The Cadaver Synod

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Podcast Transcript

In January 897, something unprecedented took place in Rome. 

Pope Formosus, the leader of the Catholic Church, was put on trial. 

What made this unprecedented wasn’t that the pope was on trial, although that was unprecedented. 

The remarkable thing was that Pope Formosus had died nine months earlier, and it was his exhumed corpse that was in the courtroom.

Learn more about the Cadaver Synod, perhaps the oddest trial in history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The papacy is an institution that has been around for a very long time. During that time, it has gone through different phases, and it has seen some highs and lows. 

The events I’m going to be describing in this episode are arguably the lowest point in papal history. It might even seem like this story is apocryphal, but the events were well documented, and there is no reason to believe it didn’t happen. 

To understand what led up to this bizarre episode, it is necessary to understand the political climate in Europe in the 9th century and the role the papacy played. 

In the year 800, ??Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish King Charlemagne as the Roman Emperor. Today, we call him Holy Roman Emperor, but the time that term was yet to be invented. He was simply the Roman Emperor and an attempt to revive the position which existed centuries earlier. 

The fact that the pope was the one who crowned the emperor put the papacy in an explicitly political role. Moreover, as part of the deal Charlemagne cut to get crowned the Roman Emperor, he codified lands that were given to the pope by his father, Pepin the Short.

These lands became the foundation of the Papal States, which were the lands in Italy ruled by the Pope directly until the unification of Italy in the 19th century. 

In the wake of Charlemagne, there were various factions that vied for power, as is pretty much the case everywhere throughout history. 

This brings me to the man who would be pope, Formosus. 

Formosus was believed to have been born in the City of Rome in the year 816.

He entered the clergy and had a very successful career. In 864, he was named a cardinal and bishop of the Diocese of Porto, which is located just outside of Rome.

He received several papal appointments, including leading a delegation to Bulgaria as well as leading several diplomatic missions to France. 

While in Bulgaria, King Boris I requested that Formosus be named Archbishop of Bulgaria, but the request was denied as he was already the Bishop of Porto, and it wasn’t allowed to be bishop of two different places.

By 872, Formosus was already being mentioned in discussions for becoming pope.

In 875, Charles the Bald was elected the new Emperor of Rome. However, supporters of the other claimant to the throne, Louis the German, fled Rome upon hearing the news, which included Formosus.

Pope John VIII ordered all the members of the clergy who fled Rome to return, and when they didn’t, he declared them to be defrocked and excommunicated. This included Formosus.

John VIII died in 878, and his successor, Marinus I, fully restored Formosus as bishop of Porto. 

After several more short papacies, Formosus was elected pope unanimously on October 6, 891. 

Formosus was immediately thrust into the middle of several political controversies. He had to insert himself into a controversy with the eastern church and who was the rightful Patriarch of Constantinople. 

He had to deal with Islamic Saracens invaders who were gaining ground in Southern Italy.

Most importantly for this story, he was very much an opponent of the reigning Roman Emperor, Guy III of Spoleto. Formosus supported one of his rivals, Arnulf of Carinthia. In fact, he encouraged Arnulf to come and invade Italy to remove Guy from power. If Arnulf did so, he promised to crown him emperor in Rome. 

In 895, he did just that, and Pope Formosus crowned him emperor in Old St. Peters Basilica on February 22, 896. 

Just a month and a half later, on April 4, 896, Pope Formosus died. 

His immediate successor was Boniface VI, who was pope for all of 16 days. Boniface, by the way, was as a priest defrocked twice for “immoral conduct.”

Boniface’s success was Pope Stephen VI.

Stephen, for reasons that aren’t historically clear, really had it out for Formosus. Normally, even if a former pope was a rival, once you become pope, you could just overturn any former policies you didn’t like and go about your business. 

There might have been some unrecorded slight that Stephen perceived or some other rivalry between the two men.

Whatever the reason, Stephen had developed an intense hatred for Formosus. This was probably, also fueled by the fact that his sponsor was the current Roman Emperor Lambert of Spoleto, the son of Guy III of Spoleto, the man that Formosus had turned on by supporting Arnulf of Carinthia.

In January 897, seven full months after becoming pope and almost nine months after the death of Formosus, Stephen still can’t let go of the whole Formosus thing, so he decides that he is going to put Pope Formosus on trial. 

