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There was a ghastly Trial once/Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes.
December 15, 2006 2:10 PM   Subscribe

The Cadaver Synod is a episode from Church history they don't teach you in Sunday school.
The trial began when the disinterred corpse of Formosus was carried into the courtroom. On Stephen VII's orders the putrescent corpse, which had been lying in its tomb for seven months, had been dressed in full pontifical vestments. The dead body was then propped up in a chair behind which stood a teenage deacon, quaking with fear, whose unenviable responsibility was to defend Formosus by speaking in his behalf. ... Stephen VII 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 ... The sentence imposed by Stephen VII was that all Formosus's acts and ordinations as pope be invalidated, that the three fingers of Formosus's right hand used to give papal blessings be hacked off, and that the body be stripped of its papal vestments, clad in the cheap garments of a lay person, and buried in a common grave.
Perhaps you prefer a cartoon version or the classic poetry of Robert Browning.
posted by nasreddin (31 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
You see, he was only 'mostly' dead.
posted by Gungho at 2:15 PM on December 15, 2006


He's pining for the fjords!
posted by Freen at 2:17 PM on December 15, 2006


Doesn't he get a chance to appeal the verdict?
posted by Postroad at 2:21 PM on December 15, 2006


And people wonder why the Orthodox (and I don't use that word lightly) get miffed at the continuing arrogance of the mere bishop of Rome.
posted by koeselitz at 2:22 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


Postscript:
Following the death of Stephen VI, the body was reinterred in St. Peter's. Further trials of this nature against deceased persons were banned. But Pope Sergius III (904–911) reapproved the decisions against Formosus. Sergius demanded the re-ordination of the bishops consecrated by Formosus, who in turn had meanwhile conferred orders on many other clerics, causing great confusion. Later the validity of Formosus's work was re-reinstated. The decision of Sergius has been subsequently disregarded by the Church.
posted by mazola at 2:32 PM on December 15, 2006


Jesus wept!
posted by pax digita at 2:42 PM on December 15, 2006


That is so ninth-century.
posted by gubo at 2:51 PM on December 15, 2006


Wow. Robert Browning is the enemy of poetry.
posted by padraigin at 2:51 PM on December 15, 2006


There's a nice short story about this by Egon Bondy,
not sure if it's translated in to English
posted by lw at 2:53 PM on December 15, 2006


There was a dead pope who looked ghastly
through a deacon was heard to speak lastly
I have been disinterred
for reasons absurd
and prefer my old vestments vastly
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:03 PM on December 15, 2006 [9 favorites]


The high point of course is when Stephen goes, "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass!" And now you know... ...the rest of the story.
posted by kimota at 3:10 PM on December 15, 2006


Battle Pope?
posted by The Power Nap at 3:19 PM on December 15, 2006


Remarkable. It's too bad that this isn't discussed at Sunday School... it helps to remind you of just how old the Catholic Church really is.
posted by gsteff at 3:39 PM on December 15, 2006


I wish all weird historical episodes were recounted in cartoon form.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:13 PM on December 15, 2006


Fascinating!

I'd heard a bit about the "Iron Age of the Papacy" but this particular story is new to me.
posted by chimaera at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2006


Oddly enough this wasn't mentioned in my History of Christianity class last semester. Of course we were covering the entire period from the founding of Christianity to the rise of Protestentism, so there simply wasn't enough time to cover every nifty little detail.

Excellent teacher and excellent class, BTW. No propagandizing, just actual history. As an athiest I will confess that I was surprized at how ruthlessly the teacher prevented any propagandizing or prostlitizing from taking place, it was a history course not an opportunity for various Christians to preach. Which is a slur on the teacher, he's one of the best history professors at my university and I knew it and I regret that I doubted his professionalism for a moment.

