One thousand one hundred and four years ago a criminal trial took place in Italy,
a trial so macabre, so gruesome, so frightful that it easily qualifies as the strangest
and most terrible trial in human history.
At this trial, called the Cadaver Synod or Synod Horrenda in Latin, a dead pope wrenched
from the grave was brought into a Rome courtroom, tried in the presence of a successor
pope, found guilty, and then, in the words of Horace K. Mann's The Lives of the Popes
in the Early Middle Ages (1925), "subjected to the most barbarous violence."
For the past several centuries the papacy has enjoyed enormous respect in every quarter
of the globe, partly because most 19th and 20th century popes have stood for and
publicly defended basic principles of liberty, justice and humanity in a tumultuous
world often beset by war and revolution, and partly because with a few exceptions
these popes have been extraordinarily admirable human beings. Pope John XXIII, for
example, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, is one of the most beloved men of all time,
and the present pope, John Paul II, whose pontificate began in 1978, is not only
the most admired man in the world, but also one of the greatest figures of the 20th
In earlier times, however, things were sometimes quite different. Eleven hundred
years ago the papacy was going through an era which, John Farrow tells us in his
Pageant of the Popes (1942), "shroud[ed] the papacy with gloom and shame."
The period from around the middle of the 9th century to around the middle of the
10th century is often referred to as the Iron Age of the Papacy. This period, according
to Richard P. McBrien's Lives of the Popes (1997), "was marred by papal corruption
(including the buying and selling of church offices, nepotism, lavish lifestyles,
concubinage, brutality, even murder) and the domination of the papacy by German kings
and by powerful Roman families."
During that Iron Age the Chair of St. Peter became the prize of tyrants and brigands
and a throne fouled by fierce tides of crime and licentiousness. The papacy became
the possession of great Roman families, a ticket to local dominance for which men
were prepared to rape, murder, and steal.
Candidates the most worthless and unfit were forcibly intruded into the Chair of
St. Peter. All real power in Rome was at this time in the hands of the great families
who, through their connection with the local militia, had become practically a feudal
aristocracy. These families were all jealous of one another, and were perpetually
fighting for supremacy. The one aim of each party, pursued by every resource of violence
and intrigue, was to get control of the Chair of St. Peter. Its occupant must be
one of theirs at all costs.
During the Iron Age of the Papacy, pope succeeded pope with bewildering rapidity.
In the 94 years from 872 through 965 there were 24 popes; and during the nine years
between 896 and 904 there were no less than nine popes. (By contrast, there was a
total of only nine popes in the entire 20th century, and one of them, John Paul I,
reigned only 33 days.) In the Iron Age of the Papacy, the powerful families that
dominated Rome not only arranged to have their supporters elected pope, but also
had pontiffs deposed, and killed to advance their political ambitions, or as vengeance
for some action taken by the pope that offended them or inconvenienced some plan
As a consequence, of those 24 popes who held office from 872 to 965, seven—nearly
one-third-died violently or under suspicious circumstances. Five popes were assassinated
in office, or deposed and then murdered. John VIII, the first pope to be assassinated,
was poisoned by his entourage; when the poison did not act quickly enough, his skull
was crushed by blows from a hammer. Both Stephen VII and Leo V were deposed, imprisoned,
and strangled. John X was deposed, imprisoned, and suffocated by being smothered
with a pillow. Stephen IX was imprisoned, horribly mutilated by having his eyes,
nose, lips, tongue and hands removed, and died of his injuries. Two other popes died
in circumstances strongly indicative of foul play: Hadrian III was rumored to have
been poisoned, and John XII, the sources tell us, either died of a stroke suffered
while in bed with a married woman or was beaten to death by the woman's outraged
The Iron Age of the Papacy produced a number of unfortunate "firsts" for the papacy.
As noted above, the first papal assassination took place when John VIII was murdered;
this was on Dec. 16, 882. In 896 Boniface VI became the first (and only) person to
be elected pope after having previously been twice degraded from holy orders for
immorality. In 904 Sergius III became the first (and only) pope to order the murder
of another pope; pursuant to his order, Leo V, who previously had been deposed, was
strangled in prison. In 931 John XI became the first (and only) illegitimate son
of a pope to be elected pope; his father was Sergius III. In 955 John XII became
the first (and only) teenager to be elected pope; he was 18 at the time.
It is only against the backdrop of this dark century in the history of the papacy
that it is possible to make sense of the Synod Horrenda. If the Iron Age of the Papacy
was the lowest period in the history of the papacy, then without question the Cadaver
Synod was not only the lowest point in that Iron Age, but also the lowest point ever.
