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Cadaver Synod |
A dark hour for the Papacy

Cadaver Synod is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 78, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The bizarre ‘Synod of the Corpse’ ushered in the era of ‘the bad popes,’ marked by mob violence, poisonings, strangling, graft and sexual depravity

Cadaver Synod - A dark hour for the Papacy

Cadaver Synod - A dark hour for the Papacy
The aptly named Synoda Horrenda witnessed the grisly spectacle of the exhumed corpse of Pope Formosus put on trial by his successor, Stephen VII. The defendant, predictably silent, was pronounced guilty. Three fingers were cut from his right hand, and his body hurled into the Tiber. The macabre scene is reproduced here by Jean-Paul Laurens; the painting is now in the Museé des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France.

While the German monarchy under Otto the Great reinforced the church and supported its finest scholars, the papacy at Rome descended into one of its darkest eras. Awash in mob violence, poisonings, stranglings, graft and sexual excess, the 900s became the century of “the bad popes.” It began in January 897, with a bizarre council in Rome known as the Synoda Horrenda (or in English as “the Synod of the Corpse”). It continued through the next twenty-seven popes until the German Bruno of Carinthia, reigning as Gregory V, began a gradual restoration of the Throne of Peter a hundred years later.

Amid the chronic anarchy of the Italian Peninsula itself, Roman factions competed viciously for the papal post, which represented an unparalleled opportunity to enrich themselves. Few holds were barred. Thus for the Synoda Horrenda, Pope Stephen VII exhumed the nine-month-old corpse of his predecessor, Formosus (891—896), who had been championed by a rival faction. The magnificently robed cadaver, propped upon the throne, was tried for allegedly accepting the papal office while still bishop of another diocese.

Pope Stephen yelled accusations. The cleric appointed to defend Formosus prudently remained as silent as his client. The corpse was convicted. The three fingers of benediction were chopped from its right hand, and the corpse was hurled into the Tiber. (Some kindly fishermen retrieved and reburied it.) But Formosus’s supporters strangled Pope Stephen that autumn, and in half a dozen years, five more popes rapidly followed each other–four of them dying amidst the lethal squabbling.

The next in line, Sergius III, backed by the Roman senator Theophylact of Tusculum, lasted from 904 to 911. Theophylact’s powerful clan controlled the region at the mouth of the Tiber, and his beautiful wife, Theodora, and their daughter, Marozia, would take papal scandal down to new levels of degradation. Marozia began by becoming, while still in her early teens, Pope Sergius’s lover.

The most complete account of the Theophylacts comes from Liutprand, Lombard bishop of Cremona and protégé of Otto the Great. Lushly detailed and aggressively biased, his work nonetheless impressed Baronius, the sixteenth-century cardinal who compiled the first major history of the papacy. Liutprand portrays Theodora as dominating the Tusculan faction after Sergius died, deftly managing the next three popes. Two expired quietly after short incumbencies. The third was her current lover, the young bishop of Ravenna, who ruled from 914 to 928 as Pope John X.

Marozia, not yet twenty, had meanwhile married one Alberic, a capable soldier. He and Pope John X, whatever their other qualities, proved their military mettle in a campaign that decisively crushed Muslim forces advancing against Rome. However, Liutprand next depicts John X as trying to appease Marozia by naming her a senatrix and patrician, while conferring the kingship of Italy upon Hugh of Provence to ensure his support. (There is no further mention of Theodora.)

But the lovely Marozia, now paired with King Hugh’s half brother, Guy of Tuscany, was far ahead of Pope John. Guy’s soldiers seized him, and he died in a Castel Sant’ Angelo dungeon–probably, writes E. R. Chamberlin in The Bad Popes, of starvation or suffocation. Guy of Tuscany also conveniently died in 929, putting within Marozia’s orbit both papacy and kingship. She hastened to install upon Peter’s throne, as Pope John XI, her son by Sergius III. Then Hugh of Provence, serenely untroubled by the murder of John X (and perhaps Guy as well), hurried to her side, and they were wed by her son the pope.

Papacy and monarchy now seemed united as the dynastic property of one criminal family–yet things did not go quite as Marozia planned. Hugh the bridegroom quarrelled with her other son, another Alberic, who raised a Roman mob against him. Hugh fled, and Alberic confined his beautiful forty-year-old mother in Sant’ Angelo. No more is heard of her after that, but Alberic became prince of Rome, governed relatively well for two decades, and in 954 was peacefully succeeded as prince by his son, Octavian, then seventeen.

