The Time the Church Put a Pope's Corpse on Trial

Basilica of St. John Lateran, where the Cadaver Synod was held
Basilica of St. John Lateran, where the Cadaver Synod was held
iStock.com/Phooey

Plenty of odd things have been put on trial—animals, statues, a washerwoman's vat—but there's only one occasion in history that a dead body has gone before a papal court. The Cadaver Synod (Synodus Horrenda in Latin) has been called "one of the grisliest events in papal history," which, given the intrigues of the medieval church, is saying something.

The cadaver in question belonged to Pope Formosus, who suffered a series of dramatic reversals in both life and death. Born probably in Rome around 816, he was appointed bishop of the Italian city of Porto in 864 by Pope St. Nicholas I, who then sent him on a missionary expedition to Bulgaria. That went so well the King of Bulgaria wanted Formosus to lead an autonomous church there, but the request was denied by the then-current pope, John VIII, who thought Formosus was getting a little too big for his britches.

Nevertheless, Formosus remained a respected figure who played important roles in the church in France and Italy for decades—at least until he irritated John VIII enough to get excommunicated in 872. A later pope restored Formosus, and in 891 Formosus became pope himself. His five-year reign was relatively lengthy by the standards of the day, and it ended only when he died of a stroke in 896.

But in death, Formosus became famous for an even more dramatic reversal than any he had suffered in life. Yet another pope whom he'd annoyed, Stephen VI, had his nine-months-rotten corpse exhumed, dressed in papal vestments, perched on a throne, and forced to answer for his "crimes." Unsurprisingly, his answers weren't very convincing.

Pope Formosus
Pope Formosus in a 1588 portrait
Cavallieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A complete understanding of the events that precipitated the Cadaver Synod involves following the politics of the papacy, Holy Roman Emperors, and Western European aristocrats for several decades. But as Laura Jeffries distills it in Great Events in Religion, "Essentially, Formosus encountered such a fearsome posthumous reprisal because he chose the losing side in one of many struggles for political control after fall of the Carolingian dynasty in 9th century." In other words, the cadaverous pope's crimes weren't so much spiritual as political, and emerged in the chaotic period that followed the death of Charlemagne—the first Holy Roman Emperor—in 814.

There were two main issues: First, Stephen VI belonged to the house of Spoleto, a powerful Roman family Formosus had angered in 894 after asking a Frankish king, Arnulf, to invade Italy. At the time, Guido of Spoleto (also known as Guy III) was the Holy Roman Emperor, but he was seen as an aggressive ruler who had little respect for the rights and privileges of the Holy See. The invasion was a failure, but it still smarted, and the Spoleto family never forgot the challenge to their precarious authority.

The second factor, according to Elizabeth Harper at Atlas Obscura, may have actually been more important. Although he was very much dead, poor, decomposing Formosus posed a challenge to Stephen VI's legitimacy. Ironically, that was because Stephen VI could be accused of some of the same crimes Formosus was charged with. These "crimes" amounted to being a bishop in two jurisdictions at once—both in Porto and the diocese of Rome, the latter a role that comes with the papacy—as well as openly aspiring to the papacy. By Stephen VI's logic, the double bishopric, a violation of canon law, invalidated Formosus's whole papacy, including all his acts and appointments.

That invalidation was handy, since as Harper explains, "Formosus had made Stephen bishop, and Stephen had become bishop of Rome … while he still held that post. But if Formosus could be found guilty of that same crime (being a simultaneous bishop of two places), his actions would be null and Stephen wouldn't have been a bishop when he was elected pope. Stephen also might have been completely insane.”

In any event, Formosus's body was exhumed from its burial place at Saint Peter's Basilica, dressed in papal robes, and seated for trial at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There's no transcript of the trial, but Jeffries notes that by several accounts, "Stephen screamed and raved throughout the proceedings while a young deacon was forced to stand by and answer questions on behalf of the corpse." Partway through, an earthquake shook the building, presumably adding to the ominous vibe—although no one seems to have taken it as a sign to stop.

The assembled ecclesiastical authorities (whose gatherings are called a synod) found Formosus guilty on all counts. Since they couldn't kill him, he was stripped of his papal vestments and had the three fingers of his right hand that he'd used for consecration during his life severed. His body was buried in a common grave, but exhumed once again not long afterwards and thrown in the Tiber River.

However, Stephen IV suffered his own reversal, too. The outraged populace imprisoned him after the trial, and soon after that, some of Formosus's supporters strangled him to death in his cell.

Formosus's body didn't stay in the river long: Under the next few popes, it was pulled from the river, redressed in sacred robes, and reburied at St. Peter's Basilica. (It took a few popes to accomplish because they had the life expectancy of mayflies at that point.)

The period that followed was one of the most corrupt and tumultuous in the church's history, with rival factions jockeying for power and annulling one another's work if not outright killing each other. But there was one bright spot: In 898, Pope John IX wisely forbade the trial of any dead pope—or any dead person at all—in the future. Thus the Cadaver Synod would remain a unique, and uniquely terrible, event in history.

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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The Reason Prince George Always Wears Shorts

Prince George with his mother, Kate Middleton, and sister, Princess Charlotte, during a 2016 trip to Canada.
Prince George with his mother, Kate Middleton, and sister, Princess Charlotte, during a 2016 trip to Canada.
Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images

When it comes to being the royal family’s leading fashion icon, 6-year-old Prince George is arguably second only to his mother, Kate Middleton. His posh combinations of shorts and knee socks always make a splash on social media and complement his cherub-cheeked grin in a way that long pants and short socks never could.

As it turns out, Prince George’s go-to ensemble is more about tradition than sartorial innovation: Historically, dressing your young sons in shorts helped indicate you were a high-class family in England.

“Trousers are for older boys and men, whereas shorts on young boys is one of those silent class markers that we have in England,” etiquette expert William Hanson told Harper’s Bazaar. “Although times are (slowly) changing, a pair of trousers on a young boy is considered quite middle class—quite suburban. And no self-respecting aristo or royal would want to be considered suburban. Even the Duchess of Cambridge.”

These days, it’s more about maintaining tradition than highlighting class division, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are known for dressing their kids in affordable clothing. Today.com reports that a certain pair of red corduroy shorts that Prince George wore in 2016, for example, was the equivalent of only about $20.

The practice likely arose from “breeching,” a custom that began in the 16th century where boys wore gowns for a few years before switching to shorts (also known as breeches) and then pants when they were around 8 years old. So we’ll see George looking dapper in full-length trousers soon enough—he’ll turn 8 in July 2021, and he’s even worn pants in public a few times already, most notably to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

It’s far from the only fashion rule that the royal family follows—find out about 15 other ones here.

[h/t Harper’s Bazaar]

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