In a Nutshell
By the end of the ninth century A.D., the papacy was run by powerful Roman families and had many problems including corruption, murder, and immorality. Pope Formosus I, ruling from 891-896, made political enemies while in office. After his death, his successor had Formosus’ corpse exhumed and tried the dead man for supposed crimes during the Cadaver Synod or Synodus Horrenda—one of the Catholic Church’s more gruesome episodes.
The Whole Bushel
Pope Formosus’ bitterest enemy was the influential Spoleto family. The pontiff’s predecessor had crowned Guido, Duke of Spoleto, as Emperor of Rome, but Formosus refused to let the son, Lambert, succeed his father as emperor and chose to crown another candidate instead. The act earned the Spoleto’s enmity, and they plotted revenge.
The next pope, Boniface VI, ruled only 15 days before dying. Boniface was succeeded by Pope Stephen VI, who’d been elected due to the Spoleto family’s connections. Nine months after Formosus’ death, Stephen convened a synod (council) of church officials and elected three puppet judges willing to go along with the plan he and Lambert Spoleto had cooked up between them.
Formosus’ decomposing body was taken from its tomb and placed in the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. The charges were read against Formosus, then Stephen began to rant, curse, and insult the corpse, finally working himself into a terrifying, hysterical rage. The judges found Formosus guilty, of course, and all the previous pope’s acts were nullified. In addition, three of the body’s fingers were amputated—the ones used to give the benediction—and the remains were eventually flung into the Tiber River.
Stephen didn’t enjoy the papacy long. His insanity caused the people of Rome to rise against him. In 897, the unpopular pontiff lost the Spoletos’ support, was captured by a mob, and thrown into prison where he was later strangled to death.
The Cadaver Synod was immortalized as part of Robert Browning’s epic narrative poem, The Ring and the Book, and Jean-Paul Laurens painted an artistic impression of the moment in his famous 1870 work, Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII.