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 Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

Mastodon Bones Have Been Discovered by Sewer Workers in Indiana

Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When something unexpected happens during a sewer system project, the news is not usually pleasant. But when workers installing pipes in Seymour, Indiana stopped due to an unforeseen occurrence, it was because they had inadvertently dug up a few pieces of history: mastodon bones.

According to the Louisville Courier Journal, workers fiddling with pipes running through a vacant, privately owned farm in Jackson County happened across the animal bones during their excavation of the property. The fossils—part of a jaw, a partial tusk, two leg bones, a vertebrae, a joint, some teeth, and a partial skull—were verified as belonging to a mastodon by Ron Richards, the senior research curator of paleobiology for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. The mastodon, which resembled a wooly mammoth and thrived during the Ice Age, probably stood over 9 feet tall and weighed more than 12,000 pounds.

The owners of the farm, the Nehrt and Schepman families, plan to donate the bones to the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis if the museum committee decides to accept them. Previously, mastodon bones were found in Jackson County in 1928 and 1949. The remains of “Fred the Mastodon” were discovered near Fort Wayne in 1998.

[h/t Louisville Courier Journal]

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