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Painting Of Trial Of Pope Formosus
Jean-Paul Laurens, Pope Formosus on trial (1870, Musée des Beaux-arts, Nantes)

I wrote a couple of posts back in 2014 about my research on Pope Formosus and the infamous Cadaver Synod. At the time, I noted that I was working on a doctoral dissertation on the subject, and that I hoped to finish it by the end of that year! Well, here we are in July of 2021 (almost exactly seven years later), and I finished and defended the dissertation in March, The Trials of Pope Formosus, for which I was awarded the PhD in history from Columbia University. So I felt that I should update some of the information that I had presented in those older posts: Notes on Pope Formosus (part 1), and (part 2).

The abstract to the dissertation:

           In 896 Pope Stephen VI put the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, on trial in a Church synod in Rome, known since as the Cadaver Synod. The pontificate and the ordinations of Formosus were annulled and he was reburied in a pilgrims’ cemetery from which his body was quickly removed and thrown into the Tiber. It still is generally assumed that Formosus was tried as revenge for his having betrayed Lambert of Spoleto by inviting Arnulf of Carinthia to become emperor, and that Pope Stephen VI was carrying out the wishes of Lambert and his mother. This dissertation, by examining the entire career of Formosus as well as the manuscript evidence for the Cadaver Synod and the 898 Synod of Ravenna, which overturned it, will present a new view of what happened in this neglected period of European history. In so doing, it has reached very different conclusions about the trial and its purpose.

The six main conclusions of my research are the following:

1. The earlier career of Formosus cannot be separated from the Cadaver Synod. It forms a major part of the context. The experiences he had (such as the mission to Bulgaria) and the relations that he established (as with the Spoletans) had important effects on his time as pope and his relations with the Roman nobility.

2. There is no reason to think that Formosus leaned toward the East Frankish rulers, as most previous publications have asserted. He went into exile in West Francia. The Spoletans had connections with West Francia. Except for his correspondence with the East Frankish bishops over the Hamburg/Bremen dispute, we have no record of any other interaction with East Frankish rulers or with Berengar of Friuli (except for the alleged letters to Arnulf). 

3. It is still too early to define the factions in Rome. They were certainly fluid, as Annette Grabowsky [“La papauté autour de 900,” in Compétition et sacré au haut Moyen Âge (Brepols, 2015)] indicates. Conrad Leyser [“The Memory of Gregory the Great and the Making of Latin Europe, 700-1000,” University of Oxford History Working Paper, no. VII (October 2013)] makes a compelling argument for the circle around John VIII having a special reverence for the memory of Gregory the Great. With that may also go a certain bias against the Beneventans and Spoletans, whom they may have seen as a continuation of the Lombards. Simon MacLean’s idea of the split in the northern Italians between east and west also makes some sense [“‘After his death a great tribulation came to Italy …’: Dynastic Politics and Aristocratic Factions After the Death of Louis II, c. 870-890,” Millennium Jahrbuch 4 (2007): 239-260]. There were people who favored the West Franks and the East Franks, but these were not defining interests, and we should not read the 19th and 20th century biases into them. As Veronica West-Harling [“The Roman Past in the Consciousness of the Roman Elites in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,” in Early Medieval Roman Identities (De Gruyter, 2017)] writes, the Roman factions may be more aligned by interests in matters internal and external to Rome. Without a thorough prosopography, we cannot see how these relationships and alignments overlapped and shifted over time.

4. Formosus did not invite Arnulf to invade Rome and become Emperor. If Arnulf did receive an invitation, it came from some of the Roman nobility through Berengar, and it may have been in the form of forged letters from the pope, or perhaps the invitation was a fantasy constructed by people around Arnulf who wished to justify his invasion. The Synod of Ravenna declared that Arnulf’s coronation was extorted through force. At least in Italy, people believed that, and Arnulf is not listed among the emperors in Italian sources, as Otto of Freising pointed out long ago.

