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objection! sir, that man is dead
Or, buckle up buddies, it's the Cadaver Synod
We're back for another riveting installment of Dirtbags Through the Ages! This time, I'm whisking us back to 9th century Rome for a story that's truly, truly wild. That's right: it's time for...
That One Time The Pope Put A Dead Body On Trial!
If you follow me on Twitter, you already know I'm obsessed with the Cadaver Synod. Wacky popes are sort of my thing, and this story is the wackiest of them all.
(Exhibit A: the defendant loves weird popes.)
But obviously this story is longer than what can easily be contained in a tweet, so here we go.
Ninth-century Rome had at least one thing in common with 2021 America: everything was awful. Rome was under attack more or less constantly, and rival popes were jockeying for the papal throne like it was their job. Which introduces us to one of our two main characters: Formosus, Bishop of Porto.
Formosus was a pretty popular bishop, as far as bishops go. He was bopping around Europe collecting fiefdoms and accumulating followers—entirely too many followers for the current pope, John VIII, to feel comfortable with. Everything about Formosus screamed "THIS MAN WANTS TO ILLEGALLY BECOME POPE!" So, John VIII, a proactive sort of guy apparently, had Formosus excommunicated.
Unfortunately, John VIII was not proactive enough, because he was then murdered.
And after a couple turbulent years, our man Formosus became pope after all in 891. Sorry, John VIII. You did your best.
Anyway. Pope Formosus got a couple years to enjoy the papacy and all the cosmic power that came with it. He reigned as pope for five years before dying of a stroke—which, frankly, is a pretty long time, given that the average papacy in this era was like a month and a half. (Not literally, but in spirit.)
You would think Formosus' death would be an end to all those charges of conspiring to the papacy that John VIII had leveled decades ago. You would think that because you are a reasonable person who has never thought "Hey, what if we put a corpse on trial?"
YOU WOULD BE WRONG, HOWEVER.
Pope Stephen VI was not a man who thought like you and I. He is a man who looked at his predecessor and went, "What would happen if I dug up his corpse and put the skeleton of the pope on trial?" And that is what he did.
Why, you ask? Historians look at the facts and give one massive, collective shrug. Maybe he was using the trial as a distraction to draw attention away from his own crimes. Maybe he was trying to create national unity in Rome during a difficult and factious time. Maybe he was medically insane.
Whatever the explanation, Pope Stephen dug up Formosus, who had by now been dead for seven months, had him dressed in papal robes, and set up his body in a chair in San Giovanni Laterano for his trial. The trial consisted mostly of Stephen yelling at the corpse, accusing it of all manner of crimes and treasons against the papal throne. As corpse declined to comment, a deacon was appointed to answer for it.
Eventually, the corpse of Formosus was found guilty. (How? Your guess is as good as mine, I'm just a simple country lawyer.) As punishment, the corpse was stripped of its papal robes. Then, Pope Stephen cut off three fingers on the corpse's right hand and had Formosus reburied, insultingly, in a graveyard for foreigners. Then—either because he'd changed his mind or because exhuming bodies had become a passion project by now—Pope Stephen had the body dug up AGAIN, and this time weighted it and threw it into the Tiber River.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Cadaver Synod was...not great for Pope Stephen VI's PR. He was deposed, imprisoned, and strangled the following year. After his death, the corpse of Formosus was rounded up one last, exhausting time, and finally buried in Saint Peter's Basilica with the other popes. (He actually got excommunicated post-mortem one last time, in 904-ish, for what I presume are Reasons.)
Moral of the story? I don't know. Don't put dead bodies on trial, maybe.
Or do, if you want to be featured in a later installment of this newsletter.
We're now a mere three calendar weeks away from the release of my novel, A Tip for the Hangman! There are no trials of dead popes in this book, but there are trials, popes, and dead bodies, if those three things still interest you separately.
The book was recently listed as one of the Chicago Tribune's "25 books we can't wait to read in 2021," which frankly I'm still in stunned denial about!
And my historical fiction idol Kate Quinn, author of The Alice Network and The Huntress, called it "simultaneously moving, unsettling, hilarious, and tragic"!
You can preorder A Tip for the Hangman at Bookshop.org, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite indie bookstore.
If you do preorder, fill out this quick and easy form to claim some free preorder swag, including a signed bookplate and custom bookmark I made to distract myself from the steady fall of democracy.
And as always, if you have a friend who loves wacky pope facts shared on an irregular schedule, send em my newsletter signup.
Until next time, my friends,