The Cadaver Synod

(This post is an excerpt from page 131 of “Veni, Vidi, Didici: I came, I saw, I learned.”  It’s my new book that takes all things Hemlock Scholar related and more and compiles them into a complete and intriguing text.  Available on Kindle at , and soon to be available in print.)

In 876 CE, Bishop Formosus was excommunicated and put on trial by Pope John VIII for a host of reasons.  Shortly after the assassination of Pope John VIII,[1] the charges against Formosus were dropped and he was reinstated as the Bishop of Porto.  When Pope Stephen V died in 891, Formosus took power as the next Pope, crowning the emperor of Rome before dying in 896.[2]  One year later, in 897, Formosus’ successor and former political rival Pope Stephen VI decided to stick it to the ex-pope one last time.[3]

In this painted depiction of the Synod by Jean Paul Laurens, you can see that the pope is very dead and very on trial.

Pope Stephen had Formosus’ body dug up out of the sepulcher that he was in, jammed the corpse on the papal throne and began a trial to accuse the dead man of having transferred between episcopal sees illegally.[4]  Stephen attempted to erase the image and memory of Formosus from the world, declaring the corpse guilty; he had Formosus’ fingers of blessing sliced off his right hand, all ordinations that Formosus had done were rescinded, and Formosus was stripped of his pope robes and put in commoner’s clothes. The Synod was the first instance of a pope judging a pope, in part destroying the formerly held belief that a pope was held above all others and could not be judged by anyone, king or pauper.  In a way, the trial said to the world that a pope had the power to reckon a pope.  Formosus’ body was hurled into the river, but pulled out at some point.  A few months later, an insurrection of angry Roman peasants deposed Stephen VI, and he was thrown in prison where he was later strangled.

Formosus’ body was pulled out of the ground another time under Pope Theodore II, at which point Formosus was forgiven for Stephen’s indiscretions.  He was redressed in pope clothes, had a communion wafer popped into his mouth, and buried with the other popes again.  People sang hymns and Psalms as the body was returned to its original resting place, bringing a curious chapter of Church history to a close.[5]

The story of the Cadaver Synod leads in to an entirely different question: what rights do the dead have?  Even in the modern sense, a corpse is curiously adrift legally in that nobody technically owns a body.  To state it in a different way, a corpse has roughly as much agency as a doorknob, and yet a body is not considered to be a piece of property that is protected by the same legal regulations and rules that a doorknob would be subject to.  Somehow, humankind more or less universally declared that a body deserves to be peacefully put to rest.  Everyone from Vikings to Aztecs had elaborate burial rituals that accorded a great deal of respect and power to the dead (in Viking burial rituals, the dead oftentimes had more rights than slaves did, which encouraged slave women to volunteer as sacrificial tribute at funerals).
A recent court trial in France found that a family’s keeping the body of an elderly member in the basement fridge was illegal because, “What kind of peaceful resting place can a fridge be, when you can just go downstairs and take a peek any time you want?”  Essentially claiming that the dead require a right to privacy; but the dead have never banded together to express their rights.  Some articles say that the belief that the dead have a right to their bodies (really brings a new meaning to habeas corpus) comes from 1600s British beliefs that the soul had a legal right to reclaim its body when Resurrection day happened.


Nicholas Peasley, Veni, Vidi, Didici: I came, I saw, I learned. (Amazon Direct publishing, 2016), 131-132.


[1] He was supposedly poisoned by his family and then beaned behind the head with a hammer.

[2] Formosus’ successor was technically a guy named Boniface, but Boniface had a flaring of gout and died two weeks later.  Without Boniface, the next pope was one of  Formosus’ worst enemies.

[3] Oxford Dictionary of Popes calls the reason for Stephen VI’s rage a “near-hysterical hatred of Formosus.”

[4] One priest had to represent Formosus’ corpse and speak on his behalf

[5] Moore, Michael Edward. “The Body of Pope Formosus.” Millennium 9 (2012): 277-297.


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