You might be wondering how you can put someone who is dead on trial. Stephen had that all figured out. He exhumed the body of Formosus from its tomb, dressed it up in papal regalia, and sat it on a throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome for trial. A deacon was appointed to give answers on behalf of the deceased. 

This became known as the Cadaver Synod or the Cadaver Trial. In Latin, it was known as the Synodus Horrenda.

In Pope Stephens’s mind, this was going to be a brilliant move as he would tarnish the reputation of his predecessor while boosting his own at the time. 

According to most historians, it was most probably a very public and over-the-top way of displaying his loyalty to Lambert of Spoleto.

Most of the charges brought up against zombie Formosus were the charges originally brought against him by Pope John VIII when he was excommunicated. 

He was accused of holding two bishoprics at once. He was accused of serving as a bishop while a layman. He was also accused of seeking the papacy out of ambition. 

Stephen served as both the prosecutor and the judge… because of course.

In a surprise to absolutely no one, Pope Formosus was found guilty and unworthy of the papacy. 

All of his acts as pope were nullified, and all of the bishops he created were considered invalid. Ironically, Stephen was installed as a bishop by Formosus.

A damnatio memorie was also instituted on him.  

If you remember back to my episode on damnatio memorie, that was an ancient practice that made any mention of the person, verbally or in writing, illegal. 

To top it all off, the three fingers he used to bless were cut off, and his body was thrown in the Tiber River. 

Pope Stephen VI won, Pope Formosus lost, and everything Stephen hoped to get out of the trial came true. Everyone loved Stephen and now hated Formosus.

… that didn’t happen at all.

It turned out that one thing people in the 9th century have in common with people in the 21st century is that they think it is really creepy and weird to dig up dead bodies for the purpose of a show trial. 

Public opinion in Rome turned decisively against Pope Stephen. 

After the body of Pope Formosus was thrown into the river, it was recovered by a monk. The monk took the body out and reburied it with honors.  Rumors began to spread that the body of Pope Formosus was responsible for miracles. 

This led to an uprising in the city, where Stephen was captured and imprisoned. 

A few months later, while in captivity, Pope Stephen VI was strangled to death in his cell.

I think you could say his plan backfired.

The death of Pope Formosus ushered in a period of extreme instability in the papacy for the next several years, with a new pope being installed on average, every year. 

After Stephen, Pope Romanus reigned for 92 days. After that, Pope Theodore II reigned for 19 days. 

The one thing that Theodore II did do during his brief 19-day reign was nullify everything Stephen did during the Cadaver Trial. He also had the body of Pope Formosus reburied with honor in Saint Peter’s Basilica, where he still lies somewhere today.

Just a few years later, in 904, a new era of the papacy began with the election of Sergius III. This, too, is also considered one of the low points of the papacy. This began the era known as the ‘pornocracy’….and I kid you, not that is the actual name, you can look it up.

Pornocracy comes from the Greek word for “rule by harlots” or “rule by prostitutes.” It refers to the 60-year period when the papacy was extremely corrupt and heavily influenced by one Roman family, the Theophylacti. 

Pope Sergius III reversed the reversal of the Cadaver Trial made by Theodore II, including the ordination of all the bishops and priests made by Formosus, which caused enormous confusion causing many priests and bishops to get re-ordained.

Sergius took part in the trial and was a supporter of Pope Stephen.

Later, Sergius’s reversal of the reversal was itself reversed, and Pope Formosus was formally restored. 

Needless to say, the Cadaver Trial is considered a low point of the papacy, and it is really the only thing that Stephen VI is known for. It ushered in a period of instability and paved the way for the pornocracy of the early 10th century.

Most of all, it was just….bizarre. The entire incident backfired on Pope Stephen VI, who, in his last moments, must have realized that the entire trial was a…grave….mistake.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ‘Dean Landkammer’ over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Hi my name is Dean I live in MN

I listen to two episodes a day before school starts. I love this podcast. thanks for making my day better. I would love a shoutout, please.

Thanks, Dean! Here is your formal shoutout. I think it is great that you can listen to two episodes before going to school. That is almost like going to school before you go to school. That’s like double school. 

Feel free to put listening to the podcast on any future resumes as amongst the right people, it will carry a lot of weight.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.