The Thing Speaks for Whatever

Law & Order: Zombie Pontiff Edition

In Docta K, Ninth Century, Popes of the Day, Pornocracy, This verges on the ridiculous, Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. on August 21, 2011 at 10:11 am

Welcome to Pope of the Day!

Papa Diei

a feature where we meet a Vicar of Christ, successor to Peter, and general all-around binder-and-looser and holder of the crossed keys

Today’s pope:


Executive Summary: This pope of the day will feature Carolingian politics, bananas, and THE CADAVER SYNOD (get so pumped, it really lives up to the name)

Formosus was a ninth-century pope, and as the old saying goes, “Rome in the ninth century was a complete fucking mess.”[1] Following the death of Charlemagne and the breakup of the Carolingian empire, the usual politicking in Rome among old families expanded to include constantly shifting alliances of convenience with various Frankish successor factions (pro tip: partible inheritance is for losers!).[2]

Formosus, who at this point in his early career was Bishop of Porto and a papal legate to Bulgaria, fell afoul of some of this maneuvering. His boss, Pope John VIII (AD 872-882), about whom the author of the Wikipedia entry has a big old wet dream, was actually kind of a dick. Some have speculated that John saw in Formosus a rival to the pontifical throne, while others believe that the political dissension between various Roman factions about prospective candidates for Holy Roman Emperor led to the split. Other scholars have argued – succinctly and with great rigor, and while looking pretty good, too, especially for a lady historian because let us face it, that is a low bar – that John VIII was in fact just a dick (see supra).

When historians disagree! Want the view that is molto tradizionale? Okay! Let’s ask the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Engelberga? Nope.

“In the pope’s entourage there were many who viewed with disapproval the coronation of Charles, and favoured the widowed Empress Engelberga and Louis the German [ed. note: you don’t care who these people are, really; just know that they are candidates for Holy Roman Emperor and that ‘Engelberga’ is a hilarious name].Fearing severe chastisement, these political opponents of the pope left Rome secretly to seek safety elsewhere. Cardinal Formosus was among the fugitives, as he dreaded the anger of the pope without knowing exactly whereby he had incurred the papal resentment…

On the flight of Formosus and the other papal officials, John convened a synod, 19 April, which ordered the fugitives to return to Rome. As they refused to obey this injunction, they were condemned by a second synod on 30 June. Against Formosus, should he fail to return, sentence of excommunication and deposition were pronounced by the first synod, the charges being that, impelled by ambition, he had aspired to the Archbishopric of Bulgaria and the Chair of Peter, had opposed the emperor and had deserted his diocese without papal permission. It follows from this that John saw in Formosus a rival whom he gravely suspected. The second synod of 30 June, after several new accusations had been brought against Formosus (e.g. that he had despoiled the cloisters in Rome, had performed the divine service in spite of the interdict, had conspired with certain iniquitous men and women for the destruction of the papal see), excluded him from the ranks of the clergy. Such charges, made against a man who was religious, moral, ascetic, and intellectual can only be referred to party spirit.”[3]

Formosus was condemned by the second synod, and things went from bad to worse in 878 – in that year, John himself took a field trip to France, where Formosus had fled, and the two came face to face at the synod of Troyes. John condemned him, and condemned him hard. (NB: That is how you like it.) Indeed, it appears that Formosus only escaped excommunication because he promised never to return to Rome or to exercise clerical office. Our friend Formosus chilled in (presumably) non-clerical fashion in Sens, in scenic Burgundy, until John VIII finally got over himself due to an acute case of dying in 882. His successor, Marinus (882-884), had no problem with Formosus and recalled him to Rome, calling a mulligan and reinstating him as Bishop of Porto in 883.


Right?! Fear not! Although we do pause to consider how seriously great Pope Banana I would be:

Thanks to Bezuidenthustra for this awesomeness!

Thus refreshed, and comforted by the power of Holy Potassium, we press on! And so it came to pass that Formosus was eventually elected pope after a couple more pointless will-never-be-featured-on-pope-of-the-day popes went by, and then died in 896.

HA. You did not see that coming! Surprise Pope Attack!

Here is the thing: unlike most popes, Formosus’ most interesting pontifical days came AFTER his death. Ooooh, you say, now I take back the banana comment because the suspense, she is building. And you are right. Because this is where it gets excellent.

After Formosus died, his successor was a clown named Stephen VI. He managed, in his epic and brief pontificate (May 896 – August 897) to be so egregiously batshit crazy that he is still remembered to this day for being chock full o’nuts. We don’t know a whole lot about Stephen except that he really, really hated Formosus, and that he presided over the infamous SYNOD HORRENDA, otherwise known as THE CADAVER SYNOD.

Dum dum dummm.

