History of the papacy is riddled with bizarre stories and odd characters: after all, it dates back to the early ages of Christianity. Over the last two thousand years, 266 Supreme Pontiffs (and counting) succeeded one another at the head of the Holy See. Some will be remembered for their wisdom and open-mindedness, while others’ legacy is far less venerable. In the 9th century A.D., a Pope was even put on trial about a year after his death!
The papal job requirements these days roughly include crowd-blessing, speech-giving and, occasionally, mass sin-forgiving. Needless to say today’s Popes are far more pushed into the background than they used to be. Centuries ago, their role was not just symbolic: they would hatch coups, crown emperors, lay down the moral law, and burn heretics at the stake when they’re not that busy. Their voice was heard – and respected – at the courts of kings and princes. At the height of its fame through the Middle-Ages, the papacy’s powers aroused the covetousness of greedy sovereigns willing to take over the Holy See.
Successive Supreme Pontiffs have not often followed the same diplomatic path as their predecessors. As a matter of fact, the line of conduct of the Holy See has changed dramatically over the centuries, as its authority shifted from Ostrogothic to Byzantine and Frankish rule. Control of the papacy became an influential tool part of a much larger political strategy, and monarchs did not bother with elections to choose their own representative – escalating in gruesome assassinations in the 10th century.
At the time, being head of the Holy See was not a steady, risk-free job. Internal quarrels within the Vatican would often break out, leading to a divided clergy switching sides from one day to the other. A prelude to modern politics, all in all. But an Italian scholar named Formosus did not quite fit in the picture. Said to be an ascetic, wise, careful person, he was highly-esteemed by the Roman people when he was ordained cardinal in 864. Later excommunicated, and then forgiven, he accessed the throne of Peter in 891 and became Pope Formosus. Favorable to Carolingian rule, he enthroned Frankish King Arnulf I Holy Roman Emperor, much to the discontent of the Italian Spoleto family lusting after the crown. Formosus’ deeds did not win unanimous support, however, and the dispute was still unresolved when he passed away in 896.
But his death was considered a pathetic excuse by his accusers. Seeking revenge, the Duke of Spoleto put pressure on Formosus’ successor, Pope Stephen VI, to reduce to nothing the dead pontiff’s legacy. A mock trial was subsequently organized – the ‘Cadaver Synod’ – with a most macabre display welcoming its audience: the rotting corpse of Formosus was exhumed, wrapped in pontifical clothing, and placed on a throne. By the cadaver’s side, a young and frozen deacon was tasked with answering the accusations on behalf of the dead Pope. Obviously, Formosus’ defense did not convince anybody – the jury members had already rallied behind Stephen’s cause prior to the trial – and he was found guilty of all charges, including perjury. His papacy his cancelled, his sacred clothing torn apart. To add to Formosus’ posthumous disgrace, three fingers of his right hand were cut off – the ones used for benedictions. His shameful body was buried, shortly before being dug up again by an angry Roman mob which threw it into the Tiber.
Formosus’ degradation was not a mere oddity through the reigns of the medieval pontiffs. It marked the beginning of the papacy’s “Dark Age”, with targeted assassinations becoming the norm at the head of the Holy See. Stephen VI, pseudo-judge and main accuser of Formosus, would be thrown into jail and strangled the following summer. Five other pontiffs would undergo the same fate as the Roman aristocracy deals the cards at the turn of the 9th century.
What about Formosus? His dead body reappeared ‘miraculously’ on the banks of the Tiber, and he was eventually inhumed (with due respect) amongst his predecessors at the St. Peter’s Basilica, for a long, undisturbed slumber.
- Max Fisher, “When the Pope was powerful, and why that changed”, Washington Post (2013).
- John W. O’Malley, A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present (2009)
- Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Obscure Events of Lasting Importance (2006)
- Sylvain Rakotoarison, “Formose et son judgement cadavérique” [FRENCH], AgoraVox (2016).