The Cadaver Synod: When the Corpse of a Dead Pope Was Put on Trial

The Cadaver Synod (painting by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870)

The Cadaver Synod ranks as the most gruesome episode in the history of the Catholic Church. The Synodus Horrenda, as it’s known in Latin, was the ecclesiastical trial of a dead pope. The pontiff was put on trial not just in name, posthumously, his rotting corpse was dug up and dragged into an ecclesiastical court.

The event was so macabre that it’s difficult to believe it actually happened. No official record of the Cadaver Synod exists. It was so horrifying that the Vatican quietly expunged this shameful chapter from its own history. Too unspeakable to be known, it was a horrifying truth that the Church wanted suppressed.

The macabre event took place in the St. John Lateran basilica in Rome. The year was 897 AD. The chief prosecutor was the sitting pope, Stephen VI, elected pontiff a year earlier. The defendant was the late Pope Formosus, accused of crimes committed during his papacy. His putrefied cadaver was exhumed and hauled into court, where the body was propped up on a throne.

The name of the accused, Formosus, meant “good looking” in Latin. One can imagine, however, his ghoulish physical appearance while Pope Stephen fulminated at his corpse in an advanced state of decomposition. Pope Stephen shouted out the charges against the deceased pontiff: perjury, coveting the papacy, and violating Church canons.

Pope Formosus

Since Formosus was in no condition to speak for himself, a young deacon had been appointed to defend the corpse. Terrified, the novice cowered behind his dead client as Pope Stephen hurled abuse at the cadaver. At one point during the trial, an earthquake struck Rome, shaking the basilica and causing part of the structure to collapse. It must have seemed like a dark omen presaging the fall of the papacy itself.

A shocking deviance from the pious image of the Church as heavenly kingdom, the Cadaver Synod exposed the dark irrationality of a corrupt papacy mired in the worst excesses of the Earthly City. It marked the beginning of the Church’s so-called Dark Age, or saeculum obscurum, through most of the tenth century. This was the scandalous chapter of the “bad popes.”

It is impossible to grasp the horror of the Cadaver Synod without understanding the historical backdrop that made it possible. The ninth century was a period of ceaseless turmoil and upheaval throughout Christendom. Following the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD, his Holy Roman Empire gradually unraveled and slipped into violence and chaos. The Frankish kings, and Charlemagne in particular, had provided the papacy with protection and stability. Charlemagne had saved Pope Leo III from assassination by Roman nobles, restored him as pontiff, and sent a strong message that the papacy was under Frankish military protection.

Following Charlemagne’s death, however, his divisio regnorum policy split his empire among his heirs. The result was power struggles, civil war, and warring fiefdoms. The incompetent reign of Charlemagne’s lethargic great-grandson, known as Charles the Fat, effectively dissolved the empire after he was deposed in 887 AD. Europe was now a rough patchwork of rival potentates, multi reguli in Latin, with no overarching structure of temporal power. They were not only quarreling among one another but also preoccupied by foreign threats from invading Muslims, Magyars, and Vikings.

The breakdown of Charlemagne’s empire meant that the papacy could no longer count on the protection of Frankish kings. Popes lost their aura and prestige. They became the puppets of powerful Roman families who fixed papal elections and, if necessary, had recalcitrant pontiffs deposed or murdered. Popes rarely lasted long; many died in suspicious circumstances, usually violently. Deposed pontiffs were usually replaced by even more sinister characters. As the sacred surrendered to the profane, pontiffs lapsed into shocking corruption — selling offices, nepotism, concubinage, financial malfeasance, and murder plots. At the end of the ninth century, more than two dozen popes died violently — bludgeoned, poisoned, strangled, smothered, mutilated. Fifteen years before the Cadaver Synod, plotters inside the papal court attempted to poison Pope John VIII. When the poison didn’t produce the desired result, the assassins smashed in his skull with a hammer. That did the job.

The Cadaver Synod took place in the St. John Lateran basilica in Rome

It was in this paranoid climate of political rivalry and corruption that, in 897 AD, Pope Stephen ordered the exhumation of his penultimate predecessor. Before his elevation to the papacy, Formosus had enjoyed an excellent reputation as a brilliant missionary. He was, perhaps, too successful as a cleric. He muscled in on the turf of other bishops. His ambition attracted resentment. He was a cleric with his eye on the prize — and it finally came. Following the murder of Pope John VIII — the pope who had his head bashed in — the papal turnover rate had been terrifyingly high. In 891, it was Formosus’s turn.

Formosus had been dead for seven months when his corpse, ripped from a crypt at St. Peter’s Basilica, was hauled before the pontifical court. The decaying cadaver was still clad in papal vestments, propped up on its throne like a broken puppet. The gruesome trial concluded with a verdict. Guilty of perjury. Guilty of coveting the papacy. Guilty of violating Church canons.

These accusations were trumped-up charges against Formosus. The real reason for his posthumous humiliation was political. Formosus had made the mistake of crossing the most powerful dynasty in Italy, the Spoletos. The dukes of Spoleto had ruled much of Italy outside the Papal States since the sixth century. They boasted the exalted titles of dux et marchio (duke and margrave) and had married into Charlemagne’s dynasty. Pope Formosus distrusted the ambitious Spoletos, but had to recognize their formidable political power. He therefore ceded reluctantly to their pressures to appoint a Spoleto, Lambert, as co–Holy Roman Emperor. But Formosus, fearing that the Spoletos were attempting to outmaneuver him, immediately regretted his decision. He began plotting behind their backs to break the Spoletos’ hold on the imperial throne.

The Spoletos never forgot the betrayal. They wanted revenge — even after Formosus’s death in 896 AD. This time, the Spoletos secured the papacy for one of their glove-puppets, the Bishop of Anagni, who was elected pope as Stephen VI. When Pope Stephen put Formosus’s dead body on trial, the spectacle was a Spoleto-orchestrated vendetta whose intention was to humiliate and destroy Pope Formosus utterly, including what remained of his corpse.

Found guilty on all charges, Formosus was sentenced to damnatio memoriae, Latin for “condemnation of memory.” Damnatio memoriae had a long history stretching back to the Roman Empire, when it was required punishment for anyone found guilty of betraying the state. Roman elites dreaded a damnatio sentence. It meant you were effectively a non-person, erased from history. In the reign of Tiberius, his second-in-command Lucius Sejanus was executed and condemned to damnatio for his conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Sejanus’s name was removed from all records. The punishment was sometimes inflicted on deceased emperors. Following an emperor’s death, the Roman Senate could either vote for consecratio (proclaiming the emperor as divine) or opt for damnatio (condemning him to perpetual disgrace). The emperors Caracalla, Commodus, and Alexander Severus were thus condemned, posthumously, as enemies of the Roman state. Constantine posthumously condemned his arch-rival Maxentius to damnatio memoriae. The sentence was enforced through wholesale destruction of statues of Maxentius, removal of his name from public inscriptions on monuments, and scratching his image from Roman coins.

Pope Formosus’s corpse on trial (detail of painting by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870)

Pope Formosus was, in like manner, consigned to oblivion for all eternity. His entire papacy was erased from history. But his accusers did not stop there. They insisted that the dead pontiff be punished physically, too. His putrefied flesh was to be desecrated. His cadaver was stripped of its papal robes before the mutilation began. First, the three fingers Formosus had used for papal blessings were chopped off. Then his body was dragged through the corridors of the basilica and flung off a balcony. The crowds below gasped in horror. The corpse was finally buried in a common grave. Some claimed it was re-exhumed, tied to weights, and thrown into the Tiber River.

Rumors soon circulated that Formosus was resurrected and performing miracles. This “miracle performing” superstition was not uncommon in medieval Christendom — not unlike the revival legends about Nero during the early Christian era. Outraged by the posthumous cruelty inflicted on Formosus, public opinion in Rome quickly turned against Pope Stephen. The outcry soon turned violent. Pope Stephen was tracked down, deposed, imprisoned, and strangled to death.

While this was hardly the first time a pope had been brutally murdered, it was a serious crisis for the papacy. The Spoletos had gone too far. The next pontiff, Theodore II, hastily convened a synod to invalidate Formosus’s damnatio sentence. Formosus’s remains were solemnly reburied in St. Peter’s Basilica in a ceremony officiated by Pope Theodore himself.

But the gruesome saga was still not over. A decade later, a new pope, Sergius III, overturned the exculpations and found Formosus guilty yet again. Pope Sergius had Formosus’s body — ten years dead at this point — disinterred, put on trial again, found guilty, and decapitated. The headless cadaver was once again thrown into the Tiber, where it became entangled in a fisherman’s net.

Despite the gruesome brutality inflicted by Sergius III on Formosus’s mutilated corpse, the victim of the Cadaver Synod was vindicated in the end. The Vatican invalidated Pope Sergius’s charges against Formosus and had his remains buried, this time for good, in St. Peter’s Basilica. But while Formosus’s reputation was rehabilitated, his name was forever cursed. No future pontiff ever took the name Formosus.

The above is a revised extract from Matthew Fraser’s book, In Truth: A History of Lies from Ancient Rome to Modern America.

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Author, professor, lives in Paris with two bichons, Hector and Djery. Next book: Monumental Folly: Toppling Statues from Buddha to #BlackLivesMatter.

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Matthew Fraser

Matthew Fraser

Author, professor, lives in Paris with two bichons, Hector and Djery. Next book: Monumental Folly: Toppling Statues from Buddha to #BlackLivesMatter.

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