions across a number of categories, including famous quotes, foreign affairs, and geography, Presidential IQ is perfect for game night.

Buy it on Amazon for $25.

11. 1000-Piece U.S. Presidents Jigsaw Puzzle

A puzzle with all of the U.S. presidents surrounding a map of the United States
White Mountain Puzzles, Amazon

This puzzle by White Mountain illustrates the entire presidential timeline of the United States with portraits of each of the presidents and a map of notable historical sites relating to the former chief executives. In addition to stimulating your brain, it provides a great opportunity to plan your next presidential road trip.

Buy it on Amazon for $18.

11 Words You Might Not Realize Come From “Love”

iStock.com/PeopleImages
iStock.com/PeopleImages

1. BELIEVE

In Old English, believe was geliefan, which traces back to the Germanic galaubjan, where laub is the root for “dear” (so “believe” is “to hold dear”). Laub goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root for “love,” leubh.

2. FURLOUGH

We got furlough from the Dutch verlof, which traces back to the same Germanic laub root as in believe. It is also related to the sense of leave meaning "allowance" or "permission" (“get leave,” “go on leave”). The “leave” in a furlough is given with pleasure, or approval, which is how it connects back to love.

3. FRIDAY

Old English Frigedæg was named for Frigg, the Germanic goddess of love (and counterpart to the Roman Venus). According to the OED, frīg was also a noun for “strong feminine” love.

4. VENOM

Venom comes from the Latin venenum, which shares a root with the love goddess Venus, and originally referred to a love potion.

5. AMATEUR

The root of amateur is Latin amare, “to love.” An amateur practices a craft simply because they love it.

6. CHARITY

The Latin caritas, which ended up as charity in English, was a different kind of love than amor, implying high esteem and piety, rather than romance and passion. It was used to translate the Ancient Greek agape, the word used in the New Testament to express godly love.

7. PHILOSOPHY

Greek had another word for love, philia, that—in contrast to agape and eros (sexual love)—meant brotherly or friendly love. It’s used in many classical compounds to signify general fondness or predilection for things. Philosophy is the love of sophos, wisdom.

8. PHILANTHROPY

This one means love of anthropos, humanity.

9. PHILADELPHIA

You might know it as the “city of brotherly love,” but you might not know that the tagline is right there in the name. It’s love for adelphos, brother.

10. PHILIP

The name Philip comes from the compound phil- + hippos, love of horses.

11. ACIDOPHILUS

Have you been taking acidophilus probiotic supplements for digestive health? It’s made from acid-loving bacteria, i.e., bacteria that easily take up an acid dye for viewing under the microscope.

This list originally ran in 2015.

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