The history of the papacy has many twists and turns, but probably the strangest is the Cadaver Synod or Synodus Horrenda as it was called in Latin. It was ushered in one of the Era of the Bad Popes, one of the most corrupt periods in the history of the papacy. It is seriously called by historians the pornocracy. Seriously.
How did this start? The empire Charlemagne had cobbled together was falling apart. Minor kingdoms were breaking off and the Italian peninsula descended into anarchy. Different groups were demanding protection money from Rome, which was still recovering from the sack by the Saracens in 846. Each kingdom wanting a piece of Rome’s treasure backed factions which all had their own candidates for the papacy. The aspiring churchmen needed the backing of secular power to make it to the throne of St. Peter.
So it begins under the reign of Pope John VIII and Formosus was bishop of Porto, a suburb of Rome. Formosus had been instrumental in converting the Bulgars to Catholicism and generally had a good reputation. This aroused the jealousy of the Pope, who charged Formosus with trying to be bishop of more than one place at a time as well as openly aspiring to the papacy. With all the factions about, these were newly passed laws to keep bishops from building a power base. These charges were not enough, and Pope John decided to excommunicate Bishop Formosus. This was a big deal in the medieval times as someone who was excommunicated was barred from the sacraments of the Church and if they died under its pronouncement they went straight to hell.
Pope John did not go on to a good end as he was the first pope to be killed by his own people. In a comedy of errors, he was poisoned, but the poison was taking too long and his murderer got impatient. Finally, he just cut to the chase and bashed John’s head in with a hammer. So much for subtlety. Pope John’s successor, Marius I, reinstated Formosus and everything seemed grand.
After two more popes in quick succession, in 891 Formosus was elected to the throne of St. Peter. He reigned for five years then died of stroke, and that would seem to be that. Except as is usually with these stories, it wasn’t. Enter Pope Stephen VI. There was one pope between them, but he only lasted 15 days before he died of gout or poisoning. No one is sure which.
Pope Stephen took the unorthodox step of digging up his predecessor, after he had been buried for nine months, and putting him on formal trial for allegedly accepting the papal office while still bishop of another diocese. These were the old charges levied against him by Pope John VIII, and he had been cleared by John’s successor, but that didn’t matter to Stephen. The corpse was dug up, dressed in his papal vestments, and seated on a throne, and propped up in a chair at San Giovanni Laterano. Ironically, the name “Formosus” means good looking, and by now Formosus was definitely not. His half decayed corpse was a disgusting sight. Formosus had been assigned a deacon to defend him, but the man not being an idiot stayed quiet. Pope Stephen screamed accusations at the corpse, and not surprisingly he was found guilty. At one point during the trial, and earthquake shook the basilica and it was taken as a bad omen. However, even despite this, no one wanted to go against Pope Stephen. They didn’t want to be the defendant in another corpse trial. In punishment, the three fingers used for blessing were chopped off Formosus’ hand and the body was thrown in the Tiber River.
Why did Stephen go to so much trouble to punish a corpse? Some historians theorize it was to shore up relations with a faction who hated Formosus. Others theorize it was a ruse since Stephen was guilty of the same crimes Formosus was accused of. He could have just been crazy. Or possibly it was all three. What we do know is this ushered in an age of corruption that is unparalleled in the history of the papacy.
Sources available on request