How to Defend a Dead Pope

Dan Canon
I Taught the Law
Published in
5 min readJun 3, 2024

--

In 897, Pope Formosus was put on trial for violation of canon law and perjury. Popes were getting locked up, exiled, and murdered quite a lot in those days, so the charges against Formosus were nothing that most 21st century folk would normally remember. But this prosecution was special because Formosus had been dead for several months before his trial.

The new Pope, Stephen VI, dug him up, propped Formosus’s stinking corpse in a witness chair, and proceeded to question him as though he were a living witness. According to one source, “Pope Stephen’s counsel asked [the corpse]: ‘Being Bishop of Porto, why did you, with great ambition, usurp this See of the Apostle?’” Formosus had no response to the prosecution’s withering cross-examination and was found guilty. La Cosa Nostra Cattolica stripped him of his papal vestments, hacked off three of his fingers (the ones used for blessings), and reburied him. Then Stephen VI disinterred Formosus again and chucked him in the Tiber River.

By Jean-Paul Laurens — Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109877

Much has been written of this episode, now known as the “Cadaver Synod.”[1] It is widely regarded as a low point in the history of the Catholic Church, which means it ranks as one of humanity’s worst hits by definition. But even medievalists tend to overlook a major player in this courtroom drama: Formosus’s thankless counsel, a deacon who was appointed to speak on the dead pope’s behalf at trial.

--

--

Dan Canon
I Taught the Law

Civil rights lawyer, law professor, and high school dropout. Writes about the Midwest, class struggle, and the untold horrors of the legal system.