Tag Archives: Cadaver Synod

The Cadaver Synod (the Synodus Horrenda)

laurens-le-pape-formose-et-etienne-vii-1870the posthumous ecclesiastical trial of Pope Formosus, held in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome during January of 897.  Before the proceedings the body of Formosus was exhumed &, according to some sources, seated on a throne while his successor, Pope Stephen VI, read the charges against him & conducted the trial. [The council acta do not survive, but the proceedings are described by Hincmar, Annales, entry for 878, ed. in Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores vol. I, p. 507]

In the years surrounding the Cadaver Synod (872-965) there were 24 popes. Often, these brief papal reigns were the result of the political machinations of local Roman factions. One such faction involved Guido, Duke of Spoleto, who had been crowned Emperor of Rome by Formosus’ predecessor, & Formosus had been pressured into crowning Guido’s son Lambert as co-emperor in 892.  But when Guido died in 894, Formosus had Arnulf, the Carolingian king of Carinthia, crowned emperor instead. Soon, however, Arnulf was forced to withdrawal his army to Germany. The Spoleto’s saw their chance for revenge on Formosus.  But before they could act the Pope died of natural causes on April 4 896. (He was succeeded by Boniface, whose papacy lasted only 15 days before he died).

In May 896 Stephen VI was elected pope, due in part to the intercession of the Spoleto family, in particular Lambert. Lambert’s anger at Formosus’ death knew no bounds, for the Pope, by dying, had eluded his revenge.  Nine months after the death of his Corsican predecessor Formosus, Stephen conveyed a synod.  All of Formosus acts as pope & bishop were invalidated, including every clerical appointment & ordination he had made; three fingers of his right hand were cut off, the ones used to give blessings.  Initially, as legend has it, Formosus’ corpse was ignominiously buried, but then dug up again & thrown into the Tiber; seruptiously rescued from the river & reburied.  Eventually support, including that of the Spoletos, for Stephen wained.  He was deposed, stripped of his vestments & thrown into prison where he was strangled to death in August 897.

In November 897, Pope Theodore II, a member of a pro-Formosan faction, held a synod invalidating the Cadaver Synod, announced that all of Formosus’ ordinations were valid & ordered that Formosus be dug up once again (by this time Formosus, who was 76 at the time he was elected, probably wasn’t ‘living’ up to the Latin meaning of his name, “looking good”).  The corpse was then dressed in papal vestments brought to St. Peters & reburied.  In 898 John IX (898-900) also nullified the Cadaver Synod, convening two synods (one in Rome, one in Ravenna) which confirmed the findings of Theodore II’s synod, ordered the acta of the Cadaver Synod destroyed, & prohibited any future trial of a dead person. However, Pope Sergius III (904-911), who as bishop had taken part in the Cadaver Synod, overturned the rulings of Theodore II & John IX, reaffirming Formosus’ conviction. Sergius’ decisions were never reversed — the nullification of Formosus’ ordinations, having never been reversed, raises more questions about a  mechanistic understanding of apostolic succession. Dan Ellis-Killian

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