Monday, April 5, 2021

The Death of Pope Formosus


The Death of Pope Formosus

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death, in 896, of Pope Formosus. All else being equal, this relatively obscure pope would be known only to scholars of the Carolingian age. He would, however, subsequent to his death, become rather well-known consequent to the Cadaver Synod.

Formosus was a diplomat on behalf of the Papacy. When a dispute arose as to who should be appointed Holy Roman Emperor (Charles the Bald or Louis the German), Pope John VIII sided with Charles; apparently Formosus was a partisan of Louis. This disagreement led to Formosus self-exiling himself from Rome. When told to return he did not, at which point he was stripped of his priestly office and excommunicated. The excommunication was lifted by Pope Marinus I, successor you John VIII.

Formosus would be elected to the Holy See in 891. His papacy was embroiled in disputes as to who should be the Patriarch of Constantinople and challenges to the then sitting Holy Roman Emperor Guy of Spoleto.

Formosus was succeeded by Boniface VI (Pope for some fifteen days in April of 896), who was in turn succeeded by Stephen VI. And that is where things got weird.  Stephen’s election to the Papacy was supported by Guy of Spoleto, who of course Formosus was against.  Convening the “Cadaver Synod,” Formosus was ordered exhumed from his grave and his corpse was clothed in papal vestments.  Through a deacon appointed to defend him, the deceased Formosus was called upon to defend himself against a variety of charges involving ecclesiastical authority.  When found guilty the papal vestments were torn from his body, three fingers of his right hand were amputated, his papal actions declared void ab initio, and the corpse thrown into the Tiber.  Eventually the corpse would be located and re-interred in (old) St. Peter’s Basilica. 

The public reaction was extreme; Pope Stephen VI was first imprisoned and then strangled to death.  By December of 897 a new Pope, Theodore II, annulled the Cadaver Synod.  As well the trial of a corpse was forbidden.



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