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The Cadaver Synod: The Most Bizarre Christian Trial in History

The Cadaver Synod remains one of the most bizarre incidents in history that left historians baffled
The Cadaver Synod remains one of the most bizarre incidents in history that left historians baffled

Ah, the Cadaver Synod, a tale so bizarre it could give even the most imaginative storytellers a run for their money. This macabre spectacle, which once gripped the public’s morbid fascination, ultimately became the undoing of Pope Stephen VI. It was the year of our lord 897, and the folks of Rome were about to witness a peculiar and almost comical spectacle within the hallowed halls of the Vatican.

Pope Formosus, having long departed the realm of the living, found himself an unwitting participant in an unprecedented legal proceeding. The orchestrator of this macabre theater was Pope Stephen VI, who, driven by an inexplicable impulse, sought to subject the lifeless remains of his predecessor to the scrutiny of the judicial system.

With meticulous care, the body of Pope Formosus was exhumed from its resting place, meticulously attired in the sacred vestments of ecclesiastical authority, and seated upon the venerable papal throne. An unsuspecting deacon was called upon to serve as the voice of the departed, a role that carried with it the surreal task of defending a silent, immobile corpse.

As the trial unfolded, Pope Stephen VI launched a volley of accusations and grievances at the impassive Formosus in a display of ecclesiastical absurdity. Yet, the accused remained stoically mute, true to his status as a lifeless relic of a bygone era.

In the eloquent words of the historian George Ives, “The aged cadaver, akin to a grotesque marionette, might sway and bend under the ministrations of attendants, or crumble into a haunting tableau if left unattended, yet it uttered no words of defense. The deacon, too, treading carefully in the shadows of sepulchral silence, ventured to advocate for this posthumous defendant.”

The Cadaver Synod: Good Ol’ Madness

Amidst the tumultuous proceedings of the trial, as Pope Stephen VI went on with his audacious rant, a divine intervention unfolded in the form of an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of the room. In the grand tapestry of historical embellishments, later commentators saw this seismic disturbance as nothing less than a celestial pronouncement, a resounding message from the Almighty to stop.

According to the fanciful narratives that followed, the very stones that constituted the chamber, repulsed by the grotesque spectacle unfolding before them, seemed to find their voices. They resorted to a cacophonous dialogue by knocking against each other, a symphony of stone, as if to proclaim their vehement objection.

However, resolute and unmoved by the tumultuous turmoil, Pope Stephen VI pressed on with his case. The verdict was cast, and the deceased Pope Formosus was declared guilty of usurping the papacy. With the weight of papal authority, Stephen VI rendered a sweeping and ruthless judgment, deeming all the acts and decrees of Formosus during his time as pope null and void. Consecrations, appointments, and ordinations were undone, casting a shadow over Formosus’ legacy.

Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne VI Pope Formosus and Stephen VI, 1870

Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne VI Pope Formosus and Stephen VI, 1870

The indignity didn’t end there. The once-resplendent body of Formosus, stripped of its opulent attire, was now draped in tattered rags. In a final, symbolic act of condemnation, three of his benediction-bestowing fingers, the very instruments of divine grace in life, were severed.

As if to rid themselves of this blemished presence, Formosus’ remains were cast into the unforgiving waters of the Tiber River, consigning him to a watery, ignominious fate.

Yet, Stephen VI’s fleeting triumph proved ephemeral. In the capricious currents of fate, within mere months, he faced imprisonment and met a grim end, succumbing to strangulation. His reign, marked by audacity and excess, was but a brief and tumultuous chapter in the annals of papal history, lasting barely over a year.

The Real Reasons for the Cadaver Synod of 897

In the whimsical and ever-evolving tale of the Cadaver Synod, the plot has taken more twists and turns than a labyrinthine Vatican corridor.

It’s also a delightful historical footnote that Lambert’s father, Guy III of Spoleto, had previously received the coveted papal crown from Pope John VIII. Talk about a papal family affair!

Now, rewind to the centuries leading up to the roaring twenties of the twentieth century. You’d find a prevailing narrative as straightforward as an arrow’s flight path: Pope Formosus, it was believed, was the Carolingian fan club president, and his act of bestowing the imperial title upon Lambert in 892 was considered a classic case of arm-twisting.

With the untimely demise of Arnulf and the subsequent unraveling of Carolingian influence in the Roman arena, Lambert saw his moment in the sun. His grand plan, it seemed, was a two-pronged attack: first, to give his imperial claim a much-needed spit and polish, and second, perhaps, to settle an age-old score with Formosus from beyond the grave.

Revenge, it appeared, was a dish best served posthumously.

A representation of the Cadaver Synod. Photo credits by History Skills

A representation of the Cadaver Synod. Photo credits by History Skills

But hold on to your cardinal hats because the plot thickens, and a pivotal twist arrives from Joseph Duhr’s groundbreaking work in 1932. Duhr, in his scholarly sleuthing, unearthed a gem of evidence that would make any historian’s heart skip a beat.

