The recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has given media commentators a gratefully received excuse to trot out the list of bad, weird and notorious popes of the past. Near the top, along with (the mythical) Pope Joan, comes Pope Formosus: because when it comes to extraordinary ways of stepping down from the papacy, there’s no doubt that Formosus beats Benedict hands-down. Though Formosus’s death in office on 4 April 896 was pretty conventional, a successor decided his exit should have been more dramatic, and arranged a retake. In 897, he had Formosus’s body dug up and dressed in papal vestments, and put it on trial. Formosus, who had been dead for several months, didn’t put up much of a defence, so it was to no one’s surprise that he was found guilty. His decomposing corpse was subjected to various humiliations: the papal vestments were ceremonially stripped off, the fingers of one hand (responsible for blessings) were amputated, and the body was tossed ignominously into the Tiber, denying poor Formosus a Christian burial.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this was a pretty rum affair, and so it’s understandable  that contemporary media references to Formosus are generally content to make the point that, wow, those Middle Ages were  pretty wacky and, well… medieval, weren’t they? Indeed, often they were. But recent research on Formosus suggests that there was rather more going on than a medieval taste for the ghoulish and macabre.

The key to the affair is that Formosus was amongst the first popes to have been a bishop before elevation to the see of St Peter. Entirely normal practice now in the Catholic church (Benedict XVI for example was previously Archbishop of Munich), this was ground-breaking in the ninth century, when the tradition was that a bishop remained with his flock through thick and thin, and could be ‘translated’ or transferred only in the most exceptional circumstances.[1] In fact, it was Formosus’s previous position as bishop of Porto that was the central charge brought against him, on the grounds that this made his election as pope invalid. The trend towards bringing in experienced bishops from elsewhere in Latin Christendom to Rome could not however be stopped, even by show trials, since it reflected fundamental shifts in the Latin West: a growing importance of Rome within the church, and, arguably, a growing professionalisation of the clergy.[2] The transition to the new system was stormy, though, and Formosus’s case shows just how highly charged the issue was.

This doesn’t take away from the gruesomeness of the ‘Cadaver Synod’, but it does go some way to explaining it. Given the importance of the Catholic church both historically and in today’s world – with perhaps more believers than ever before – the way that popes leave office, and how they’re treated afterwards, is bound to be politically important, and to reflect current debates. It remains to be seen what battles will be fought over Benedict XVI’s memory, as the Church continues to adapt to a changing world: we can only hope they’ll be conducted a little more decorously.

Dr Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield.You can find other History Matters posts on papal history and the Pope’s resignation here.

[1] S.Scholz, Transmigration und Translation: Studien zum Bistumswechsel der Bischöfe von der Spätantike bis zum hohen Mittelalter (Cologne, 1992).

[2] C.Leyser, ‘Episcopal office in the Italy of Liudprand of Cremona, c.890-c.970’, English Historical Review 515 (2010), 795-817.

Tags : Cadaver Synodconclavepapal resignationPopePope Benedict XVIPope Formosus
Charles West

The author Charles West


  1. I believe the original in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Nantes. The artist, Jean-Paul Laurens, specialised in medieval scenes: his ‘Excommunication of King Robert the Pious’ is also quite famous!

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