In January of 897, three historically-interesting things happened.

St John Lateran today, 100% not collapsed

(1) The Lateran Basilica (the home church of now-Pope Asshat Stephen VI, his Wrigley Field) fell right the fuck down. Just collapsed. Apparently it had been built rather shoddily with some blue-light-special-quality marble in a grab-bag of different weights and strengths. It probably didn’t help that anytime there was a new pope (which in the ninth century was about every two weeks) it was considered an appropriate housewarming gift to roll in and sack the place. Torches optional. Anyway, the collapse of the Lateran was what we in the biz call a BAD OMEN.

(2) The emperor and his imperial mama came to town. So since we started this incredibly long Pope of the Day, there have been a whole succession of Holy Roman Emperors (HREs, or Highnesses Ready to Eat), including the awesomely-named Charles the Fat (a true H who was eponomyously always RE). But the emperor now in question was a character called Lambert, whom historians have snidely agreed was dominated by his ‘warlike mother’ Aegeltrude. (Q: How can you not be warlike and dominating if you are named Aegeltrude? A: Exactly. It just goes that way.) Remember the politicking? Well, they had long cherished some grudges against our buddy Formosus because they were on the other / a different / a confusing and not very interesting side from him. Maybe. Or maybe they were just warlike. Tough to say. Regardless, they rolled into Rome and started putting the fear of the Holy Roman Emperor into people with threats of fire, and, of course, sword.

(3) Stephen VI responding to his own crazy and various political pressures, convened a synod in the ruined Lateran. Here’s how the meeting was described: : “The bishop…and the other priests who were there came together in the synod…it is generally known that they convened themselves out of fear, with terror and dread.“[4] Using the Power of Imagination™, we can guess that a nervous congregation of clerics huddled together in a cold and wet ruin of fallen marble does not presage anything good. Stephen VI had called the synod as a form of ninth-century group therapy; he had some Serious Issues with his predecessor Formosus, and by God, he was going to work through them.

This is where shit gets good. Stephen had the body of Formosus dug up and PUT ON TRIAL. Let’s remember that Formosus had died a good several months formerly, and even if he had been buried in a lead coffin, he would have reached that special stage of decay which is altogether fragrant, crumbly, and possessed of a great many fluids troubling to the less serene among us. Stephen ordered the corpse of Formosus to be dressed in full papal regalia and seated in front of the convened synod. One really must feel some sympathy for the lowly deacons or novices whose job it was to drape the ruins of Formosus’ mortal coil with the full glory of St Peter’s Sunday best. (This is, however, very unhistorical and may get in the way of Facts, so do endeavor not to feel sorry for them for more than a few seconds.)

Like this picture of Pope Pius XII, only corpse-ier

Stephen trotted out the old accusations from the 878 synod against Formosus – namely, that he had been deposed from his see yet still performed his duties, and that he had been transferred improperly from one see to another. Even if these accusations had all been true, they scarcely amounted to Bad Popery In The First Degree, Punishable by Digging Your Dead Ass Up And Putting It On Trial. A kid was assigned to hide behind the corpse chair and answer accusations on behalf of Formosus – yet another truly creepy and shitty job in this parade of crazy. And “crazy” really is the operative word:

“The trial was completely dominated by Stephen [VI], who overawed the assemblage with his frenzied tirades.  While the frightened clergy silently watched in horror, Stephen screamed and raved, hurling insults at and mocking the rotting corpse.  Occasionally, when the furious torrent of execrations and maledictions would die down momentarily, the deacon would stammer out a few words weakly denying the charges.  When the grotesque farce concluded, Formosus was convicted on all counts by the court.”[5]

So Stephen stood screaming at the dead man, frothing and spitting inside a ruined church, not noticing the rain or the cold or the smell or the murmurs of the clergy, who were nervously watching the spectacular collapse of a pope as unstable, broken and decayed as the Lateran Basilica around him and the body of Formosus propped in front of him.

After the ranting portion of the trial staggered to a close, Stephen ordered the body stripped of all regalia, and paraded through the streets. He had the two fingers of Formosus’ right hand hacked off (the ones that the pope uses to give the papal blessing), dressed the corpse in cheap lay clothing, and had it thrown in a common grave. Some sources indicate that the body was thrown in the Tiber River, but it is difficult to say.

(“Tiber River, Tiber River, Tiber River” – no, it isn’t.)

The madness of the Cadaver Synod was the beginning of the end for Stephen – by August of that year, he had been deposed, clapped in chains and thrown in a dungeon, and eventually strangled on account of being a crazy dangerous bastard. Which seems about right.

