Friday, June 3, 2011

A Cadaverous Synod

With the death of Charlemagne's ineffectual grandson, Charles the Fat, in 888, the last pretense that there was any longer such a thing as a united Carolingian Empire was exposed. The empire was openly divided, with no single figure able to bring it together again. Arnulf, the illegitimate son of Charles' brother Carloman, retained possession of Germany. Louis, the son of Count Boso of Arles, held Provence; and Odo, the Count of Paris, still riding the crest of his heroic defense of the city against the Normans in 886, had declared himself King of  France.

In Italy, the situation was even less stable: Guido, Duke of Spoleto, held sway over the north; Berengar, Duke of Fruili, controlled the south. Both sought to establish a united monarchy over the entire Italian peninsula. Soon, Italy would be plunged into a full scale civil war between the two. Nobles from Spoleto, Camerina, and Tuscany joined forces with Guido; the Lombards to the south generally favored Berengar. The bishops of the country, too, chose one side or the other. Following a series of bloody battles, Guido triumphed, and was elected King of Italy by the assembly of bishops at Pavia in 889.

The See of Peter had had little influence over the course of events in Italy during this fractious period. Following the death of Pope Nicholas I in 867, the power and prestige of the papacy had steadily declined. Nicholas had been succeeded by Hadrian II-- too old (75 at the time of his election) and too meek to coerce the obedience of the nobility. John VIII then held the pontificate through ten years of division and strife, until his murder in 882 (making him the first pope, though not the last, to be assassinated). 

After John, the situation degenerated even further. Marinus I and Hadrian III served little more than a year each. The death of Marinus was from natural causes; that of Hadrian, apparently not. They were followed by Stephen VI, who managed to hang on for six years, frantically searching all the time for a political patron who might protect the papacy from the demands of the emperor.

At his death in 891, Stephen VI was succeeded as pope by one of the most colorful and controversial figures of his day-- Formosus, bishop of the diocese of Porto on the outskirts of Rome. Formosus (whose name, interestingly, means "the handsome one" in Latin) had been born in Ostia, Rome's seaport, in 826. He had been active in high church affairs from the time of Nicholas I, who in 866, sent him east as missionary to the Bulgarians. Along with his fellow bishop, Paul of Populonia, Formosus seems to have been quite zealous and effective in his work. Paul and Formosus baptized hundreds, if not thousands, into the ranks of the Roman Church, and induced King Cyril of Bulgaria to receive only Roman clergy and follow only Roman doctrine and rites, rather than those of Constantinople. For his labors, Formosus was often lauded back in Rome as the "Apostle to the Bulgarians", and a delegation even made its way to Rome to petition the Pope to make Formosus the archbishop of Bulgaria. However, Nicholas refused the request on the pretext that Formosus was already bishop of Porto, and could not be transferred to another see. It is probable, however, that Nicholas was growing increasingy suspect of the overriding ambition of Formosus, whom he suspected of organizing the "spontaneous" delegation himself. A little more than a year after the commencement of his mission to the Slavs, Formosus was recalled to Rome. 

Formosus bided his time during the reign of the elderly Hadrian II, but when Hadrian died in 872, Formosus lost no time in putting his own name in contention as a possible successor to the See of Peter.

However, the archdeacon of Rome-- who became John VIII-- was chosen in his stead. Knowing full well the talent of Formosus as a diplomat, the new Pope sent him to France to conclude an alliance with Charles the Bald. However, Formosus, still smarting over his defeat by John, had other ideas, and soon aligned himself with the pro-German faction in Italy against the Pope. But, formidable as it was, the German faction was soon outmaneuvered by supporters of John, who drove their rivals out of the city in 875. John thereupon called a synod in the Pantheon where his enemies, including Formosus, were duly excommunicated and stripped of all official titles. Formosus was also charged with attempting to raise Bulgaria into a new see, independent of Rome, and was banned from ever entering the Eternal City again.

But neither exile nor excommunication would last long. At the death of John VIII in 882, Duke Guido of Spoleto asserted control over the papal election, and saw to it that Marinus, bishop of Cervete, was elected pope. In one of his first official acts, Marinus restored the exiles, including Formosus, to all their former honors.

For the next few years, Formosus remained relatively quiet, biding his time, cultivating a reputation as a man of deep piety and an almost ascetic personal lifestyle, who lived and breathed only for the cause of the Church. In fact, he was calculating how to use the factional rivalries within Rome to mount another attempt at the papacy.

In 889, during the reign of Stephen VI, Guido defeated Berengar at Trebia, and was proclaimed King of Italy. He then marched on Rome, where he forced Stephen to crown him emperor. The papacy's worst political nightmare had come true: a native Italian dynasty had taken control over all of Italy; the papacy would now be completely at its mercy. 

When Stephen VI died in October of 891, Formosus finally achieved his life's ambition and was elected pope. Almost immediately, he made plans to free the papacy of the domination of Guido and the Spoletans. When Guido died in 894, Formosus sensed that an opportunity might be at hand. Shortly after being forced to crown Guido's son, Lambert, as emperor, Formosus sent envoys to the German king, Arnulf, asking assistance in driving the Spoletans from Rome. 

