Judging the Dead: The Revolting Case of the Cadaver Synod

By Martijn Icks

Read – How there was a ghastly trial once

Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes

(Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book)


The history of the papacy is long, bloody and at times outright bizarre. Yet even in its nearly 2,000 years of murder, intrigue and papal eccentricities, it would be hard to find a more grisly and fantastical event than the Synodus Horrenda of 897 CE. In English, it has become known as the Cadaver Synod.

Imagine the scene: in the very heart of the Catholic Church, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the rotting corpse of Pope Formosus has been seated on a throne, still dressed in the splendid robes of the highest office. The stench wafting through the cathedral must have been penetrating. There is a bitter irony here: Formosus means “well-formed”. But the distasteful display of his decaying remains was not the only indignity the deceased pontiff suffered. Far from it: he was put on trial.

Pope Formosus in better days

The man responsible for this charade was another pope, a live one: Stephen VI, who accused his predecessor of a long list of crimes, including perjury, swapping one bishop’s seat for another and openly aspiring to the papacy. Regardless of the truth of these claims, they hardly seem grave enough to dig up the accused’s corpse.

Formosus was of course in no position to defend himself. To be fair, a deacon was appointed to plead his case, but it’s safe to say that the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, as a medieval chronicle records, the former pope was found guilty, after which “his apostolic vestment was stripped off, and he was dragged across the basilica, and blood was flowing from his mouth, and he was thrown into the river” (Annales Alamannici).

Obviously, then, we are dealing with a show trial, where the point was not to pursue justice, but to publicly disgrace the accused, posthumously robbing him of his good name. So what was really going on? Historians are still uncertain about the details, but it appears that Pope Stephen may have been acting on behalf of Duke Guy IV of Spoleto.

It’s important to realize that popes were much more than religious figureheads in medieval Europe. They ruled the Papal States, which covered large parts of northern Italy, they freely meddled in political and military affairs and, most important of all, they claimed the exclusive right to crown emperors.

Formosus had done just that, first crowning Lambert of Spoleto, Guy’s uncle, but then switching allegiance to Arnulf of Carinthia and offering him the imperial crown instead. Both Arnulf and Formosus died of natural causes not long afterwards, which their enemies interpreted as divine retribution. However, it may well be that Guy thought this did not suffice and decided to heap on some additional retribution of his own.

The current-day St. John Lateran, site of the Cadaver Synod. The cathedral’s medieval predecessor has long been demolished

Whatever the motives behind the Cadaver Synod, Formosus’s enemies made every possible effort to strip him of his authority and dignity. Not only was he deprived of his grave and his robes of office, his acts as pope were nullified and three fingers were cut off his right hand – the one he used for blessings. There was no mistaking the message: this man was no longer a proper pope. In fact, he’d never been a proper pope to begin with.

It’s hard to escape the impression that Pope Stephen and whoever else may have been responsible for the trial took their inspiration from ancient Rome, where unpopular emperors were disgraced after their death and suffered damnatio memoriae, an official condemnation of their memory by Senatorial decree. This meant the nullification of their acts and the destruction of their images.

Even the ditching of Formosus’s corpse in the Tiber had ancient precedents: “To the Tiber with Tiberius!” was a popular catchphrase during the reign of Rome’s second (and obviously unbeloved) emperor. Another emperor, the short-lived Elagabalus, did indeed suffer this fate after a revolt by the Praetorian Guard. In short, Formosus was in good company – or rather, he was in very, very bad company.

Fortunately for the unfortunate pope, monks fished his body out of the water and gave it a decent burial in their monastery. Later, after Stephen had passed on, he was restored to his proper resting place among his papal colleagues. But in a sense, the stench of the Tiber never washed away. It’s been more than a millennium since the Cadaver Synod, but no other pope has ever dared to take the name Formosus.

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