A Revenge Spectacle.

“Pope Formosus and Stephen VII” – Jean-Paul Laurens’ depiction of the Cadaver Synod in 1870.

Revenge, it’s a popular topic in literature. Personally, I have no use for it, I tend towards the “the best revenge is living well” side of things. I don’t much care for giving nasty people rent free space in my head, so I don’t concern myself with them. Pettiness can eat you alive if you let it. All that said, one of the most spectacular incidences involving revenge was the Cadaver Synod in 897. There were various reasons for this spectacle, the most likely being politics, what else?

“And thereafter Stephan put Pope Formosus out of his tomb, and placed him in the Apostolic throne, and a deacon was delegated to answer for him, and his apostolic vestment was stripped off, and dragged across the basilica; and blood was flowing from his mouth, and he was thrown into the river.” ~ the Annales Alamannici describing the events in Rome for the year 897.


On April 4, 896, Formosus died and was buried in a Roman church. His immediate successor was Boniface VI, but he only last 15 days on the Papal throne before dying of gout. He would be replaced by Stephen VI, a longtime rival of Formosus.

As this was happening, Emperor Arnulf suffered a stroke and returned home north across the Alps. His health would never recover and he died on 8 December 899.

In January of 897, Pope Stephen VI ordered that the tomb of Formosus be opened up and his body exhumed. He wanted the former Pope put on trial, allegedly for supporting King Arnulf in becoming Emperor, and for coveting the Papacy years before. He was charged with breaking canon law, as well as of perjury, and of illegally serving as a bishop. Even if Formosus had been dead for several months, Stephen was eager to have his revenge on his corpse.

The decaying body was propped up onto a throne, and a trial was held with Pope Stephen acting as prosecutor. Meanwhile a young deacon was given the responsibility of defending Formosus, while a stunned audience watched the gross spectacle. According to various sources, Pope Stephen shouted at his dead predecessor, demanding he answer his charges. One chronicler, Liutprand of Cremona, noted that Stephen asked, “When you were bishop of Porto, why did you usurp the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition?”

The macabre and bizarre spectacle would soon reach its foregone conclusion – Formosus was found guilty. His body was stripped of its Papal vestments and three of his fingers were cut off from his right hand – those that he used to bless people. Finally, the body was tossed in the Tiber River, however the next day it was recovered by some monks and secretly buried in a monastery.

I can’t help but wonder if this mess actually made Stephen feel better. It’s difficult for me to imagine any satisfaction in all this, after all, Formosus was well beyond answering any charges or having any cares at all. Seems Stephen mostly wanted an excuse to desecrate a corpse, and felt this ‘trial’ justified his doing so. Of course, there was also the attempt to desecrate the memory of Formosus, but in the end, that resulted in a spectacular backfire. The most memorable thing about Stephen was his putting a corpse on trial, so I think Formosus won this one in the end.

You can read all about the surrounding political situation at Medievalists.


  1. says

    It’s quite easy to see the tiny tyrant in that role. Here’s hoping no one ever talks about it within hearing…

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    I wonder if anyone ever thought about fucking with Pope Stephen VI after that?

  3. says

    Oh, yes they did. He ascended the papacy in May of 896, and died in August 897. He died after being imprisoned, then was strangled to death, because of the whole putting a corpse on trial business.

  4. Dunc says

    I have a hard time keeping track of the theological details -- was the church still into literal bodily resurrection at this time? That would explain this sort of thing…

    Also, good excuse to drag out one of my favourite quotes from The Originals‘ Klaus Mikaelson: “Nothing says ‘I loathe you’ quite like desecrating a corpse.”

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