It turns out that Lambert, the central character in this papal soap opera, wasn’t just a silent observer. No, sir! He played an active role in the Ravenna Council of 898, a gathering that fell under the jurisdiction of Pope John IX.

What happened at this council, you ask? Well, brace yourself for the pièce de résistance: the annulment of the Cadaver Synod’s verdicts! The decrees and judgments that had cast a shadow over Formosus were officially given the boot. But here’s the kicker – Lambert didn’t just stand by with folded arms; he wholeheartedly endorsed this act of historical revisionism.

Talk about some PR Damage control.

What sets Duhr’s findings apart is the treasure trove of documented acts from the council, a meticulous record that leaves no room for doubt. With his stamp of approval, Lambert hit the “undo” button on the Cadaver Synod’s conclusions, rewriting history in a way that would have even the most astute Vatican conspiracy theorists scratching their heads.

Later Incidents after the Cadaver Synod

As history continued its topsy-turvy dance, Stephen’s successor, the somewhat short-lived Romanus, managed to keep the papal seat warm for a mere ninety-two days – a papacy so brief, it could be mistaken for a Roman holiday.

Following this comically swift papal turnover, Theodore II stepped into the spotlight, only to discover that the papal tiara was more like a hot potato. He held it for under three weeks, barely enough time to perfect his papal wave and pick out a suitable set of robes.

Meanwhile, the curious fate of Formosus took a twist that could rival the most absurd fisherman’s tales. It turned out that Formosus, the pope unceremoniously dumped into the Tiber River, had a posthumous adventure.

A crafty fisherman, casting his net in the river’s murky waters, managed to hook the former pontiff’s remains. With a mixture of astonishment and reverence, Formosus was transported back to the hallowed confines of St. Peter’s Basilica.

A contemporary chronicler, Liudprand of Cremona, couldn’t resist sharing the quirky details of this peculiar resurrection, noting that as Formosus was placed back into his tomb, certain saintly images couldn’t help but offer their salutations, as if in an ecclesiastical homecoming.

As for Stephen VI’s decision to toss his rival into the Tiber, it seems he was merely participating in a time-honored Roman tradition. The Tiber River had long served as a watery refuge for Rome’s most infamous miscreants.

It was the original “River Styx” for political foes and early Christian martyrs alike, the go-to escape route for emperors’ pesky rivals, and even, according to some imaginative legends, the final stop on Pontius Pilate’s ill-fated journey. For millennia, the Tiber was the place to dispatch anyone you wanted to erase from existence – from life, society, and, quite literally, from memory.

It seems even popes couldn’t resist the allure of this ancient aquatic disposal service.

How the Public Reacted to the Cadaver Synod

As if scripted by a playwright with a taste for the absurd, Formosus’ body, the star of the show, had a surprise encore on the banks of the Tiber. Rumor had it that this erstwhile pope’s remains had taken up the miraculous trade, performing feats that would make even the most skeptical Roman arch an eyebrow.

Fueled by public outrage and disbelief, the people of Rome staged a revolt that toppled Stephen from his papal pedestal. He found himself on the wrong side of the prison bars, where his tumultuous reign came to a fittingly grim end through strangulation in the heat of July or August 897. None one really took down notes.

But as history often unfolds in a series of dramatic reversals, December 897 saw the rise of Pope Theodore II. This new pontiff convened a synod with all the zeal of a papal reformer, sweeping away the dark cloud cast by the Cadaver Synod.

The verdict was clear: the Cadaver Synod’s decrees were null and void, Formosus was officially rehabilitated, and his body, retrieved from the watery grasp of the Tiber, was to be laid to rest once again in the hallowed halls of Saint Peter’s Basilica. This time, he would rest in peace, adorned in the vestments befitting a pope.

The list of popes buried in Saint Peter's Basilica includes the recovered body of Pope Formosus.

The list of popes buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica includes the recovered body of Pope Formosus.

But wait, the plot thickens yet again! The following year, John IX made his papal debut, determined to ensure the Cadaver Synod’s ghost was well and truly banished. He convened not one but two synods – one in Rome and another in Ravenna – both echoing the findings of Theodore II’s synod.

They ordered the destruction of all records related to the Cadaver Synod and dropped the hammer on seven cardinals who had been complicit in the macabre affair. And to ensure nobody would ever consider putting a corpse on trial again, they also slammed the gavel down on that possibility.

But, as the saying goes, history repeats itself, and it did so with a vengeance under Pope Sergius III. This papal sequel had a twist that no one saw coming. Sergius, who had played a co-judge in the original Cadaver Synod, decided to hit rewind on Theodore II and John IX’s decisions.

Formosus, once again, found himself on the wrong side of the papal verdict, and Stephen VI received a laudatory epitaph on his tomb, a testament to the quirkiness of papal politics and the unpredictable nature of history itself.

That was, until Duhr released him, centuries later.


Next, read about Edmund Kemper, the Horror of California, and then, about the Premonition that Sugar Ray Robinson had about Jimmy Doyle

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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