Pope Formosus and Stephen VI – The Cadaver Synod of 897 by Jean Paul Laurens, 1870. (via Wikimedia Commons).
In 897, the Vatican saw one of the most bizarre episodes in history: The corpse of a pope was put on trial by his living successor. Pope Formosus, dead for a few months, was hardly qualified to defend himself in a court of law. Nonetheless,
Pope Stephen VI had the body disinterred, dressed in its ecclesiastical robes, and propped up on the papal throne to stand trial. He even appointed a deacon to speak on the corpse’s behalf.
While Stephen VI hurled accusations at Formosus, the accused remained stoically silent, as might be expected of a corpse. In the words of the historian George Ives, “The old man’s body, like a monstrous doll, might nod and bend while the attendants supported it, or collapse in a ghastly bundle if they left it alone, but it made no sound; and the deacon would probably be wary in his defence, for there were dark holes nearby, other than sepulchres.
”In this era, being elected pope was a little like being diagnosed with a deadly disease.
In the middle of the trial, an earthquake shook the room. A clear sign from God, according to the embellishments of later commentators: For the stones themselves, execrating such a monstrosity, then cried out with their own voice by knocking against each other, that they would more willingly suffer spontaneous ruin, than that the Roman Church should remain depressed by so great a scandal. But if the stones cried out, Stephen VI paid them no mind.
He persisted with his case, and the dead pope was found guilty of usurping the papacy.
Stephen VI declared all his acts as pope null and void: all consecrations, all appointments, all ordinations were undone. Formosus’ body was stripped of its rich garments and dressed in rags.
Three of his fingers—the fingers of the benediction, with which, in life, he had given blessings—were cut off, and his body was cast into the Tiber River.
Stephen’s victory didn’t last long, however. Within a few months, he was imprisoned and then strangled to death. His reign lasted a little over a year.