Bad Decisions in History: featuring Cadaver Synod

I think this might be one of the most outrageous bad decisions I’ve covered so far. I’m even going to lead with a painting of the event, because it wonderfully illustrates just how bizarre the Cadaver Synod was. Look – a skeletal, rotting corpse is literally dressed up in papal robes and propped up in a chair while his accuser yells and jabs a finger at it. Seriously, sometimes actual history challenges our wildest imaginations.

Jean Paul Laurens – ‘Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII’ 1870

Bad decision: Exhuming the corpse of a late pope to force it to stand trial

Let’s start with some backstory on the events leading up to this.

The deceased pope, the one just sitting there, more focused on decomposing than listening to the litany of accusations, was Pope Formosus. Before becoming pope in 891, he had a colourful career as a bishop and missionary. He’d been appointed the Cardinal Bishop of Portus (an ancient suburb of Rome, near the modern village of Porto) in 864. Over the next ten years, he also undertook diplomatic missions to Bulgaria and France, spreading Catholicism. He was reckoned to be quite good at it, even persuading the Frankish king, Charles the Bald (what a title) to be crowned emperor by the current pope, John VIII. Unfortunately for Formosus, there was a law in place that prevented bishops from overseeing more than one diocese at a time, to keep their power in check. Formosus was accused of abandoning his diocese of Portus and of aspiring to the papal throne. Which, to be fair, he probably did aspire to – he was considered a papal candidate as early as 872. Also, he did flee Rome after Charles the Bald’s coronation, fearing the wrath of Pope John VIII.

As a result, Formosus was excommunicated for about four years. After promising never to resume priestly functions or return to Rome, the excommunication was lifted. You’re probably wondering how a man who went through excommunication and subsequently promised never to be a priest again managed to become pope. I certainly was. As it turns out, he didn’t even need to disavow his oath, because Pope John VIII died and his successor, Pope Marinus I, restored Formosus to his diocese at Portus.

A few years and three popes later (Marinus died after two years, and was briefly succeeded by Pope Hadrian III and Pope Stephen V), Formosus was elected Pope. He held the position for five years, until his death in 896.

Pope Formosus

Now, still using the painting of the trial as reference, we move onto the irate-looking man scolding the finely-dressed corpse. Pope Stephen VI was elected in 896. Although he took the papal throne the same year that Formosus died, Stephen VI did not immediately succeed Formosus as pope. In between, there was Pope Boniface VI, who died of either gout or poison after only a few weeks. This whole decade seems a pretty risky time to be pope, to be honest. Popes were dying left and right – there were seven popes in fifteen years. A few died of old age, but there were two murders and one suspicious death.

Pope Formosus had been dead for several months (accounts tend to vary between seven and nine months) by the time Pope Stephen VI decided to disinter the body and stand trial. Formosus was officially accused of perjury and of acceding to the papacy illegally.

No one can really be certain why Stephen VI decided to follow this course of action. Some historians suggest that he was insane, which certainly might be possible. Political tensions around the papacy during this time period were also quite high, with separate kingdoms and fiefdoms supporting their own papal candidate in order to enjoy the benefits of being a preferred ally to the pope. This may have been a factor in the synod over Formosus’ actions,  because he and Stephen VI had different supporters.  During his reign, Formosus had supported Arnulf of Carinthia to rule the Holy Roman Empire. Stephen VI had the support of the Spoleto family, one of the most powerful in Rome at the time, which meant he preferred their man, Lambert of Spoleto over Arnulf. One theory is that the Spoleto family pressured Stephen VI to destroy Formosus’ reputation, since they had been rivals. Since he was dead though, this seems a bit extreme.

Another theory is that Stephen VI was trying to protect himself. He’d been appointed by Pope Formosus as bishop of Anagni, a position Stephen VI still held when he became bishop of Rome (pope). This put him in a similar position to Formosus, back when he was accused of harbouring too much power and aspiring to be pope.  However, if Formosus were found posthumously guilty of holding two bishoprics at once, his actions would be void, meaning Stephen would never have legitimately been the bishop of Anagni, and would now only hold the title of bishop of Rome.

Whatever the reason, the trial went predictably. Formosus’ corpse was unpleasant and mute. The deacon who had been appointed to speak for the corpse was frightened and proved ineffective at answering loaded questions along the lines of “Formosus, why were you so ambitious as bishop of Portus?” and “Why did you usurp the papacy?”

Having been found guilty of perjury, violating canon law, and serving as a bishop while a layman, the papal vestments were stripped from Formosus’ decomposing corpse. I hope it wasn’t the poor deacon who also had that job. Pope Stephen VI cut off the three skeletal fingers Formosus had once used for blessings. He had the body buried in a common graveyard. Later, he changed his mind and had the body dug up again so that it could be thrown in the Tiber river.

Unsurprisingly, Pope Stephen VI grew very unpopular after this whole fiasco. After rumours that Pope Formosus’ body had washed up on the shore and started performing miracles, Stephen VI was deposed after a riot and imprisoned, where he was later strangled.

Outcome: Being imprisoned and murdered; a papal legacy that involved being somewhat of a laughingstock and also an object of pity through the rest of history.


Looking for more Bad Decisions in history? Click here, or use the Category sidebar to jump there.

Stay connected:

2 thoughts on “Bad Decisions in History: featuring Cadaver Synod

Leave a Reply