As for Formosus, his body was eventually recovered and reburied in the Lateran Basilica in November of 897 with full honors, masses, and apologies by the successor to Stephen, a cat named Theodore II.[6] During the last decades of the ninth century, several popes condemned the trial, and rules were put in place to prohibit any such trial of a dead person (much less the exhumation, dressing up, propping in a chair, and ranting at of same). Yet not everyone agreed that it had been such a bad thing: Pope Sergius III (904-911) had apparently been in the Stephen camp, and had served as one of the judges during the trial itself. He was pretty ridiculous – as one analysis (not scholarly, but good on the salient points) puts it:

XVII c. engraving of Sergius III, total pornocrat

XVII c. engraving of Sergius III, total pornocrat

“The new and former pope embarked on a program of governance that combined the best aspects of the first 100 days Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and the end of The Godfather. Sergius:

(1) Had his predecessor, the Antipope Christopher, strangled in prison.

(2) Had his predecessor’s predecessor, Leo V, strangled in prison.

(3) Set about impregnating a prominent Roman noblewoman with the future Pope John XI.

(4) Completed the legacy of his mentor Stephen VI by re-digging up poor old Formosus, trying his dead ass again, and beheading him.”

The other cool thing about Sergius was that apparently his reign was one in which strong women played a central role. History being what it is (and being written by who it’s written by), his reign is remembered as “the rule of the harlots” or a PORNOCRACY: among these lovely lady pornocrats were Sergius’ mistress and mother of his illegitimate son Marozia, as well as Theodora, “a shameless whore [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man.”[7] You will perhaps be interested to know that in the end, many church historians regard Sergius as a much worse pope than Stephen. After all, Stephen merely dug up a Bishop of Rome and subjected him to a trial both degenerate and macabre. Sergius (and do please lower your voice to speak of such things) took the advice of women, spent time with them, and allowed them a hand in government. Disgusting.

So in the end, the final official word of Holy Mother Church on our Pope of the Day, Formosus, was the condemnation passed by Sergius III, who upheld the findings of the Cadaver Synod. Like many eccentric bits of church history, this is not something the modern establishment stands behind – you would be hard pressed to find supporters of Sergius or Stephen these days. You would also be hard pressed to find another pope named Formosus; apparently nobody else particularly wanted to be associated with that parade of crazy. And just remember: it’s better to dig up your dead boss, put him on trial, and throw him in the river than it is to let ladies start running the Eternal City.

Life lessons! Join us next time when we’ll meet another pope of the day and explore further esoterica and gossip from the dusty annals (ha, annals) of history!

Jean-Paul Laurens, "Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII," (1870) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes

[1] Scholars totally say this. All the time.

[2] Admonitio professionalis: divisio regnorum a pretty lousy idea est.

[3] Johann Peter Kirsch, “Pope Formosus” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Emphases mine. Yeah, that’s right – there are real footnotes to this shit. Don’t hate.

[4] As quoted from Philippe Labbe, Sacrosancta concilia, in Horace K. Mann, The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, vol. IV (London, 1910), p. 80. Translation mine.

[5] Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law, “The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History,” Flagpole Magazine October 2001, p. 8.

[6] He was pope for 20 days. How awesome is that.

[7] Liutprand of Cremona, Antapodosis sive Res per Europam gestæ; ed. Pertz, in “Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script.”, III, 264-339; P.L., CXXXVI, 787- 898.

  1. That is totally insane, and possibly the best thing I’ll read today.

  2. I conspire with certain iniquitous men and women all the time. It’s called this blog.

    Also, I really, really, really love Pope of the Day. Like to an unhealthy degree.

    • From a talkback (read gchat) with the author:

      Rooks: I missed Pope of the Day!
      Docta K: it has been a long time, like maybe six years?
      Rooks: I think that is right? I missed them; I mean, it is not as awesome as Late Night Wine Pope of the Day, picked hot and fresh from the papal chart.
      Docta K: Well, little did we know the luxury of just picking a pope off the pope chart! Btw, I got a new one this time when I was in Rome, updated.
      Rooks: So you could have Benedict XVI?
      Docta K: Precisely. I also have a super creepy magnet that a friend of mine brought me; it is a hologram and it shifts between Benedict and JP2. It is CREEPY, because JP2 looks saintly and old, and Benedict looks like an evil elf.
      Rooks: WOAH.
      Docta K: It’s pretty awesome.
      Rooks: He (Benedict) really does look like the lovechild between the Cryptkeeper and a Keebler woman. You know, from her delicious cookie womb untimely ripped.
      Docta K: Agree, which makes the Birnam wood thing a lot more relevant, since apparently his MOM lives in it.
      Rooks: <3.

  3. […] precise drink recipes are frequently guarded with a proprietary zeal reserved for holy relics (if not papal remains) and babies.  Maybe that’ll change, I dunno, but with the notable exception of a […]

Whatever, yo.

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