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Crazy History: Pope Formosus and the Cadaver Synod

Updated on April 1, 2018

History IS Stranger than Fiction

People often wonder why history is required in school. Isn't it just a bunch of dates and dead people, they think? To some degree, this could be an accurate statement. However, history is interesting. At times, the truth is stranger than fiction. I will confess that I'm a church history nut. I love learning about the history of Christianity. I'm not a Catholic, but I find medieval Catholicism very interesting.

One of the most interesting accounts from medieval church history is the sad tale of Pope Formosus.

The Cadaver Synod

Pope Formosus and Stephen VII by Jean Paul Laurens
Pope Formosus and Stephen VII by Jean Paul Laurens | Source

Formosus: The Early Years

Pope Formosus was the only Pope Formosus ever. Hence, there is no I, II, V, or XIV after his name. The year of Formosus' birth is not certain, but it is estimated around 816. He served as a Cardinal Bishop as early as 864 and first became a candidate for the papacy in 872.

Political machinations in Rome frequently determined who would become pope in these days, so Formosus was passed over. After leaving Rome, John VIII placed an excommunication on the head of the Cardinal. In 878, John removed the excommunication after Formosus reportedly agreed never to return to Rome or perform his priestly duties (although the documents are questionable). In 891, Formosus was elected to succeed Stephen V as pope.

Formosus, Before Being on Trial while Dead

Pope Formosus from Cavallieri, 1588
Pope Formosus from Cavallieri, 1588 | Source

Pope Formosus: The Papal Years

Pope Formosus actually became Pope Formosus on October 6, 891. His pontificate was not terribly memorable. Political wranglings dominated this period in European history. Not much on the ecclesiastical side happened of major note. Therefore, it could be argued that the papacy of Pope Formosus was rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Pope Formosus: The Dead Years

Although being a pope who was elected pope after previously being excommunicated puts Formosus into a pretty rare category, this is not what truly set him apart in history. Formosus is most interesting because of what happened after his death.

Boniface VI immediately succeeded Formosus, but he only lasted 15 days as pope. 15 days is not a long enough time for most people to accomplish much, so we must move to the successor of Boniface VI. In 897, Pope Stephen VI (or VII, depending upon the date of the record being read) brought Formosus to trial. Stephen was influenced by a man named Lambert and his mother Agiltrude, who were apparently mad that Formosus crowned a rival named Arnulf, who invaded Rome. After Lambert and Agiltrude regained power, Agiltrude wanted to get revenge on Formosus, who was already dead.

Stephen convened a gruesome trial now known widely as the Cadaver Synod in early 897. Formosus had been dead for months, but that did not stop the exhumation of his decaying corpse. The trial was held in the Basilica of St. John Lateran with Formosus dressed in all of the papal finery. After some questioning and arguments, Formosus unsurprisingly sat silent. A deacon was appointed to answer for the dead corpse. The court deemed Formosus guilty and his papacy was basically declared null and void. The poor corpse of Pope Formosus was stripped of the papal vestments, three fingers used for giving blessings were cut off, and the body was chucked into the Tiber River (only to be retrieved).

However, the ordeal of Formosus was not quite over at this point. After the death of Stephen VI, Formosus' body was re-buried in St. Peter's. Pope Sergius III, re-affirmed the judgment against Formosus and demanded that all bishops consecrated by him be re-consecrated, after two popes had reinstated the standing of Formosus. Later rulings found in favor of Formosus because of the political nature of the trial.


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