Late in 894, Arnulf left Bavaria, and by the fall of the next year, was at the gates of Rome. Guido's widow, Ageltrude, led a spirited defense of the city. Formosus was deposed and thrown in prison; an anti-pope, Boniface, was elevated in his stead. But soon, the Germans managed to break through the city gate; Formosus was rescued and restored to the papal throne. Ageltrude and her forces withdrew through Tuscany, back to Spoleto. A grateful Formosus thereupon declared the coronation of Lambert null and void, and crowned Arnulf emperor. 

But the victory of Arnulf-- and Formosus-- was to be short lived. Plans were made for a campaign against the Spoletans, but fifteen days after his coronation, the new emperor suffered a paralytic seizure, and had to be carried back home across the Alps. Shortly thereafter, with public opinion against the hated Germans rising rapidly, the aged Formosus-- now 81 years old-- died, too.
The house of Spoleto was victoriously welcomed back into Rome, and Ageltrude's anti-pope, Boniface VI, officially assumed the chair of Peter. The only pope in history ever to have been excommunicated twice for personal scandals, Boniface soon suffered a severe attack of gout, and died fifteen days after his election. He was in turn succeeded by Stephen VII, another puppet of the Spoletans. 

With Stephen VII, who was in all probability deranged, papal history degenerated from the contentious to the grotesque. Ageltrude was determined to wreck vengeance on her nemesis, Formosus, if only in memory. Stephen took it a step further, and six months after assuming the papacy, in January of 897, he convened a synod of bishops, and ordered the corpse of Formosus exhumed, and placed on trial.

In this notorious Cadaver Synod, the lifeless remains of the dead pope were dressed in papal gowns, propped upon a throne, and subject to stringent questioning. Stephen VII read all the charges ever levelled against Formosus, from his time in Bulgaria, through the years of his pontificate: Had he not conspired to assume a second see, while already invested at Porto? Had he not conspired to set up a separate church in Bulgaria, independent of Rome? Had he not conspired with the pro-German factions against the lawful pope? Had he not invited the hated Germans to usurp power from the duke of Spoleto, the rightful rulers of Italy? 

When the (dead) Formosus refused to answer the charges against him, Stephen was exultant. Such a lack of defense, he reasoned, amounted to an admission of guilt!

Posthumously, Formosus was found guilty. The corpse was stripped of its regalia; the three fingers of the right hand which the dead pope had used in consecration were chopped off; all acts of the Formosus pontificate were duly annulled. The body was then dragged to a cemetery for foreigners, and cast into an unmarked grave. But from there, it was disinterred once again by an angry, who dragged it to the banks of the Tiber, weighted it down with stones, and threw it into the water. (From where, under cover of darkness, it would later be rescued by a sympathetic monk, and reburied)

Later, rumors would spread that, following the Cadaver Synod, an earthquake had shaken Rome. There were also reports that the body of Formosus had washed up on the banks of the Tiber, and had begun to perform miracles. At any rate, the bizarre spectacle sealed the fate of the hapless Stephen. A few months after the synod concluded, he was thrown into prison, where his enemies lost no time in strangling him to death.

But the death of Stephen failed to halt the degeneration of the papacy. The next pope, Romanus, attempted a campaign to rehabilitate Formosus; failed; was deposed; then retired as a monk in the hills around Rome. His successor, Pope Theodore II, reigned only twenty days-- but during this time, he managed to convene a synod, rehabilitate Formosus, reclothe his poor corpse in papal gowns, and reinter him with full honors once again in St. Peter's. For his troubles, Theodore was probably murdered by the anti-Formosan faction in Rome. 

At the death of Theodore II, the enemies of Formosus seized the upper hand once again and took control of the Lateran Palace, residence of the popes; they declared one of their own, Sergius, the latest successor of Peter. But by now, even Lambert, king of Italy, whom Formosus had deposed in favor of the German Arnulf, had had enough. Under his influence, the enemies of Formosus were expelled from the Lateran, a new conclave was called, and a Benedictine abbot was elected pope as John IX. 

Yet another synod was convened and an uneasy compromise was reached. The ordination of Formosus was again reaffirmed; his pontificate was declared valid; the decisions of the Cadaver Synod were nullified and all records of that notorious gathering were burned. Furthermore, all future trials of dead persons were prohibited. Posterity would at least be spared the ghastly spectacle of the bodies of dead popes being interrogated. On the other hand, the full imperial legitimacy of the rivals of Formosus-- Lambert and the Spoletans-- was reaffirmed, and the coronation of Arnulf by Formosus was voided. The synod of 898 also decreed that, henceforth, future popes should be elected by the bishops and clergy of Rome, at the request of the city's people and senate-- in the presence of the Emperor or his representatives. Thus, it was hoped, the chaos and confusion that had marked too many papal elections in the past could be avoided.

However, a few months later, Lambert was killed in a hunting accident at Marengo, south of Milan. Chaos ensued in the choosing of his successor as emperor. When John IX died a year or so later, choosing a new pope brought the same old rivalries to the fore once again (always with Formosus as their focal point). The body of the old pope, Formosus, finally rested in peace within the walls of St. Peter's. But the Church would find no peace until the reforms of Gregory VII Hildebrand-- almost two centuries later.

Tablet of the popes who lie in rest inside St. Peter's in Rome.

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