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When the Vatican put a Corpse on Trial

Dead Men CAN talk…


800px-Jean_Paul_Laurens_Le_Pape_Formose_et_Etienne_VII_1870There are many odd stories from the Vatican, one of the perennial favourites is that in the Middle Ages there was a Pope Joan. The story goes that a woman managed to become Pope and the deception was only revealed after she gave birth as she mounted a horse. The list of Pope’s is pretty good and anytime a later source quotes a date for when this all happened, there’s a legitimate (male) Pope. Also ladies, how easy is it for a heavily pregnant woman to get on a horse and then give birth? The fact is this myth became much repeated and embellished after the reformation. It is protestant propaganda to ridicule the Roman Catholic faith. However they needn’t have bothered because there are far stranger stories lurking in the history of the Vatican. Indeed perhaps the most ghoulish and strangest of all is probably the “Cadaver Synod”.

Occasionally the Papal numbering system can get a bit muddled so Pope Stephen VII is also sometimes called the VI, either way he obviously didn’t quite understand Christian teaching because rather than wanting to turn the other cheek, he wanted revenge. Revenge principally on his predecessor Pope Formosus. So in 897 the dead Pope Formosus was exhumed from the grave and put on trial for Perjury (amongst other crimes).

There was some real world politics present in the decision. The late 9th century saw central Europe at a cross roads. Formosus in his day had backed the old Carolingian powers in France hoping for protection. This was not unreasonable as for a century or more this dynasty had been hugely powerful and able to project power into the Italian peninsula. However by this time the Carolinginas were on the wane. So with the arrival of Stephen as the new Pontiff, he decided to go in another direction and look to the new more local Italian powers. However this change of allegiance to the Vatican would come at a price which meant denigrating his predecessor Formosus.
The idea of countering your predecessor was nothing new in Papal politics and would indeed last for centuries.

The Vatican from the early Middle Ages until the 19th century not only had spiritual power, but temporal power too. The Vatican States ebbed and flowed over the centuries in terms of actual size but for more than a millennium, central Italy was under control of the Pope. That meant having armies, fortifications and an ability to raise regular taxes as well as the almost unlimited supply of funds as the focal point of the church. This was all worth fighting for, even dying for, but the idea of a exhuming a previous Pope was unique in the annals of Papal history. Exactly who suggested a post mortem synod with a corpse in attendance is unknown but the fact that Stephen was actively involved in this trial is not in any doubt.

Formosus was exhumed from underneath St Peters and had fresh robes placed on the rotting corpse. Formosus was placed in a high seated chair and presumably somehow tied into position. Stephen was present during the trial and, unsurprisingly, Formosus put up a poor defence. When questions were asked to the deceased pontiff, a cleric stood behind the body and called out pre-prepared statements. The whole thing was both farcical and deeply creepy. After all a synod of this type would not have been open for the general public to see, so why go through with the whole charade in the first place?

To be clear, Stephen going against the wishes of his predecessor was nothing new and would be a regular event in the history of the Vatican, but what most Popes tended to do was create a writ (called a Papal Bull) and declare some kind of new holy revelation that nullified the old views and allowed a fresh direction that suited the new Pope. Digging up a dead man, putting him in fresh clothes and making him stand (well sit) trial all seemed a bit…unnecessary.

After all this effort, it came as no surprise to anyone that Formosus was found “guilty”. Once the verdict was reached, poor old Formosus was stripped of his sacred vestments, and had three fingers of its right hand (the blessing fingers) cut off. The attending clergy then put him in the clothes of a layman.

This rather morbid act had repercussions beyond the walls of the Vatican, the guilty verdict was the perfect excuse for Stephen to attempt to get rid of Formosus’ followers and appointments and consolidate his own power. In doing so he tilted the Vatican away from Carolingian powers beyond the borders of Italy and instead looked more locally for allies.

Formosus was then buried not under St Peters but in a local graveyard for foreigners- this was of course a deliberate insult. But then Stephen changed his mind and Formosus was dug up again (this corpse really did get around) and this time he was tied to weights and thrown in the river Tiber. The idea was to get rid of the problem once and for all, however it was a botched job and the body washed up on the banks of the river and rumours spread across Rome that Formosus’ body had begun to perform miracles.

It is therefore unsurprising that public opinion turned against Stephen. The Vatican was quick to react and an unknown group of clerics imprisoned him and a few weeks later Stephen was found in his cell strangled. Stephen’s pontificate had lasted barely a year. Who said ecclesiastical history was dull?

About Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is an historian and the founder of the hugely popular @HistoryGems . He is soon to publish his next history book.

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