The Cadaver Synod occurred sometime in January 897 in the Church of St. John Lateran,
the pope's official church in his capacity as Bishop of Rome. The defendant on trial
was Formosus, an elderly pope who after a reign of five years had died April 4, 896
and been buried in St. Peter's Basilica. (Formosus means "good-looking" in Latin.)
The trial of Formosus was ordered by the reigning pontiff, Stephen VII, who had been
prodded into issuing the order by a powerful Roman family dynasty and other anti-Formosus
political factions, and who apparently also was personally motivated by a near-hysterical
hatred of Formosus. Although Formosus had been a man of exceptional intelligence,
ability, and even sanctity, he had made some bitter political enemies, including
one of his successors, Stephen VII.
No trial transcript of the Cadaver Synod exists. Nonetheless, it is reasonably clear
what happened. Sitting on a throne, Stephen VII personally presided over the proceeding.
Also present as co-judges were a number of Roman clergy who were there under compulsion
and out of fear. The trial began when the disinterred corpse of Formosus was carried
into the courtroom. On Stephen VII's orders the putrescent corpse, which had been
lying in its tomb for seven months, had been dressed in full pontifical vestments.
The dead body was then propped up in a chair behind which stood a teenage deacon,
quaking with fear, whose unenviable responsibility was to defend Formosus by speaking
in his behalf. The presiding judge, Stephen VII, then read the three charges. Formosus
was accused of (1) perjury, (2) coveting the papacy, and (3) violating church canons
when he was elected pope.
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. When the grotesque
farce concluded, Formosus was convicted on all counts by the court. The sentence
imposed by Stephen VII was that all Formosus's acts and ordinations as pope be invalidated,
that the three fingers of Formosus's right hand used to give papal blessings be hacked
off, and that the body be stripped of its papal vestments, clad in the cheap garments
of a lay person, and buried in a common grave. The sentence was rigorously executed.
The body was shortly exhumed and thrown into the Tiber, but some monks pulled it
out of the river and re-buried it in secret.
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.
The Synod Horrenda was the cause of Stephen VII's prompt and precipitous downfall.
The appalling trial and the savage mistreatment of Formosus's corpse provoked so
much anger and outrage in Rome that within a few months there was a palace revolution
and Stephen VII was deposed, stripped of his gorgeous pope's clothing and required
to dress as a monk, imprisoned, and, some time in August 897, strangled.
Three months later another pope, Theodore II, whose pontificate lasted only 20 days,
all in the month of November 897, held a synod which annulled the Cadaver Synod and
fully rehabilitated Formosus. Theodore II also ordered that the body of Formosus
be reverentially reburied. Therefore, according to Joseph S. Brusher's Popes Through
the Ages (1980), the corpse was "brought back to [St. Peter's Basilica] in solemn
procession. Once more clothed in the pontifical vestments, the body was placed before
the Confession [the part of the high altar in which sacred relics were placed] of
St. Peter's. There, in the presence of Pope Theodore II, a Mass was said for the
soul of Formosus, and his poor battered body was restored to its own tomb."
The next pope, John IX, whose pontificate lasted from 898 to 900, also nullified
the Cadaver Synod. At two synods convened by John IX, one in Rome, the other in Ravenna,
the pronouncements of Theodore II's synod were confirmed, and any future trial of
a dead person was prohibited.
Incredibly, however, this was not the end of disputes about the legality of the Cadaver
Sergius III, who was pope from 904 to 911, reversed the decisions of the synods of
Theodore II and John IX by convening a synod which quashed their invalidations of
the Cadaver Synod and reaffirmed Formosus's conviction and sentence. Sergius III
even went so far as to place an epitaph on the tomb of Stephen VII which lauded that
evident madman and heaped scorn on Formosus. Sergius III was a violent hater of Formosus
and had been elected pope by an anti-Formosan faction. In fact, Sergius III, while
a bishop, had actually taken part in the Cadaver Synod where he was one of the clergy
coerced into serving as co-judges with Stephen VII. Sergius III, it will be recalled,
was also the only pope to order the murder of another pope, and also the only pope
to father an illegitimate son who became a pope. It is no wonder, therefore, that
historians such as Farrow describe the pontificate of the murderer Sergius III as
"dismal and disgraceful."
Although the decrees of Sergius III's synod marked the last formal pronouncement
by the Roman Catholic Church on the lawfulness of the Cadaver Synod today there is
a nearly unanimous consensus among scholars and theologians, both within and outside
the Church, that the Cadaver Synod was an illegal monstrosity and that Formosus stands
entirely vindicated, cleared of all the charges against him. On the other hand, it
is hardly surprising that there has never been a Pope Formosus II, although Cardinal
Pietro Barbo had to be dissuaded from taking the name in 1464. He took the name Paul