Next week, about the time Bruce’s blog hits these pages, Betty and I will be flying off to spend a few days on vacation. We’re celebrating our anniversary in sunny Italy. Of course, it may be only modestly sunny this time of year, but this is when our anniversary falls. We shall hope for the best. And if it rains, well I’m told that the Vatican has an art museum.

Consequently, I’ve been thinking about the Vatican and Italy as I set out in search of a Trial of the Month for January.  This week, I’d like to direct your attention to the Basilica San Giovanni Laterano in Rome. There, in January of 897, Pope Stephen VI put the decomposing corpse of a former pope, Formosus, on trial. The event has become known to history as the Cadaver Synod or Synodus Horrenda. (Things always sound more legal in Latin.) 

The events leading to the trial are bound up with both the political intrigue of the crumbling Holy Roman Empire and the power struggles of the Capope formosustholic Church. Formosus had served as a Catholic bishop in Porto, Italy. He had also labored as a missionary among the Bulgars. As a result of his popularity, the Bulgars hoped he would be named their bishop. Pope John VIII, however, denied the move.

The Pope accused Formosus of violating long-standing church rules. Bishops may not leave one see to administer another. The rule, in part, prevented bishops from building fiefdoms from which they might challenge a sitting pope. In 875, Pope John VIII had Formosus excommunicated for corrupting the minds of the Bulgarians, deserting Porto and attempting to usurp the papacy of John.

Pope John’s sense of paranoia appears justified. Subsequently, he was murdered, likely by his own clerics.  According to sources, he was poisoned. The assassin reportedly, lost patience waiting for the potion to take effect. He then bludgeoned the pope’s head with a hammer.

formosusMarinus I succeed John and re-instated Formosus as bishop. These were turbulent times to be the pontiff and a series of short-lived popes followed. In 891, Formosus, once excommunicated, was elected supreme pontiff. He held the job for five years before dying of a stroke. Bonifice VI followed Formosus but ruled for only fifteen days before dying of gout or poisoning. Stephen VI became pontiff.

Parallel to this church intrigue, the secular battle to be emperor of the Holy Roman Empire also raged. Many leaders sought to be the imperial ruler upon the death of Charles the Fat in 888. Chief among these were Lambert of Spoleto and Arnulf of Carinthia. Since the time of Charlemagne, Popes held the power to crown the emperor. This ability merged church and imperial politics. The history of the day is too complicated to reduce to a single paragraph. Use of this papal power created powerful enemies. Formosus crowned Arnulf emperor in 895. Formosus died in 896.  Lambert of Spoleto and his forces marched into Rome in that year. Stephen VI became Pope.

In January 897, Pope Stephen, supported by other political enemies of Formosus, ordered his 9-month deceased remains disinterred and brought to San Giovanni Laterano. There, dressed in papal robes and propped up on a throne, Formosus stood trial. A young deacon was appointed to speak on behalf of Formosus’ desiccated corpse. Reportedly, Stephen shouted at his dead predecessor demanding answers to the charges he leveled.cadaver-synod

The claims against Formosus were those for which he had already been excommunicated by John VIII. During the trial, an earthquake shook San Giovanni Laterano. Apparently, no one saw this as a sign to stop. Formosus lost again.  His corpse was stripped of his papal vestments, Stephen then cut off the three fingers of his right hand, the fingers which, in life, he had used for blessings. Formosus’ acts and ordinations were then formally invalidated. The body was finally interred in an obscure graveyard. Pope Stephen then changed his mind, dug up Formosus again, tied his body with weights and cast his remains into the Tiber River.

If all of this were not absurd enough, the Latin name Formosus translates into English as ‘beautiful’.

Rumors circulated that Formosus’ body, after washing up on the banks of the Tiber, had begun to perform miracles. Citizens outraged by the spectacle of the corpse trial began an uprising and deposed Pope Stephen. While in prison, in the late summer of 897, this imprisoned pope was strangled.

During his short twenty-day reign in 897, Pope Theodore II rehabilitated Formosus. He ordered that his body which had been recovered from the Tiber be reburied in Saint Peter’s Basilica in complete papal garb. In 898, John IX (898—900) again nullified the Cadaver Synod and  prohibited any future trial of a dead person.

The story still did not end. Pope Sergius III (904–911) reversed Theodore’s findings and reaffirmed Formosus’ conviction. He had been a co-judge at Formosus’ original trial. This time, however, no one attempted to dig up the dead Pope’s body.

A pope disinterred enough times that his grave should have an elevator, a political show-trial and a bucketful of court intrigue, the Cadaver Synod is my Trial of the Month for January.

Now, if I can only convince Betty to swing by San Giovanni Laterano. Even though it is not standard anniversary fare, she’ll likely go for it. She is a very tolerant person—she has to be.

Mark Thielman

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