5. Both the Cadaver Synod and the Synod of Ravenna carefully avoided, in different ways, any charge that they were judging a pope. The Synod of Ravenna, moreover, was very intent upon ending this embarrassing conflict, and tried as much as possible to deflect any criticism from the Church. It granted mercy to those who took part in the Cadaver Synod, saying that they were forced to do so by unnamed lay people. It also implied that the disposal of the body in the Tiber was also done by lay people “seeking treasure.”

6. The real reason for the Cadaver Synod was not to punish Formosus for having abandoned Lambert in favor of Arnulf. It was, instead, instigated by people who were aligned with Arnulf, and who also held a hatred of Formosus for reasons we do not fully know. But the desecration and disposal of the body in the Tiber was done most likely because there were people who had a great veneration for Formosus and had created a cult around his tomb. This is something that his enemies could not tolerate, and it is for this reason that the trial happened so many months after his death, and not because Lambert and Ageltrude had not yet arrived in Rome. In fact, it probably occurred in haste before they were expected to arrive.

The Cadaver Synod has long been portrayed as a sign of the degeneracy of the papacy leading into the saeculum obscurum and the pornocracy. It is certainly a sign of the rapid change and shifting alliances that came with the end of the Carolingian era, but it also serves to illuminate those changes and help us to understand this period, the end of the ninth century and beginning of the tenth, that has been so neglected until recently. I hope to publish the dissertation as a book in the coming year or so. Meanwhile, the dissertation itself is embargoed.

Since I have never been able to devote all my energies to this work, it has taken a very long time to finish. The research and writing were often done in small parts and presented at conferences over a couple of decades. Here is an updated list of these papers:

“A New Look at the Cadaver Synod.” Proceedings of the XV International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, Paris, July 2016  (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, forthcoming)

“A Synod of Ravenna Confirming the Cadaver Synod?” Proceedings of the XIV International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, Toronto, 5-11 August 2012.  (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 2016), pp. 313-325.   

“The Cadaver Synod and the Unmaking of Saints,” A paper presented at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, May, 2011.

“The Synod of Ravenna of 898 as a Witness to the Cadaver Synod,” A paper presented at the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2010.

“Renovatio redux: A New Look at the Libellus de imperatoria potestate in urbe Roma,” A paper delivered at the 12th Annual Mediterranean Studies Congress, Università di Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy May, 2009.

“Pope Formosus and Hamburg-Bremen,” A paper delivered at the 11th Annual Mediterranean Studies Congress, Lüneburg, Germany, May 29, 2008.

“A Failed Crusade? Pope John VIII and the Arabs Reconsidered,” A paper presented at the 41st International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, May, 2007.

“The Role of the Latin Missionaries in Ninth-Century Bulgaria,” a paper presented at the 40th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2006.

“Who was Auxilius? Ethnic Identity in Carolingian Italy,” a paper presented at the 38th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2004.

Available at:

  https://www.academia.edu/45044020/Who_Was_Auxilius_Ethnic_Identity_in_Late_Carolingian_Italy

and at:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349007648_Who_Was_Auxilius_Ethnic_Identity_in_Late_Carolingian_Italy

“Invitation or Imitation: The Justification of Arnulf’s Invasion of Italy in 895/896,” a paper presented at the 5th Annual Congress of the Mediterranean Studies Association, Granada (Spain), May 29-June 1, 2002.

“The 898 Synod of Ravenna, and the Rehabilitation of Pope Formosus,” a paper presented at the 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2002.

I would also like to publicly thank my committee: my long-time advisor, Robert E. Somerville, who supported me over the decades, though it seemed that I would never finish; my other Columbia readers: Adam J. Kosto, Carmela Vircillo Franklin, and Euen Cameron; and my outside reader, Thomas F. X. Noble. I should also thank the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Columbia for allowing me to defend this dissertation, even though I had not been an active student for at least fifteen years! Many more people are named in the acknowledgments, and will be mentioned in the book.

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