Cadaver Synod (897) – meaning, an unimaginable papal macabre

Cadaver synod, Jean Paul Laurens, 1860, pic. Wikipedia

Cadaver synod, Jean Paul Laurens, 1860, pic. Wikipedia

The pages of the history of the Church are full of incredible events, often shocking and arising contempt, but the one known as the Cadaver Synod (synodus horrenda) is definitely among the most preposterous ones. Its protagonists are two popes – one alive, the other quite dead. This episode also marks a certain chapter in the history of the Catholic Church, in which popes became pieces of a political game, forgetting about their authority and spiritual status. The fought like common highwaymen, for their position, properties and prestige, while the methods they used were cruel and inhumane.

Cadaver synod, Jean Paul Laurens, 1860, pic. Wikipedia
Pope Stephen VI, from Le vite dei pontifici, 1710, Bartolomeo Platina
Pope Formosus, 1588 r., Cavallieri, pic. Wikipedia
Pope Sergius III, from Le vite dei pontifici, 1710, Bartolomeo Platina

The pages of the history of the Church are full of incredible events, often shocking and arising contempt, but the one known as the Cadaver Synod (synodus horrenda) is definitely among the most preposterous ones. Its protagonists are two popes – one alive, the other quite dead. This episode also marks a certain chapter in the history of the Catholic Church, in which popes became pieces of a political game, forgetting about their authority and spiritual status. The fought like common highwaymen, for their position, properties and prestige, while the methods they used were cruel and inhumane.

 

In January 897, Pope Stephen VI, elected a few months earlier, ordered the tomb of his predecessor – Formosus to be opened, dressed the corpse in pontifical robes and had it placed on a throne. He presented the nine-month-old corpse to the bishops and lay public gathered in the Lateran Palace and began his prosecuting speech. After a three-day-long trial Formosus was dethroned and stripped of his robes. Three fingers (the ones with which he took the oath, blessed people and made the sign of the cross), were cut off, then his corpse was pulled through the Roman streets and thrown into a nameless grave. If that was not enough, after three days, it was taken out of the grave and cast into the Tiber, such that all traces of Formosus would be lost. All images of him were also destroyed, as well as all the legal acts he issued. It was also forbidden to speak his name.

We may ask, what had Formosus done to deserve such a cruel fate, what wicked deed had he committed, to be treated in a way that ridiculed all Christian values? In order to understand the reasons behind this deed, we must get to know the situation in Rome at the end of the IX century. The popes residing in the city, had already for some time been confronted with the struggles of the conflicted families and factions, happening in Italy. As was always the case, these were battles over power, lands, the crown of the king of Italy and the imperial purple. Without an army of their own, besieged by attacks from internal and external foes, the popes sought out support and military aid, while they displayed kindness to those who at a given moment seemed to be more useful to them. On the other hand those considered useless – without any regard for the papal authority immediately became the pope’s bitter enemies. The pope also had to contend with intrigues at his own court, as well as with the insubordination of the clergy surrounding him. The pontificates of each individual pope lasted quite short – the fewer protectors a successor of St. Peter had among the Roman aristocracy, the shorter his pontificate lasted (sometimes fewer than one hundered days). However, let us start at the beginning. At the end of the IX century Italy experienced a fearsome struggle over power and domination between the Margrave Berengar I of Friuli and Guy II of Spoleto. Ultimately it was the latter who triumphed, since it was he – a simple duke from a rather pedestrian territory – whom Pope Stephen V had crowned as king of Italy and placed the imperial crown upon his head. Berengar, as we can imagine, was not willing to accept this state of things, but fortunately the pope died in the very same year. His successor was the seventy-five-year-old Formosus. Initially, he confirmed both coronations of Guy, at the same time crowning his son Lambert as co-ruler and heir to all titles (in the event of the death of his father). However, the pope did not support the rulers of Spoleto, while his sympathies were rather directed towards  Berengar, but in fact a stalemate had been reached. Any kind of change would have probably resulted in resuming the fighting. When in 894 Guy died, the armies of the teenage Lambert and his mother Ageltrude entered Rome, while they themselves went to Formosus, who confirmed the tiles of the young king and emperor. However, as soon as the Spoletini had left the city, the pope had an idea, which to him seemed – perhaps – an excellent tactical maneuver, but – as it turned out, bore horrible consequences. Remembering the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor in the year 800 and the responsibilities of the Carolingians to defend the papacy, the bishop of Rome turned to the king of the Eastern Franks, Arnulf of Carinthia (the great-grandson of Charlemagne) to ask for help in defeating the “evil Christians”. Arnulf, lured with the perspective of an imperial crown, entered Rome in the year 896, occupied the properties of Lambert, freed the pope who had been in hiding, and allowed himself to be crowned as emperor. Of course, the pope had already previously dethroned Lambert. However, Formosus’s act was unacceptable not only to his enemies. The proud Romans were not pleased with this “support” of the pope, they did not like a stranger walking around in the city with his armies. In addition the newly crowned emperor Arnulf was unable to deal with the enemies of the pope, since he became paralyzed and returned to Germany (he died in the year 899).  In this way Formosus was suddenly left alone, without any protectors and guardians, but luckily for him he died in the very same year. His successor Boniface VI died under mysterious circumstances two weeks after his enthronement and then Pope Stephen VI appeared, a supporter of the Spoletini. Their armies once again entered the city. They were led by the dethroned emperor Lambert (now seventeen years old) and his mother Ageltrude. We can only imagine, how in the chambers of the Lateran Palace, after an exquisite dinner, with wineglasses in hand, they thought of a way to bring back the old order and put an end to this rather difficult predicament in which all three had found themselves. Lambert was a dethroned emperor, Ageltrude the mother of the ex-emperor, while Arnulf the legal emperor anointed by the head of the Church, was paralyzed in the far North. In addition the selection of Stephen as pope, just as previously the election of Formosus could arise some legal doubts. Apparently all three could think of nothing better than doing something preposterous, but quite logical from the legal point of view. In times when violence was the obvious way of solving a problem, their plan probably seemed to them neither macabre nor morally reprehensible.