A year later, Octavian became Pope John XII, with the Theophylact clan now at the peak of its power. As the eighteenth-century British historian and vehemently anti-Catholic Edward Gibbon would acerbically comment: “The bastard son, grandson, and great grandson of Marozia–a rare genealogy–had all been seated on the Chair of Saint Peter.”1 Unsurprisingly, however, Octavian proved to be an unsatisfactory prince and a worse pope–best known for the kind of activity that caused Cardinal Baronius to call the Theophylact regime a “pornocracy.”

Briskly described by one Catholic Encyclopedia as “a coarse, immoral man,” Pope John XII loved hunting, gambling and women, not necessarily in that order. He is said to have invoked pagan gods, filled the Lateran Palace with loose women, and presented the golden cups and crosses of St. Peter to his paramours. His Roman subjects loathed him, and his one military venture was a sad failure. Thus when the Lombard duke Berengar of Ivrea marched southward in 960, John made a fateful move. He asked Otto the Great for help, and that devout monarch quickly responded, for reasons both spiritual and political.

German forces were soon respectfully camped outside the walls of Rome, and Otto and Pope John XII made a momentous deal. Otto promised to deal with Duke Berengar and otherwise defend the papacy; John readily promised to mend his worldly ways. Then, as the German monarch knelt humbly in St. Peter’s, the profligate pope crowned him ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. No sooner had Otto’s forces marched against Berengar, however, than the pope resumed his plotting, shopping the imperial crown to Berengar, and making overtures to the Magyars, to Byzantium, even to the Muslims.

When these machinations came to light, the emperor assembled a synod of some hundred bishops to review Pope John’s record. Witnesses testified that he had caused the death of one cardinal by castrating him, blinded the man assigned as his spiritual mentor, and copulated with his own niece (among other things). From a refuge at Tivoli, twenty miles away, John threatened to excommunicate the entire synod, but it elected a new pope nonetheless. Liutprand wrote that John XII was later beaten to death by a cuckolded husband, but credited Satan himself with the blow that actually killed him.

Despite intermittent efforts at reform, peace and stability remained elusive at Rome. In 996, three decades and seven popes later, Pope John XV was also forced to seek help against feuding factions, this time from the pious young emperor Otto III. He died before Otto’s troops reached Rome, and so the twenty-two-year-old emperor put his cousin Bruno, twenty-four, upon the papal throne as Gregory V–the first German pope. Both enthusiasts for the Cluniac reform movement, the two young men began a gradual restoration of the papacy.

But this process was to prove very gradual indeed, not least because the Roman factions continued acutely troublesome far into the eleventh century. In 1045, in fact, the whole city was a battlefield, with three warring camps fighting for supremacy, each with a papal candidate already installed. One was Pope Benedict IX, grandson of Count Gregory of Tusculum, and reputedly a notable teenaged libertine. This enterprising youth allegedly sold his august title to his godfather, a wealthy archpriest, who became Pope Gregory VI, and to another contender as well, who claimed office as Pope Sylvester III.

This time, it was the Roman populace itself, sated with anarchy, that called in Emperor Henry III. He briskly settled matters, for the time being, and paid close attention to the election of the next four popes. The wonder is, of course, that the papal office lived on–and even throve–despite all the abuse inflicted on it by human greed, pride, and debauchery. As Cardinal Baronius remarked of the infamous John XII, to survive such a miscreant, the papacy as an institution must indeed enjoy divine protection.

Historians note another very cogent point. The great danger to the individual is sin, but the greatest danger to the church as a whole is heresy, which can divide the entire Christian body, sometimes for centuries, pitting very devout Christians against one another. Not a single one of the “bad popes” was ever accused of heresy. Their minds were occupied with other things. n

1. Protestant Christians (and not a few Catholics) used to believe a persistent legend, which asserted that a British woman named Joan, in the ninth century, had managed to disguise herself as a monk, and had became pope. Gibbon, who helped scotch the Pope Joan story, suggested that it might well have been inspired by popular awe at the authentic power wielded by the Theophylact women.

This is the end of the Cadaver Synod category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 78, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Cadaver Synod from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at