The Truth About The Trial Of Pope Formosus's Corpse

History has seen some pretty obscene popes. In fact, the Catholic Church saw a 60-year period of pontiffs so profane that it came to be known as the "pornocracy." As recounted in The Book of Firsts, that era of murder, raunchiness, and debauchery kicked off with the egregious Sergius III, who donned the pontiff's hat in 904. Sergius had his papal predecessor strangled behind bars, and took the 15-year-old daughter of a senator as his mistress. The pornocracy reached its climax with the ascension of Pope John XII, a dude so dirty that he supposedly turned a palace into a brothel and might have died while bedding another man's wife.

This age of barefaced and often bare-butted corruption was rooted in an outrageous trial that took place in 897. Marking one of the darker chapters of the Dark Ages, the decomposing corpse of Pope Formosus got dug up, prosecuted, and rather elaborately punished for supposed crimes in what was dubbed the Cadaver Synod or Synodus Horrenda, according to Atlas Obscura

How on Earth did such a horror show trial come about?

The defense rests in peace

You know that something has gone gravely wrong in your society when people force a corpse to stand trial. Atlas Obscura observes that, at the time, society was decaying almost as much as Pope Formosus. The sprawling empire that Charlemagne consolidated — one which covered much of Western Europe, according to History — was now in tatters. The ruthless pursuit of papal power had fomented turmoil in the Catholic Church. For a time, Formosus was seen as one of those unscrupulous pursuers, and during his days as a bishop, Formosus had amassed a lot of influence while spreading Christianity. He also might have violated a law barring bishops from controlling more than one locale at a time, and so, the incumbent Pope John VIII excommunicated him. But when John was poisoned and bludgeoned to death, his grip on power was pried from his cold dead hands. 

John's successor re-appointed Formosus as bishop. After a string of papal departures, including a second assassination, Formusus found himself in the hot seat of the Holy See in 891, which he kept until dying of a stroke in 896. 

The following year, Pope Stephen VI decided to relitigate his expired predecessor's excommunication. Formosus's rotting body, dressed in papal robes, was placed on a chair at San Giovanni Laterano, where Stephen proceeded to scream at it. The defenseless cadaver was convicted, the three fingers he used for blessing were lopped off, and he was ultimately tossed into the Tiber River.