In 897, the corpse of a pope was exhumed—to be put on trial.

Known as the 'Cadaver Synod,' the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus resulted from the chaos of the ninth century as factions battled for control of the church.

From the Grave

French painter Jean-Paul Laurens re-created the trial of Formosus, dressed in his papal robes and propped up to face justice.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

It must have been a shock for the poor Roman fisherman who, according to legend, pulled up the body of a dead pope from the Tiber River. Few people would ever have expected to dredge up the remains of a pontiff who, nine months after his death, was at the center of on of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the papacy: a posthumous trial of a corpse. The story of Pope Formosus and the indignities suffered by his mortal remains embodied the tangled politics of late ninth-century Europe.

A quick glance at the list of popes in that era shows that Christian concord was notably absent from Rome and the Vatican: Instead, there was chaos. Between 872 and 965, no fewer than 24 popes were coronated in Rome (between 896 and 904, there was roughly one pope appointed per year!) Occupational hazards of the papacy included being deposed, thrown in prison, or murdered. The high rate of papal turnover could be attributed to both political intrigue and government instability. (See also: Meet the man with the keys to the Vatican.)

In the late ninth century, the papacy played a central role in violent power struggles across the Italian peninsula. Openly intervening in the family feuds of Rome’s rulers, the pontiffs also played a central role in the regional struggle for supremacy. This conflict was fought, on the one hand, by the Carolingian emperors who, throughout the ninth century, emerged as protectors of the Catholic Church and lords of Italy. Their supremacy was increasingly challenged by burgeoning local dynasties such as the Dukes of Spoleto. (See also: How Martin Luther started a religious revolution.)

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