January 26, 897 The Cadaver Synod

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…his predecessor’s deceased predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

Sometime down the road, future historians will remember this month for things that none of us ever thought we’d see. Concertina wire surrounds our nation’s capitol. Soldiers fill the streets of Washington as we are left to wonder.

Did somebody put Idi Amin in charge?

With so many needs to be met by the people we put in office, we get the bizarre spectacle of an “impeachment” and removal of a private citizen, who already left. The whole procedure is so outlandish the constitutionally mandated presiding officer, declines to show up. You would think these people have nothing better to do.

Someone once said “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, knew what they were talking about.

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…the dead guy who came before his predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

According to Catholic church doctrine, the Pontifex maximus sits at the head of the church from the time of Peter, to the present day. Today, the Cardinals meet in secret conclave to elect the bishop of Rome, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century the Papacy was often as political, as any public office.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. They were chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office). It was inevitable that some would be…umm…less than pious men.

Relations between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire were particularly incestuous. First appearing on the scene in 754 after Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin III “The Short” “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans), emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were known to select Popes and Popes, emperors.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once quipped: “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

Formosus became Cardinal of Porto in 864 and representative of the Pope in Bulgaria, two years later. Many considered the man to be a candidate for the papacy, as early as 872.

That was the year, political issues caused Formosus to beat a hasty retreat from Rome.

Anyone ascending the heights of such a system was bound to have powerful allies. And powerful adversaries. The Cardinal’s enemies, pounced. Pope John VIII ordered Formosus defrocked and excommunicated.

Excommunication might seem a real career killer in his line of work but the sanction was lifted, in 878. Formosus could never return to Rome or resume his priestly functions, but that too was restored, five years later. In 891, Formosus was unanimously elected Pontiff to succeed Pope Stephen V.

Formosus served in a time of great political upheaval. There were problems with Saracens. Power struggles within the eastern church, in Constantinople. The Frankish kingdoms were in a state of upheaval and, worst of all, Formosus supported the German king Arnulf for succession to Holy Roman Emperor, over emperor Guido III of the powerful clan of Spoleto.

Pope Formosus died of natural causes on April 4, 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lived for 15 days. Some say Boniface died of gout, others that he was poisoned by supporters of his successor, Steven VI.

Even by Medieval standards, Pope Stephen VI must have been some piece of work. In January 897, Stephen had Formosus dug out of the ground, dressed in papal vestments and put on trial.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not

With the corpse propped up on a throne, the outcome was never in doubt. A church deacon attempted to speak for the defendant while Stephen himself shrieked at the corpse, rehashing the old charges of John VIII.

Unsurprisingly, the dead man was convicted. Stripped of his robes, Formosus was clad in the garb of a layman. His papacy was annulled, ordinations cancelled and the three “blessing fingers” of his right hand, hacked off.

The body was buried in a pauper’s grave but even now the revenge of Stephen VI, was unsated. The Pope ordered Formosus dug up yet again and thrown into the Tiber River.

The episode led to widespread outrage, possibly at the behest of Stephen’s enemies. The Pope was incarcerated in the Summer of 897 and strangled, while still in prison.

The cadaver synod ushered in 100 years of corruption of the Holy See known by some as the “Saeculum obscurum” – the Dark Age/Century, and by others, the “Pornocracy”.

Fast forward 39-score and one and it’s January 26, 1661. Four days from now, January 30, the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, one-time “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” would be dug up and “executed”, by decapitation. The body was hung up in chains while his head was mounted on a pike, outside Westminster hall. That thing stayed there, for 24 years. Sold and sold again, Cromwell’s head would at last go to its final rest some 299 years later. In 1960.

History rhymes, indeed.