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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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