When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial

The Roman Church has its own macabre histories over time, just like the American senate and house are currently making with their blown-up trial of the century. The Roman Church version of a macabre and an actual, satirical history about putting a corpse on trial, because Pope Formosus passed away before the trial. That was in January of 897. The trial was called the Cadaver Synod or Synodus Horrenda.

It happened in one of the most corrupt eras in the history of the church, a time that is also called the pornocracy.

In those times, the world was falling apart. The western empire Charlemagne had crumbled away, totally fragmented. Little fiefdoms were looking at Rome’s treasures like a fox and the chickens and they demanded protection money. and that was after the plunders of the Saracen sack of 846 (The Arab raid against Rome took place in 846. Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts of the city of Rome, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, but were prevented from entering the city itself by the Aurelian Walls.).

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And just like in the American politics, rift was everywhere within the church. Many men really wanted to be pope too and they needed additional strength of many secular leaders, so they can have what they want. They made deals with anyone, be it good and bad people, who cares. They wanted to be pope.

At those times of the many popes, Pope John VIII was the pope during the trial with the corpse. At that time, Formosus was bishop of Porto. He was also a successful missionary, known for spreading Catholicism throughout the Bulgar kingdom. But he might have been a little too good at his job.

Formosus was getting too close for comfort and to the position of Pope John VIII, John had him excommunicated.  And John was right of course. Politics in those times was the same as it is now in America.

So Formosus took action and John was murdered. First, he was poisoned, but that took too long before he died and the killer lost his patience and bashed his head in with a hammer. Why not?

Marinus I took over as pope, and re-instated Formosus as bishop.  But Marinus lasted hardly a year and was succeeded by Pope St. Adrian III, who also passed away after hardly a year. All of them were assassinated. Finally, Pope Stephen V came into power.

And finally, the day came, hallelujah! In 891, it was Formosus’ turn. He became Pope and lasted even for five wild years, until he died because of a stroke. Rome was astonished and surprised, one of the few popes who died naturally. Well, Boniface VI came into power as the new Pope. But there was something fishy about this Pope. He had been defrocked twice for “immoral conduct.” He liked his women and sold anything to anyone, as long as it carried gold but he only ruled for 15 days before he died of either gout or poisoning (again). Let’s hope that Biden doesn’t read this, he might not sleep well tonight.

Next up was Pope Stephen VI, he was a revengeful Pope and was as mad as a hatter. He hated Formosus and was looking for ways to get his revenge. A trial would be the best! But the small problem was that he was already dead!

Ah. He found the solution. He ordered to dig up Formosus and force his corpse to stand trial for crimes, doesn’t matter what crimes. So, the corpse of Formosus was dragged out, dressed in papal robes, and propped up in a chair at San Giovanni Laterano. A deacon was appointed to speak for him, but sadly didn’t say much while Stephen screamed at the corpse, foaming from the mouth. Formosus was found guilty on all counts, stripped of his vestments, and had the three fingers he used for blessing on his right hand chopped off.

Stephen had him buried on an obscure plot of land, but then, thinking better of it, had him dug up one more time and tossed in the Tiber. At this point the people of Rome had just about enough of Stephen and his corpse trial. A mob threw him in prison where he was strangled in his cell.

The Democrats in the United States might find some wisdom in this story. 

The next pope, Pope Romanus, annulled all the actions of Stephen VI, but was overthrown in less than a year. His successor, Pope Theodore II, was only pope for 20 days, yet managed to recover the body of Formosus. His successor, John IX oversaw Formosus’s reburial in St. Peter’s Cathedral. Today, there is still a monument that lists the names of popes buried there. There, you can see Formosus’ name carved in stone- one of the last vestiges of the Cadaver Synod.

List of popes buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, including Formosus
List of popes buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, including Formosus

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