In the year 897, a very strange event occurred. A trial took place in Rome, called the Cadaver Synod, or Corpse Trial. The former pope, Pope Formosus, who had been dead for some months, was disinterred and placed on trial. The judge of the trial was Pope Stephen VI, who was the pope at that time. It was believed that what transpired on that day was lost to history, but with some Indiana Jones type, “archaeology” I was able to get a copy of the transcript, which I translated from Latin (you’re welcome) to English for your convenience.
The corpse of the former pope was sitting in the chair, as if he were still pope, wearing all his papal vestments. Pope Stephen VI addressed the people in the room.
“Let it be understood, that Deacon Bartholomew will be answering for Pope Formosus, and Deacon John will be the prosecutor. Let us commence with the charges brought before the court.”
Deacon John stood up and faced the audience, careful not to stand too close to the accused.
“The Holy Roman Papacy charges Pope Formosus with perjury, ascending to the papacy illegally and ambition.”
There was a collective murmuring from the bishops and cardinals attending the trial.
“Pope Formosus, is it correct that you were once the Bishop of Porto?” Deacon John asked.
There was a silence in the room, everyone was on the edge of their seat, waiting to see if the dead pope would speak. Pope Stephen turned and glared at Deacon Bartholomew. The Deacon, who remembered it was he who had to answer for the deceased, jumped out of his seat and faced the audience. He straightened his diaconal vestments and did his best to preserve his dignity. He said what he thought the former pope might say if he were still alive.
Pope Stephen glared at Deacon Bartholomew. “I mean, yes, that is correct.”
Deacon John continued his line of questioning. “You were then made Archbishop of the–”
“Answer the question, you charlatan,” Pope Stephen roared and pointed at the cadaver.
“Forgive me your holiness, but I need to finish. You were then made the Archbishop of the Bulgarian Church during the reign of Nicholas I, charged with bringing that kingdom under the Roman Church?”
The crowd turned their head from Deacon John to the super dead pope.
“I don’t know what any of that actually means.”
Pope Stephen once again glared at Deacon Bartholomew.
“Yes, that is correct,” Deacon Bartholomew stammered.
“You admit then, that you violated canonical strictures against translation. That is to say, the transfer of one Episcopal see to another?” Deacon John asked.
Pope Stephen once again interrupted the prosecution. He covered his mouth with a handkerchief, walked up and stood an inch away from the corpse pope, who has been remarkably calm thus far in the proceedings.
“You deserted your diocese without papal permission!”
Deacon Bartholomew, who did not want to risk a third glare from the pope, immediately answered in the affirmative.
“Let it be written that Pope Formosus has plead guilty to transmigrating sees, in violation of canon law and performing holy duties as a bishop, all the while, in fact, a layman,” Deacon John said.
More murmuring was heard again throughout the room and someone was heard saying, “This is some weird shit even by medieval standards.”
Deacon John waited until the rumbling died down to resume his questioning.
“The last charges were laid upon him during his first synod and did not originate with me,” Pope Stephen said.
“We must now settle the charge of perjury. You were deposed and excommunicated by Pope John VIII at a Roman council—”
“You aided in poisoning our beloved Pope John and delighted in his head being bashed in with a hammer,” Pope Stephen interrupted once again, who was nearly frothing at the mouth and behaving decidedly un-popeish.
“May I remind your holiness if I may be so bold, murder and/or aiding and abetting in murder, is not one of the charges leveled against the accused.”
Pope Stephen reluctantly nodded his head, as if he didn’t see why they couldn’t lay one more charge on him.
Due to a deteriorating spinal column, the former pope was sliding down in his chair.
Deacon John paused, forgetting momentarily where he left off.
“You were deposed and excommunicated by Pope John VIII at a Roman council, and you swore an oath never to return to Rome or exercise priestly functions again—were you not?”
“That is true,” Deacon Bartholomew answered.
“I have here the document that declares this oath and is signed by the deceased; it was taken at the Synod of Troyes,” Deacon John said.
Deacon John gave the document to Pope Stephen, who shoved it in the face of the cadaver.
“After the assassination of his holiness, Pope John VIII, all charges against you were dropped and you were reinstated by Pope Marinus I, as Bishop of Porto. So you returned to performing duties, after signing a sworn oath in a papal court?” Deacon John asked.
“Yes, but only after I was pardoned by our holiness Pope Marinus—”
Brother Bartholomew was interrupted by Pope Stephen, who rose once again and stuck his finger in the face of the dead pope.
“Silence, you fiend!”
“Let it be written that Pope Formosus has plead guilty to the charge of perjury,” Deacon John said.
“I didn’t plead guilty actually,” mumbled Deacon Bartholomew.
“Now, we come to the third and final charge of ambition to become pope,” Deacon John said.
“When you were Bishop of Porto, why did you usurp the universal Roman see in such a spirit of ambition?” Pope Stephen asked.
Deacon John sighed; he was becoming exasperated with the Pope’s outbursts and interruptions. “Go ahead and answer the question.”
Deacon Bartholomew was uneasy; he knew that he had better say something that Pope Stephen wanted to hear or he’d lose his post as deacon.
“I conspired with Boris I to become Bishop in Bulgaria and secretly held ambitions to become pope. I was a traitor to King Charles the Bald.”
Some snickering was heard in the crowd at the mention of “King Charles the Bald.”
“I knew it! I knew it!” Pope Stephen yelled and did a victory dance.
“Let it be written, that Pope Formosus has plead guilty to the charge of ambition to seek the papacy illegally. His holiness, Pope Stephen, will now issue the sentence,” Deacon John said.
At this point the corpse pope had slid out of his chair and into the floor. His papal crown was askew.
“I find the accused guilty on all three charges and I issue a rescission actorum, which I will look up the meaning later. Deacon Bartholomew, go find a layman’s robe somewhere and Deacon John, please bring me a knife,” Pope Stephen said.
“A knife, your craziness … er … holiness?” Deacon John asked.
“That is what I said.”
When Brother John arrived back in the courtroom, Deacon Bartholomew was closing up his briefcase like any good lawyer.
Deacon Thomas presented the knife to Pope Stephen, who grabbed the knife and went over to the body of the former pope. He then grabbed the dead pope’s right hand and with one quick slash of the knife, cut off the Pope’s first three fingers.
One of the bishops sitting in the front row jumped to his feet, whether it was to object to the desecration, or he had to use the bathroom, no one can be sure, because he was forced back into his seat by his fellow bishops, where he remained silent.
“You have spoiled the cloisters of Rome and defiled the papal see by performing holy acts as a layman. I remove the fingers that gave blessings to poor men and rich men alike.”
Deacon Bartholomew came forward to remove the papal vestments from former Pope Formosus and put on the layman’s cloak. “Ew,” he said as he touched the cadaver. “Does anyone have any hand sanitizer?”
Pope Stephen, who was scratching his head with the former popes’s fingers said, “You will bury him in a foreigner’s grave.”
Some of the bishops and cardinals in the crowd helped put the corpse back in its original casket, which they carried out with heads bowed.
“I need everyone present to sign this document as witnesses to the events that transpired here today and then we will adjourn to the room next door for some coffee and donuts,” Pope Stephen said.
After the burial of Pope Formus in a foreigner’s grave, Pope Stephen decided that his corpse wasn’t corpsey enough, so he had him disinterred again, tied with weights and thrown in the Tiber River. The people rebelled against Pope Stephen and he was later imprisoned. A few months later, while in prison, he was strangled to death, thus ending the bizarre story of the Cadaver Synod.
A revised excerpt from my book, The Gnostic Keepers.