Le Pape Formose et Etienne VI - Concile cadavérique de 897 by Jean Paul Laurens.

Pope Formosus and the Dead Man’s Trial

Ah, Pope Formosus. This must be, by far, the most ridiculous episode in the history of the Catholic Church. However, before we get to the juicy bits, let’s have a bit of background.

Nine Centuries of Catholic Church

Formosus was Pope from 891 to 896, square in the middle of a most turbulent time in history for the Church of Rome. Over the past nine centuries, the Church had managed to assert its supremacy over all other churches (e.g. Constantinople and Jerusalem), institutionalized Christianity, and become a powerful political entity as well.

It had also seen the Roman Empire crumble to bits around itself. The Western Empire was long gone, overrun by the warlike tribes of Europe. The old eastern part of the Roman Empire, now the Byzantine Empire, was in better shape, but relations between east and west were on the decline, both for theological as well as political reasons.

The Roman clergy had done their best to build a new Empire around itself, but the resulting Holy Roman Empire was hardly satisfactory: never really a stable entity and it never quite included Rome itself. The Emperors would forever be crossing the Alps to be crowned, and then return north. Italy was broken into small principalities and Byzantine holdings and the south was regularly threatened by the Saracens.

Pope Formosus.

Pope Formosus.

In this new world, where the old Pax Romana was truly dead and gone, and where the bishop of Rome had become a big worldly player, the papacy was a strongly contested position. All sorts of intrigue, including but not limited to murder, was not uncommon. Church politics were heavily intertwined with imperial matters, the ambitions of the local Roman aristocracy and the machinations of the surrounding princes. Formosus was exposed to it long before he became pope. He enjoyed an excellent career within the Church, and one of his predecessors in St. Peter’s chair seems to have thought of him as a potential rival. Pope John VIII (872-882) leveled charges again Formosus – whether founded or not is lost to time, but they were suspect – accusing him of conspiracy against Pope and Emperor. He was excommunicated and stripped of his position. Luckily for him, he seems to have had plenty of friends in the Empire where he was still welcome.

It would be a few years, but Formosus’ luck would change dramatically. For reasons unknown, the later Pope Marinus (882-884) threw out his excommunication and welcomed him back into the high echelons of the Church. Given a couple of years, Formosus finally even became pope himself (891-896.)

Ascending the papal throne at a time when Saracens were encroaching on southern Italy and the Roman aristocratic element and nearby rulers were busily trying to use the papacy to further their own ambitions, Formosus was hardly in the safest position. On a larger scale, he had to contend with pressure from the Holy Roman as well as the Byzantine Emperors. Politically, he had his work cut out. However, that is not the most interesting part of his story. Surprisingly, that part begins after Formosus’ death.

The Most Bizarre Trial in History

Formosus had held the papacy for five years, until his death. His direct successor only managed to stay in office for 15 days, but the next pope, Stephen VI (896-897) decided Formosus’ story wasn’t over just yet. The exact reasons are lost among the sands of time and the impenetrable intrigue of the period, but Stephen had a bone to pick with Formosus. Ignoring the fact that the former pope had been dead for nine months, Stephen had his body dug up, clothed in his papal attire and seated upon his throne. Stephen then commenced a trial against Formosus’ partially decomposed body, accusing him of abandoning his former bishopric for another one (i.e. Rome.) A deacon spoke for Formosus, since the defendant himself decided to remain stubbornly mute.

Evidently, the deacon didn’t do a very great job. Formosus was stripped of his papal vestments and his entire papal rule and all his decisions were declared void. The three fingers of his right hand with which he had given his papal blessings were severed. At first his body was buried again in a cemetery for nameless pilgrims, but it was soon decided he would be better off in the Tiber and he was thrown into the river.

The picture at the top of this post is a painting of the scene. It makes for an eerie image, and it must have been an extremely uncanny experience to have been in that courtroom. The Cadaver Synod, as the trial is called, must be one of the most incomprehensibly barbaric things any pope has ever done.

The Aftermath

Nobody was particularly happy with this desecration of Formosus’ dead body, and in particular, the Romans were disgusted with such a pope as Stephen proved to be. The rumor went around that the dead Formosus had been oozing fresh blood from his mouth. It also didn’t help that the church of St. John Lateran, the official seat of the pope, collapsed during an earthquake shortly before the trial. In the uproar that followed the trial, Stephen was thrown in a dungeon, where he found himself strangled shortly after.

Formosus’ body was, by incredible luck, recovered from the Tiber when it washed ashore and was pulled out by a monk. A later pope, Theodore II (December 897), during his incredibly short 20-day rule, decided that Stephen’s conduct in the matter was appalling and revoked the outcome of Formosus’ trial. His body was buried in St. Peter’s Cathedral with full honors. Another, pope John IX (898-900), would later strongly confirm this ruling with a large gathering of bishops. As seems only fair, Formosus’ good name was restored, his body properly laid to rest and the conduct of Stephen strongly condemned.

Unfortunately, this was not the end. In 904, pope Sergius III (904-911) ascended to the papacy. Although he had the decency not to dig up any more dead people, he ruled that Stephen VI had been correct in his decisions, and all clergy that had been ordained by Formosus lost their orders, although he would allow them to be re-ordained if they so wished. Again the full reasons behind these rulings, which seem incomprehensible today, are lost.

A lot of voices were raised against these decrees, but unfortunate Formosus has not since been vindicated. Sergius seems to have had the last word in the matter, so this horrific, but absolutely intriguing piece of history ends on a sad note.

Sources:

Norwich, J. J. (2012). The Popes. London: Vintage

Dümmler, E. (1866). Auxilius und Vulgarius : quellen und forschungen zur Geschichte des Papstthums im Anfange des zehnten Jahrhunderts. Leipzig: S. Hirzel

Mann, H. (1912). Pope Sergius III. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 27, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13729a.htm

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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