The Cadaver Synod: A Tale of Vengeance, Lust for Power, and Ecclesiastical Politics (Fall 2012)

The caveats surrounding the religious views of a people and its influence upon the political structure of a given area has long been an influential guiding force behind much of human history, to varying effect. At times, a religiously intolerant doctrine may be seen to catalyze war in an already violent and unstable political climate, while religious conviction may be seen as heralding an incipient social revolution against social injustice, poor education, and/or unsanitary living conditions. A study of history seems to suggest that all too often the doctrine of the religion itself has little to do with the worth of the outcome, as it is the character of the men purveying a faith, or masquerading under its banner, that determines the end goal of a religious movement. All too often, the pride and selfishness of a single man manipulates a nation to an unstable, and far from Divine, political path; as is seen in the bizarre case of the Cadaver Synod.

The Cadaver Synod, or Synodus Horrenda in Latin, details the posthumous trial of one, a Catholic pope by the name of Formosus. In a bizarre tale of begrudging hatred, the successor to Pope Formosus, Pope Steven VII (sometimes referred to as VI), so despised the man that he sought to revile the former pope’s reputation after his death, by excavating his body and trying his lifeless corpse under allegations of ascending to his stature illegally, as well as committing repeated offenses of perjury.

The anger of Pope Steven VII had its roots deep within a virulent political climate, detailing the corruption between the Pope and the Emperor dating back decades, and continuing long after his death. The papacy was dominated by political alliances, dishonest machinations, and broken pacts throughout much of late 9th century and well into the 10th. The Cadaver Synod occurred under Pope Steven VII in January of 897, although from 872 AD -965 AD a total of 24 different popes ruled the papacy for brief stints, an average of less than one American Presidential term per pope (3.875 years), often serving to further political advantage to their family, political party, or the Emperor himself, caring little for carrying out the tenets of a peaceful and unselfish religion.

The particulars behind Pope Steven VII’s grudge dealt with a specific betrayal between two political factions, of which he belonged to the Spoleto family and Pope Formosa belonged to the opposing Corsican family. Formosus’s predecessor had ascended to the papacy with the help of the Spoleto family’s Guido, the Duke of Spleto, and in return Guido was crowned Emperor of Rome, along with the understanding that Guido’s son Lampert would receive similar treatment by Formosus. However, when Guido died and left the throne vacant in 894, Formosus chose to elect Arnulf, a member of his own choosing, to the throne. War ensued soon thereafter between Lampert and Arnulf, while a few timely defeats forced Arnulf’s army to retreat to Germany. Lampert emerged victorious, and rode to punish the traitorous Pope Formosus, but was soon robbed of his revenge as Formosus succumbed to natural death at the age of 77 before Arnulf could reach him. Through various political schemes involving the mysterious and untimely death of Pope Boniface who had assumed the papacy in the absence of Pope Formosus, Pope Steven VII, a man sympathetic to Lampert, replaced Pope Boniface after the latter died on his 15th day of heading the papacy.

Under pressure by Lampert, Pope Steven VII had Pope Formosus’s body exhumed to be put to stand trial in full pontifical vestments under allegations of illegally acquiring the papacy and perjury. His lifeless corpse was brought to Rome, placed upon a throne (allegedly), and asked to defend himself against said allegations. Pope Formosus was to be defended by a fifteen year old deacon who knew nothing of the man or his motivations, and was forced to answer Pope Steven’s accusations on behalf of the corpse of Pope Formosus.

By all accounts, Pope Stephen VII seethed with hatred for the late Pope Formosus, and may well have been clinically insane. According to historians: “The trial was completely dominated by Stephen VII, who overawed the assemblage with his frenzied tirades. While the frightened clergy silently watched in horror, Stephen VII screamed and raved, hurling insults at and mocking the rotting corpse. Occasionally, when the

furious torrent of execrations and maledictions would die down momentarily, the deacon would stammer out a few words weakly denying the charges.”

Pope Stephen VII, however, was not the sole judge presiding over this bizarre crusade. Perhaps in hopes of securing political gain and favor from the newly elected Pope Stephen VII, or more likely to avoid his political ire and vengeance, many members of the clergy were present, and acted as co-judges of the proceedings. One of the Roman clergy present was Bishop Sergius III, who would later assume the papacy himself, who in time would continue Pope Stephen VII’s precedent of hatred and political barbarism towards Pope Formosus.