During the trial described above, the prosecutor, meaning Pope Stephen VI himself, accused his predecessor of usurping his post and breaking the bishop’s oath. According to tradition, but also according to cannon law, receiving a bishop’s ring was a symbol of an unbreakable bond of the bishop with his bishopric. Therefore, it could not be changed at one’s whim, and if it did happen, it was only in exceptional cases. Therefore, Formosus as the bishop of Porto could not have become the bishop of Rome. Finding him guilty and annulling all his decrees and appointments, both the coronation of Arnulf of Carinthia as emperor and the ordination of Stephen as the bishop of Anagni were deemed invalid. This was done since Stephen himself was also a usurper according to the law. If that was not enough Stephen VI ordered all clergy who were ordained by Formosus to submit a written statement, in which they recognized their ordination as invalid. It should therefore, come as no surprise that the amount of the enemies the new pope made grew daily, while Rome was divided between his supporters and the sympathizers of the former Pope Formosus, who was more and more often seen as a martyr. When in the very same summer, due to an earthquake the dome of the Lateran Basilica  - the most important at that time papal church – collapsed, the Roman populace saw it as a sign of God. An anti-pope rebellion broke out, which ended with Stephen VI being imprisoned and then strangled. This act however, did not silence the conflicts and intrigues at the papal court. When St. Peter’s throne was once again occupied by a supporter of the anti-Formosus faction, Sergius III (904), he ordered Formosus’s corpse to be once again taken out of its tomb, accused it once again and as before it was thrown into the Tiber.

Both – Stephen VI, and Sergius III afterwards – in the name of the law sentenced their adversary. Here, we can see a glimpse of an ancient Roman tradition, in the same way as the memory of inconvenient emperors was erased – damnatio memoriae. However, the Romans (pagans) practiced this tradition in the symbolic dimension (destruction of statues, removal of names) and that was sufficient, while the popes between the IX and X centuries were only satisfied after the body of their rival was posthumously desecrated.

How then can we come to an understanding of this difficult to fathom and going against all Christian values vendetta? Cases of annulling the decision of one pope by another were by no means rare, as were cases of ascension to St. Peter’s throne by a bishop of another diocese. The emperor could be dethroned without annulling a decree which appointed him. So where did this limitless hatred come from? We will probably never find out, since it is hidden in the difficult to recognize and understand places of the human soul.