Still, that we missed the politically motivated trial of a dead pope is dissapointing.
posted by sotonohito at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2006


Cool!
posted by R. Mutt at 4:15 PM on December 15, 2006


This is why I so dearly love reading about Church history, even though I was raised Methodist and don't practice. The history of the Popes is stuff you seriously can't make up. Juicier than any Harlequin, more double-crossing than a spy novel...just great stuff all around. Saints & Sinners was a pretty readable history of the See of Peter, for those interested in more unbelievable stuff of this nature.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 4:15 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is just so much bull.
posted by hal9k at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2006


To understand the animus toward Formosus, one must trace back to the election of his predecessor, John VII. The event triggered resentment from Formosus, who had an influential presence in 9th Century Rome's aristocratic faction. [Noted in the profile of Adrian III (scroll down).] Formosus' clique proved to be a rogues' gallery, featuring the likes of George of the Aventine, Emperor Louis II and Sergius III.

Following Louis' passing, John VII sought to bring the "Formosans" in line, prompting their flight from Rome, but not before looting several of the Holy City's treasures. The Formosans were excommunicated, and were told they would stand trial if they ever returned to Rome.

When John VII was later assassinated in 862, (following a botched attempt), Formosus later returned, with the additional perk of becoming the next Pope. You can imagine how that'd stir up controversy!
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:44 PM on December 15, 2006


Good book.
posted by Flunkie at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2006


Great post! The story itself is postworthy, but the comic and the Browning (when I hear the word "culture," I reach for my Browning) elevate it to the top rank. Well done.

Robert Browning is the enemy of poetry.

Oh, come on—Browning is a wonderful poet. But all great artists have to be allowed their disastrous attempts that everybody hates; if Altman could have Quintet, Browning can have The Ring and the Book. But boy, you can sure see why the public found it incomprehensible:
“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!’
I had to read that last line three times before I was fairly sure I understood it, but I'd sure hate to have to read it aloud (-edst to is a real challenge to vocal flexibility). But come on, how often do you get laugh-out-loud lines like "I must give judgment on my own behoof"?
posted by languagehat at 5:24 PM on December 15, 2006


In fact, I think I'll start using that to preface all my comments. "I must give judgment on my own behoof. This post sucks."
posted by languagehat at 5:25 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


Look, mate--this Pope wouldn't go 'Voom!' if you put four million volts through it!!
posted by spirit72 at 5:41 PM on December 15, 2006


Oh, come on—Browning is a wonderful poet. But all great artists have to be allowed their disastrous attempts that everybody hates; if Altman could have Quintet, Browning can have The Ring and the Book. But boy, you can sure see why the public found it incomprehensible

It was always my understanding that Browning's Quintet was Sordello, not The Ring and the Book--at least, it was until Pound came along and declared it one of the greatest poems in the English language. The Ring and the Book was actually quite popular in its time, and was considered one of Browning's less incomprehensible works.

Which is not to say that I'm not going to excuse myself now to create many beautiful drawings of "breast pant big," "poor trampled worm the wife," and "the queasy river could not hold/ its swallowed Jonas, but discharged the meal." Thanks for the links, nasreddin!
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 6:16 PM on December 15, 2006


I suppose the powerful have always been nutty.

Why is it that we allow insane people to become our leaders?
posted by five fresh fish at 6:19 PM on December 15, 2006


It was always my understanding that Browning's Quintet was Sordello, not The Ring and the Book

Oops, you're right. I must give judgment on my own behoof: I suck, and so does my behoof.
posted by languagehat at 6:21 PM on December 15, 2006


No, your behoof is awesome. Good eye!
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 6:40 PM on December 15, 2006


I love this story; if I was that teenage deacon, I so would've sassed the Pope and blamed my client.
Or maybe I wouldn't.

Great post!

By the way, the newly-formed Teenage Deacons are looking for a drummer.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:05 PM on December 15, 2006


Who'd'a thunk Christendom actually needed a law against putting corpses on trial? I wonder if it actually deterred any further capers like this.

Great post, by the way.
posted by Quietgal at 10:59 AM on December 16, 2006


If you dig the heavy back-beat, this cat is available, Alvy.
posted by toma at 1:09 PM on December 16, 2006


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