Sometimes all you have to do in order to realize that the modern age really isn’t so bad is look back. History has shown us that humans are capable of horrific things, great things, and–often–some absurdly crazy-weird things. In 897, Pope Stephen VI decided that his predecessor should be adorned in traditional pontifical garb and placed on a throne in one of the basilicas of Ancient Rome. The skeleton-man thus stood trial. Not surprisingly, it was called “The Dead Pope Trial.”
In 882, John VIII was the first pope ever assassinated after a brutal clubbing by hammer. Ouch. In the years that followed, three more popes passed through Rome. All died quickly. From 891 until his death in 896, Pope Formosus had the job. He was the first ex-communicant to enjoy the title. He died of a stroke and was interred in a vault at St. Peters. Not a wonderful couple of decades for the church.
Stephen VI was put into power by Formosus’ rivals, and they didn’t wait long before placing the dead man on trial for crimes innumerable. There was a meeting called the Cadaver Synod, attended by bishops and cardinals, before the matter was put to a vote and the corpse was removed from its resting place. Pope Stephen prosecuted the dead man himself. His first matter was appointing the defense–a fresh eighteen-year-old deacon. Sounds like the trial was guaranteed to be fair.
This is when it starts to get amusing!
Stephen posed a number of questions to Formosus, asking him why he committed his crimes. Because the dead man refused to answer such simple inquiries, Stephen decided that the Church should find him guilty. The bishops agreed.
When found guilty of egregious crimes, one must be punished. Formosus had the skeleton-fingers once used for blessings chopped off, he was stripped naked, and then his body was dumped in the Tiber River. This next part is straight out of A Game of Thrones: monks who believed Formosus to be innocent retrieved his body. It wasn’t long before word spread that miracles were taking place all along the Tiber–enacted by none other than Formosus himself.
A coup followed shortly thereafter, deposing and imprisoning Pope Stephen VI. It was there he was murdered. Formosus was returned to his resting place (St. Peter), exhumed, returned to its second resting place (the Tiber), and then brought back (St. Peter).
In 898 trials of dead men were banned by the new pope, John IX.