Lesson #310: Pope Formosus Goes on Trial

I am not religious. I do, however, have a longstanding interest in religious history. In fairness, this is probably, in part, because there’s a quite a lot of history from which religion cannot be extracted.

Anyway, today, I learned the Catholic Church once exhumed a former Pope, dressed his corpse — which had been rotting in a tomb for seven months by that point — in Papal robes, propped said corpse-in-a-Pope-costume up on a throne, and put it on trial in an event that actually has a name.

I literally could not be more excited by this. Medieval Papacy was effing insane! (See also: my lesson on Pope Benedict IX, who sold the Papacy in 1045, the 882 assassination of Pope John VIII, who was poisoned and when that didn’t work quickly enough, had his head beaten in with a hammer, and the 904 prison strangulation of deposed Pope Leo V, which was ordered by then-Pope Sergius III.)

In January of 897 CE, the remains of Pope Formosus were tried at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in what was legitimately called the “Cadaver Synod” (or synod horrenda in Latin). The synod was called by Formosus’ successor, Stephen VI. The crimes for which Formosus was called to answer were transmigrating sees in violation of canon law, which was related to a quarrel with Pope John VIII over a bunch of Bulgarians wanting Formosus to be their bishop in 876, perjury, and attempting to exercise the office of Bishop while a layman.

All of this, which seems pretty obvious, came about because of serious political turmoil in Italy from the mid-9th to mid-10th centuries.* Stephen was unhappy with the way he felt Formosus had allowed Rome’s powerful political families more sway over the Church than was acceptable. Formosus’ corpse was appointed a deacon to speak for it, but the entire affair was a circus; Formosus was found guilty of all charges, his Papacy was retroactively voided, Stephen cut off the three fingers used for blessings, and reburied in a common cemetery. The corpse was later disinterred (again), weighted, and thrown in the Tiber, where a monk fished him out…which is all very fortuitous because public backlash from the Cadaver Synod landed Stephen in jail (and then dead) eight months later.

In December 897, Pope Theodore II convened a synod to annul the verdict, rehabilitate Formosus, and reinter him, in full Papal garb, at St. Peter’s.  A pair of synods called a year later under Pope John IX confirmed Theodore’s findings, ordered the report of the proceedings of the Cadaver Synod destroyed, and prohibited the trial of anyone who was deceased.

Of course, then Pope Sergius III (our murder-y friend from earlier, also the only Pope to sire an illegitimate son — John XI — who would later become Pope himself), who had been a co-judge in the Cadaver Synod, reversed the rulings issued by Theodore and John. This was, in fact, the last ruling on the subject, though the Holy See sides with Formosus, who remains buried at St. Peter’s Basilica.**

An interesting aside: the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is quite a good source for religious history, has decided to pretend this event never happened. There is no entry for it nor any mention of it at all.

*In the century between 872 and 972, there were 27 Popes, of whom a whopping nine served during an nine-year span between 896 and 904. Five of the 27 were either assassinated or deposed and then murdered in prison.

**More information here and here.

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One thought on “Lesson #310: Pope Formosus Goes on Trial

  1. […] assassination, baby mamas, the exhumation and trial of a dead Pope (no joke; you can read all about the trial of Pope Formosus over on my learning blog…it’s a fantastically bizarre story), poisoning, prison, three concurrent Popes, and the […]

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