One of the Popes of the 9th century, Pope Formosus’ reign was fraught with war, chaos, and political intrigue. During his five year reign Formosus made many enemies, among them was his successor, Stephen VI. Pope Stephen hated Formosus so much, that he would take weird to a whole new level in order to exact revenge on his former enemy.
In January of 897, about seven months after Formosus’ death, Pope Stephen ordered Formosus’ corpse exhumed from its grave and put on trial. In what would become known as the “Cadaver Synod”, Pope Stephen charged Formosus with a number of crimes including perjury and having ascended the Papacy illegally. During the trial, Formosus’ rotting corpse was propped up on a throne and clothed in Papal vestments. Stephen himself acted as prosecutor while a church deacon was appointed to serve as Formosus’ defense attorney. While judges were appointed from local priests, the synod amounted to nothing more than a show trial in which Stephen maniacally screamed, raved, and hurled insults at the dead corpse. Formosus’ was declared guilty on all charges. As punishment, his corpse was stripped of its Papal vestments, three fingers on its right hand were removed (the fingers used to conduct blessings), and all orders issued by Formosus’ were nullified. Formosus’ corpse was buried in an unmarked paupers grave. Later it was again disinterred and cast into the Tiber River.
The Cadaver Synod turned out to be Stephen VI’s undoing, as the people of Rome were too weirded out by his bizarre and insane behavior. He was quickly deposed and imprisoned, where he was strangled to death during the night. In the meantime Formosus’ corpse had been recovered from the Tiber and reburied in its proper grave at St. Peters Basilica. The next Pope, John IX, nullified the Cadaver Synod and issued a Papal decree banning the trial of a dead person.
Yes, there absolutely were. There are even some great books about it like E.R. Chamberlin’s classic The Bad Popes. There’s even an era of Papal history called the “Pornocracy” and the Saeculum Obscurum (basically “the dark age”) where things got REALLY bad. Like super rapey and murdery.
Pope Benedict IX was the nephew of two of his predecessors and “elected” to the Papacy when he was 20 years old. Benedict IX was actually Pope on three different occasions – at the end of his first reign, he was chased out of town by his enemies; he literally sold the Papacy the second time, for 680 kilograms of gold, to his godfather (who became Pope Gregory VI); and, after taking back the Papacy a few years later, he was eventually chased out of the job for good and excommunicated. Pope Victor III said that Benedict IX’s life was “so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it” and charged him with “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts” including bestiality. Pope Stephen VIII (sometimes listed as Stephen IX) was Benedict IX’s uncle and pissed off Benedict’s father (his own brother), a powerful warlord in Tusculum, so Pope Stephen had his eyes, lips, hands, and tongue removed – and survived.
And we don’t even know the full story about some of those Popes – “Saeculum Obscurum” had a double meaning. Pope John XI was probably Pope Sergius III’s illegitimate son with a 15-year-old girl. Most of the Popes of this era reigned for a very short time and met very violent ends, so their temporary reigns (and the dizzying naming customs of the time) make the complete history almost impossible to trace. But those are just a handful of the “Bad Popes”. There have been many more, and their stories are actually pretty frightening (and really interesting!).
le pape formose et etienne vii by jean-paul laurens
so once there was this pope, and he did some questionable things. then he died, and then another pope was elected, then he died, then another pope was elected, and he was insecure so what he did was exhume the body of the first pope, try his dressed-up corpse for perjury and violation of canonical law, and then throw his body in the tiber.
and you thought the current catholic church had problems.