After “refusing” to defend his crimes, Pope Steven VII found Formosus guilty, nulled his papacy, all his political appointments, ordinations and mandates, and soon thereafter subjected his body to varied means of desecration.

Pope Formosus had three fingers of his right hand involved in blessing others severed from his corpse, while the corpse itself was buried in a degrading tomb meant for peasants. Others allegedly then exhumed his body for the second time, and ignominiously threw him into the Tiber river, where a few miles downstream a small band of his supporters secretly rescued his body and had him buried once more in a more respectable location.

Through exposition of his inhuman behavior and fanatically cruel treatment of Pope Formosus in the Cadaver Synod, public support began to wane for Pope Stephen VII. Word spread far of his crimes, and according to the Oxford Dictionary of Popes: “Stephen VII's fanatical hatred of Formosus, his eerie decision to convene the Cadaver Synod in the first place, his even eerier decision to have Formosus' corpse brought into court, his maniacal conduct during the grisly proceeding, and his barbaric sentence that the corpse be abused and humiliated make it difficult to disagree with the historians who say that Stephen VII was stark, raving mad.”

By this time support had begun to wane for Pope Stephen VII, as he was made to stand trial for these crimes, convicted, and thrown in jail where he would be strangled and killed in August of 897 AD. At the time of his incarceration, Pope Stephen VII was shamed and shunned by those who had once supported him, and stripped of his vestments.

By November 897 AD, an ally of the political faction of which Formosus had belonged, Pope Theodore II, had assumed the papacy. He sought to clear Formosus’s name in the eyes of the people and be rid of such an ugly, transparently politically motivated crime against nature. He held his own synod in which he found the rulings of the Cadaver Synod unjust and intolerable, and as such invalidated all of Pope Stephen VII’s mandates and appointments. At Theodore II’s request, the body of Formosus was exhumed for the third time, adorned in the garb of the papacy, and respectfully buried with full honors in St. Peters.

The Cadaver Synod continued to draw definitive political lines between prospective papal candidates, and was seemingly reexamined by each newly elected pope through their own synods. Pope John IX who reigned from 898 AD to 900 AD held two synods under differing factions in Ravenna and in Rome, both upholding Pope Theodore II’s findings and formally abolishing the rulings of Pope Stephen VII and his Cadaver Synod while simultaneously reaffirming Formosus’s original appointments, furthering political tension within the papacy. Pope John IX also outlawed further trials against the dead, and burned the records of the Cadaver Synod.

However, sentiment regarding the outcome of the Cadaver Synod would once again sway along party lines, as Pope Sergius III assumed the papacy in 904 AD. Pope Sergius III had actually taken part in Pope Stephen’s Cadaver Synod as a bishop, and worked furiously within his own papacy to overturn the findings of Pope Theodore II and Pope John IX. Pope Sergius III eventually succeeded, and reaffirmed his own findings in the original Cadaver Synod, which once again nullified Formosus’s appointments and ordinations. To this day, the rulings of Pope Sergius III have never been challenged, either out of loss of interest or uncertain political implications, and Pope Formosus stands accused of Perjury, Coveting the Papacy, and Violating Church Canons under the pretense that he, a dead corpse, would not provide any defense for his crimes.

The Cadaver Synod serves as a stark reminder of the capacity for barbarism in the pride and anger from those who would abuse political power for personal gain, and serves as a warning of the dangers of allowing such power to go unchecked. The findings of the Cadaver Synod continued to fragment sentiment amongst the papacy for years after its conclusion, and the reputation of said papacy was slow to recover. It is an example of the corruption of politics and government when the roles of specific individuals clash spectacularly in the realm of religion, a force that by all means should provide the people strength and serve as a compassionate, understanding morale foundations upon which individuals may find hope and protection. It is truly deplorable in times when we look to those who claim to be close to God and find them irreparably selfish, cruel, and callous. It seems, as with all things, that the title of a man’s class, religion, nationality, or political allegence means little, as it is only what is in the heart that carries weight, and it is upon this that we are judged.


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