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The Cadaver Synod (also called the Cadaver Trial or, in Latin, the Synodus Horrenda) is the name commonly given to the posthumous ecclesiastical trial of Pope Formosus, held in Rome on January of 897. During the proceedings, the decomposing body of Formosus, who had been dead for nine months, was dressed in his papal vestments and seated on a throne while his successor, Pope Stephen VII, read the charges against him and conducted the trial. The Cadaver Synod is remembered as one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the medieval Roman Catholic papacy.
Formosus, who had been appointed bishop of Porto, Italy in 864, had acceeded to the papacy in 891. At the Cadaver Synod, he was accused of violating church law by serving as Bishop of Rome while he was still the bishop of a different diocese. A deacon was appointed as Formosus's counsel and instructed to answer on his behalf, but the deacon said little or nothing while Stephen shouted accusations and insults at the dead man. At the end of the synod, Formosus was declared guilty, his election as pope was declared invalid, all of his acts as pontiff were annulled, his corpse was stripped of its vestments, and the three fingers used for consecrations were hacked off. The body was then dressed in ordinary clothes and buried. Shortly thereafter it was exhumed and thrown into the River Tiber.
The true motivation for the Cadaver Synod was political. Pope Formosus was initially forced to crown Lambert, one of the sons of the Duke of Spoleto, as co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. But Formosus's loyalty was not to the ruling family of Spoleto, but rather to the East Frankish illegitimate descendants of Charlemagne. After the Franks invaded Italy in 896, Formosus withdrew his support of the Spoletans and crowned Arnulf of Carinthia as Holy Roman Emperor. Formosus was succeeded by Pope Boniface VI, who died after only two weeks as pontiff. When Stephen, a partisan of the Spoletans, became pope, Lambert induced him to convene the Cadaver Synod as a way of undermining Arnulf's claim to the throne. Since Formosus had consecrated Stephen as bishop of Anagni, the annulment of Formosus's acts also freed Stephen of the charge that he had himself illegally become bishop of Rome while serving as the head of a different diocese.
The macabre spectacle turned public opinion in Rome against Stephen. Rumors circulated that Formosus's body, after washing up on the banks of the Tiber, had begun to perform miracles. A public uprising led to Stephen being deposed and imprisoned. While in prison, in July or August of 897, he died after being strangled. Pope Theodore II, who served for 20 days in November, 897, anulled the verdict of the Cadaver Synod. Formosus's body was returned to Saint Peter's Basilica, where it was clothed again in the pontifical vestments, and interred in its own tomb. Later, Pope John IX declared unlawful any future trial of a dead person.
Pope Sergius III, another Spoletan partisan who reigned from 904 to 911, overturned the rulings of Theodore II and John IX, reaffirming Formosus's conviction, and had a laudatory epitaph inscribed on the tomb of Stephen VII. The decisions of Sergius, a murderer and a highly corrupt man, were never officially reversed, but simply disregarded.
- Then Stephen, Pope and seventh of the name,
- Cried out, in synod as he sat in state,
- While choler quivered on his brow and beard,
- ‘Come into court, Formosus, thou lost wretch,
- ‘That claimedst to be late the Pope as I!’
- And at the word, the great door of the church
- Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
- The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
- And buried duly in the Vatican
- Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
- They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
- Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
- Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.
- And Stephen, springing up, cried furiously
- ‘Bishop of Porto, wherefore didst presume
- ‘To leave that see and take this Roman see,
- ‘Exchange the lesser for the greater see,
- ‘—A thing against the canons of the Church?’
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