Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Curious History: Cadaver Synod - The Trial of a Corpse

 Throughout history there have always been extremely strange rituals that seem to defy understanding. The Cadaver Synod was one of these.It involved the macabre process known as posthumous execution. This is the process of exhuming a corpse and conducting a ritual or ceremonial mutilation of the remains. The only case of a Cadaver Synod was enacted upon Pope Formosus, 816-896. (picture 1), one year after his death. The trial was conducted by Formosus’ second successor, Pope Stephen VI. Stephen VI accused Formosus of perjury and acceding to the papacy illegally.
Formosus’ corpse was disinterred, clad in papal vestments, and seated on a throne (picture 2). In the ruling, it was declared that Formosus was unworthy of the pontificate, and all acts and measures made under his papacy were declared null and void. This included the removal of three of his fingers, as they had been used in various “illegitimate” consecrations. So loathsome was Formosus’ body deemed, that clerics had it thrust into the Tiber River. It was quickly retrieved by a monk and kept in an unmarked burial plot.
Following the death of Stephen VI, Formosus’ body was re-interred in St. Peter’s Basilica. Further trials of this nature against deceased persons were banned, but Pope Sergius III (904–911) re-approved the decisions against Formosus. His body was once again exhumed and a second Cadaver Synod was performed. This time, Formosus’ punishment was a beheading and his remains were once again thrown into the Tiber River where they remained.
The Cadaver Synod is remembered as one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the medieval papacy.

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