In 897, Pope Stephen VI held what is now known as the “Cadaver Synod.” He put Pope Formosus on trial. The catch was that Pope Formosus had been dead for about seven months. In what could (but should probably not) be described as a medieval Weekend At Bernie’s, the pope’s corpse was propped up on the papal throne throughout the interrogation.
What was the Cadaver Synod?
There’s no getting around the fact that this was a weird moment in papal history.
Pope Stephen VI even had Pope Formosus’ corpse dressed up in ecclesiastical robes for his “trial.” He hired a deacon to “speak” on the corpse’s behalf. All this is to say that Pope Stephen VI really felt like he was owning a corpse.
And if you think this all sounds crazy, consider the fact that there was an earthquake in the middle of the trial. One that the current pope was said not to notice he was so obsessed with his interrogation.
The verdict and aftermath
You’ll probably be unsurprised to know that Pope Formosus was found guilty of usurping the papcy. According to JSTOR Daily (cited below): “Stephen VI declared all his acts as pope null and void: all consecrations, all appointments, all ordinations were undone. Formosus’ body was stripped of its rich garments and dressed in rags. Three of his fingers—the fingers of the benediction, with which, in life, he had given blessings—were cut off, and his body was cast into the Tiber River.”
The living pope may have felt like a winner, but he was imprisoned and strange to death within months of the trial, having been pope only around one year.
The papacy was a particularly high-stakes position in the Middle Ages since the pope got to appoint the Holy Roman Emperor. The following pope lasted around a year and the next only roughly three weeks. But at least there were no more corpse trials.
Why did this happen?
You’re probably why Pope Stephen VI would go to so much trouble as to hold the trial of a corpse. To this we defer to JSTOR Daily:
“To understand this, you have to understand the importance of relics in the medieval era. The dead body of a holy person was more than rotting flesh; it was transformed by death into a holy relic, a source of miraculous power. These relics were the center of religious life.
As historian Lionel Rothkrug writes:
“Through their relics, saints continued to be members of the community: hearing the pleas of petitioners, responding to the needs of the people with divine intercession, and receiving their gifts of thanks. They were participants in the daily lives of the people that venerated them. In this sense, they were still alive.”
Apparently, Stephen VI wanted Pope Formosus both dead and forgotten. — WTF fun facts
Source: “The Cadaver Synod: Putting a Dead Pope on Trial” — JSTOR Daily