Absurd History: The Cadaver Synod

It is the year 897 in Rome, Italy. The Pope is Stephen VII. The previous Pope, Formosus, is rather dead after a five-year reign. He is buried honorably in the St. Peter’s Basilica, dressed in vestments and undisturbed. All of this is about to change drastically. Here is the story of the Cadaver Synod – in other words, the story of the trial of a dead pope.

The Roman papacy, from a few decades after its establishment until the end of the early modern period, became associated with many nefarious words. Machiavellian. Oppressive. Totalitarian. Tyrannical. Unfriendly to new ideas and reform. But the time during which the Cadaver Synod takes place is particularly dark, even more so than the rest of the papacy’s history. Assassins killed some popes; others ordered the assassinations of their opponents. Some popes used the influence of wealthy and affluent families to get into power, sometimes even after getting ejected from religious orders due to immorality. Still others died in prison, strangled or mutilated. Practices like nepotism – giving valuable positions to family members and friends – and selling church offices for monetary gain began to increase. The papacy became increasingly geared towards maintaining political and economic power, whatever the cost. Historians call this dark, morally corrupt time the Iron Age of the papacy – a dismal yet apt setting for our grisly trial.

Pope Stephen VII, our new pope, is keen on maintaining his power. To do this, he needs the approval of well-off and influential families, particularly those who have established themselves as anti-Formosus (Formosus made many enemies during his lifetime, though his life was a whole different story). So what does Stephen VII do? He announces the trial of the dead Formosus, intending to disgrace the man as much as possible in his death.

He demands to dig up Formosus’ corpse, dress it up, and take it to a courtroom. A teenager is speaking on the dead pope’s behalf, attempting weakly to defend him. The judge presiding over the whole affair is Stephen VII, who is raging and hurling mockery and vicious insults at the mute corpse and the terrified teenager. The proceedings continue until Stephen VII concludes that Formosus is guilty of all three charges Stephen VII accused him of. His punishment is to lose his noble burial location and his fine clothing. Then, Stephen VII has Formosus buried unceremoniously in a dishonorable ground. Then, he annuls all of the laws and works that Formosus had enacted as pope, hoping to erase the evidence of the latter’s rule. It doesn’t work.

Misfortune falls upon Stephen VII and Formosus in the aftermath of the Cadaver Synod. The Romans revolt against Stephen VII, who later gets arrested, imprisoned, and strangled while imprisoned. Formosus, on the other hand, gets dug up and given a proper burial by the pope after Stephen VII back in St. Peter’s Basilica, then dug up again and flung into the Tiber River. Then, he gets found by a monk and given a final burial at last.

The story continues more detailedly, explaining Formosus’ accomplishments during his lifetime, the reason for his many enemies, and the other factors that led to Stephen VII ordering the Cadaver Synod. But this little snippet of the whole spectacle, small as it is, illustrates quite clearly the pervading theme of most history – that, as solemn as our history is, it too has its share of the absurd and the bizarre.

Works Cited

Wilkes, Donald E. “The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History.” Flagpole Magazine, 31 Oct. 2001, pp. 8–8. 

“Formosus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Formosus#ref132299. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Medieval Church.” World History Encyclopedia, Https://Www.Worldhistory.Org#organization, 8 Feb. 2023, www.worldhistory.org/Medieval_Church/. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.