The Cadaver Synod: When a Dead Pope Was Put on Trial

Pope Formosus' body was exhumed in 897 and his corpse was put on trial by Pope Stephen.

Exhumations happen. Sometimes it's during a criminal trial; other times it's to identify historical figures; then there are times when it's used to simply determine paternity. Whatever the reason, there have been many cited cases throughout history when authorities have had to reexamine the physical evidence of the dearly departed.

But having an actual cadaver stand trial for crimes already excused is when things start to get way more unusual. That's exactly what happened in 897 C.E. when the body of Pope Formosus was unearthed and taken to a courtroom presided over by the then-current pope whose only intention was to find Pope Formosus guilty.


The trial is known as the Cadaver Synod. The "cadaver" part is easy to understand considering Formosus' actual dead body sat accused. But if you're not familiar with the term synod, it is an ecclesiastical council or gathering where decisions about issues related to faith or disciplinary matters are determined.

While trying a dead body would be unimaginable in Vatican City today, the Cadaver Synod took place during a time when political machinations ruled the papacy, long before 11th-century reforms that regulated papal elections. It was a time when there was little distinction between private property and public trust, according to Rev. John W. O'Malley, S.J. Popes during the Middle Ages could dispense favor. It was a prize for a family to be aligned with the pope, and there were lots of rivalries. And like many stories, this one begins with the end of a great ruler.


The Set Up: Death of Charlemagne

While Charlemagne reigned over the Roman Empire (he was crowned emperor in 800 C.E.) life was pretty good in the Christian West, according to O'Malley's "A History of the Popes from Peter to the Present." Charlemagne had high standards for education and clergy and facilitated political stability. Unfortunately, his son Louis the Pious was less capable. So after Charlemagne's death, the empire was divided into three under Charlemagne's grandsons Louis the German, Charles the Bald and Lothair. More divisions occurred over time.

Internal political complications were met with numerous external threats — from the Normans, the Magyars and the Saracens, O'Malley explains.


"The whole political situation was very upset," he says. Papal elections were manipulated in favor of noble factions. At the time, bishops were elected by local clergy with the approval of the laypeople, which meant that local families held significant influence in elections, and that included the office of the pope who also was the bishop of Rome. Getting your man in the pontificate was a coup for any faction.

Cadaver synod
Stephen VI exhumed Formosus' body in 897 and put his corpse on trial. Yes. He put his corpse on trial for crimes he committed while alive, as depicted in Jean-Paul Laurens' painting, "Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII" ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII").
Public Domain


Enter Pope Formosus

Thanks to the territorial divisions of Charlemagne's empire after his death, major rifts occurred, according to Francesca Romana Valente, an archaeologist with a specialization in early Christian archaeology and iconography, who works with Through Eternity Tours. At this time in history, popes weren't elected because they were recognized as spiritual leaders; they were elected because they were supported by a certain party.

A successful missionary and cardinal bishop of Porto, Italy, Formosus had increased the presence of the Church in Bulgaria enough that Bulgarian prince Bogoris petitioned Nicholas I to have Formosus as the archbishop of the Bulgarian church, Michael E. Moore wrote in the paper "The Body of Pope Formosus." Nicholas denied the request because of a canonical rule that a bishop could not move from one episcopal see to another. Formosus returned to Rome and Bulgaria entered the Byzantine church. Nevertheless, Formosus gained the recognition of powerful supporters, which in ninth-century Europe meant he attracted plenty of enemies, too.


Formosus' growing influence eventually led to his excommunication by John VIII in 876 C.E. Charges against Formosus included an attempt to become bishop of Bulgaria, being a traitor to Charles the Bald (who Formosus disapproved of) and that he coveted the papacy. Luckily for Formosus, John VIII's pontificate ended when he was assassinated in 882, and Pope Marinus I reinstated Formosus, who returned to his bishopric in Porto. Marinus I lasted about two years, his successor St. Adrian III just one, and Stephen V about six long years.

Finally, Formosus acceded to the papacy in 891 C.E.. Guy of Spoleto (Guido) was now ruling over a much larger portion of Italy, which was very dangerous for the papal states. Stephen V had unwillingly crowned Guy of Spoleto emperor, and consequently, Formosus, was forced to recognize him and his son Lambert Roman emperor, as well.

Formosus initially looked to them for strength and protection in his new role. Except, Formosus also was collaborating with the King of Germany, Arnulf, who attempted a siege on Rome with the support of Formosus. Guy of Spoleto died that same year, however, leaving his son as emperor, and Arnulf took a second chance to attack Rome. This time Arnulf was successful and Formosus crowned Arnulf emperor of Rome. The new alliance didn't last long, however. Arnulf was paralyzed as he marched on toward Spoleto, and Formosus died in 896.

The Cadaver Synod
"The Cadaver Synod," the posthumous ecclesiastical trial of Pope Formosus, 897 C.E., engraving by Francesco Bertolini (1836-1909).
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini via Getty Images


The Posthumous Trial

Two popes later, Emperor Lambert recovered his authority in Rome in 897 and Stephen VI was pope. Stephen was determined to revisit the crimes of his predecessor Formosus. It wasn't enough to simply accuse him or smear his name. Stephen had Formosus' body dug up, dressed up (in pontifical robes) and put up (on a throne) to stand trial. The Cadaver Synod levied the charges of coveting the papacy and ruling over multiple bishoprics at the same time.

The prohibition against being bishop of more than one place at a time makes political sense as it would help prevent a bishop from amassing too much power. As for seeking the papacy, that's clearly inappropriate. "It's a holy office," says O'Malley. Buying and selling ecclesiastical goods is forbidden, and just as buying your way into an election isn't just a political crime, it's an ecclesiastical one too.


While Stephen VI didn't give Formosus what would be considered a fair trial today, he did assign a deacon to speak for him. Stephen is reported to have screamed at the corpse, and the deacon's weak defense did little to plead Formosus' case. The drama of the macabre scene was increased when an earthquake shook the San Giovanni Laterano basilica.

Unsurprisingly, Formosus was found guilty. He was stripped of his robes and his three fingers used for the blessing were chopped off. All his measures and acts were annulled, and all the orders conferred by him were declared invalid. After burying him (a second time) in a cemetery for strangers outside of Church lands, Stephen VI had Formosus dug up yet again and thrown into the Tiber River. A fisherman or a monk, depending on the legend, found his body, pulled it from the water, and hid it. Later, Formosus was reburied (a third time) at St. Peter's and his name cleared.


The People's Reaction to the Synod of Formosus

The people of Rome were disgusted by the trial, and a few months later there was a riot, according to Valente. Stephen VI was imprisoned and strangled to death. His maneuver was clearly not appreciated, so what was he hoping to gain from the trial?

"Everything is tied to the politics of the time," Valente says. For one thing, Stephen VI was supported by Emperor Lambert. "So this grotesque trial was a way to show his allegiance to Guido [Guy]." Another benefit was that the result of the trial made all of Formosus' acts as pope null and void, according to Amelia Soth in the journal JSTOR Daily. That was good for Stephen because he had been made bishop by Formosus, which meant he was guilty of holding multiple positions at once too.