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A Trial of the Dead

A Trial of the Dead

Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne VI ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VI"), 1870

Criminal trials can inherently be a little macabre: a person’s deeds are examined and judged, their life hanging in the balance. But perhaps no trial in history was as gruesome or bizarre as Pope Formosus for one reason: he was already dead.

Formosus lived in the papal states during a period of great instability and political machinations. As a bishop he was accused by Pope John VIII of political maneuverings and attempting a coup against the papacy. He was excommunicated but was able to return to his bishophood after the pope’s death, eventually becoming pope himself in 891. He served for five fraught years before dying of a stroke.

Formosus was succeeded by Pope Boniface VI, whose reign lasted all of two weeks before he was forced from power. His successor, Pope Stephen VI, also facing an unstable political situation, attempted to solidify his rule by putting Formosus on trial in 897, dredging up past accusations of political maneuverings... except that's not all they dredged.

You see, as a part of the trial Stephen VI had ordered that Formosus' corpse be exhumed and placed on the stand. In a bizarre turn of events, they went through with it and began what became known as the "Cadaver Synod."

At the end of the trial, the rotting corpse was found guilty; it was stripped of its garments, mutilated, and reburied in unconsecrated ground, later thrown into the Tiber river.

Stephen’s gambit failed and he was quickly deposed by the public and was strangled to death in prison. The guilty cadaver, on the other hand, washed ashore and eventually was reburied, but the ordeal still didn’t end there. The next succession of popes took turns variously nullifying or upholding the ruling against him.

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