Posts Tagged ‘Pope John VIII’

The following are my revisions to the received account of Pope Formosus and the Cadaver Synod, much of which is recounted in this article in Wikipedia, and summarized in the previous post.  Since this information is not yet published, the article will need to wait for revision.

I will generally ignore minor errors of fact, like that Formosus was born in Ostia, for which I know of no evidence (there is no evidence as to where he was born). The Wikipedia article says that he fled Rome in 872 and was condemned that same year. Yet, it also says that he persuaded Charles the Bald to be crowned emperor in 875. In fact, he was sent by Pope John VIII to West Francia to ask Charles the Bald to become emperor, and Charles came to Rome and was crowned by John VIII at Christmas 875. It was only after that, in 876, that Formosus and a group of associates fled Rome under mysterious circumstances. They were ordered to return, and when they did not, they were excommunicated.   The group had fled to the protection of the Duke of Spoleto, who was an adversary of Pope John VIII, and Formosus later went to West Francia, the kingdom of the Emperor Charles the Bald. John VIII issued letters claiming that Formosus and the others were traitors, expecially against the Emperor, but the fact that Formosus fled to Charles’ kingdom would make that claim appear specious. The claim that Formosus also had been a rival to the papal see in 872 was also in these letters, but there is no other evidence for this (although most historians have generally accepted the claim).

In 878, John VIII, still having problems with the Duke of Spoleto, travelled to West Francia in search of aid. While there, he held a council at Troyes, after which he met with Formosus and agreed to restore him to lay communion if he swore an oath never to return to Rome and never to seek to regain his bishopric. On the death of John VIII in 882 (he was the first pope to be assassinated), his successor, Marinus, absolved him of that oath and invited him to take up the see of Porto again.

But my main revisions of the accepted story involve the lead-up to the Cadaver Synod. Formosus became Pope on the death of Stephen V, in 891.   At the time, Wido II, Duke of Spoleto, was now Emperor, having been crowned by Pope Stephen V. Wido asked that his son, Lambert, be crowned co-emperor, which Formosus did. Wido subsequently died and Lambert was crowned Emperor by Formosus.   The assumption has long been that neither Stephen V nor Formosus really wanted the Spoletans to gain the imperial title, but would rather have crowned a Carolingian (descendents of Charlemagne). This is based on entries in a German chronicle, the Annals of Fulda, which claim that both Stephen and Formosus sent secret envoys to Arnulf of Carinthia inviting him to invade Italy and become emperor. I believe that is is also based on some faulty reasoning that no one could conceive of a non-Carolingian emperor, and that the papacy was always in an adversarial relationship with the Spoletans. But, while John VIII (and perhaps other popes) was an adversary of the Spoletans, this was not true of Formosus, as we have already seen, above.

I believe that neither Formosus nor Stephen V invited Arnulf to invade, but the Annals of Fulda, being a source close to Arnulf gave that as an excuse for his invasion, which was really an usurpation of the imperial crown. Arnulf had only recently succeeded to the German kingship, and having consolidated his power there, now felt strong enough to seize the imperial title as well. He invaded Italy and forced Formosus to crown him emperor. Formosus died just over a month later, probably having been tortured and held in captivity. Arnulf, meanwhile, had left Rome in the hands of a governor (Farold) and had gone off to fight Lambert and secure his imperial title. Unfortunately for him, he was stricken by some sort of paralysis, and had to retreat to Bavaria, where he later died. Thus Lambert retained his imperial crown.

In Rome, Formosus was succeeded by Bonface VI, and old man who died only two weeks later. The next pope was Stephen VI, who had been ordained Bishop of Anagni by Pope Formosus. It was Stephen VI who convened the Cadaver Synod, in which the body of Formosus was removed from its tomb and placed on trial. We do not know for certain what the charges were because the acts of this council were ordered to be burned by the Synod of Ravenna in 898, which overturned them and restored Formosus to his place on the papal lists. However, it has always been assumed, and is most likely, that Formosus was accused of having violated his oath to John VIII by returning to Rome and taking up the see of Porto, and also having violated canon law by allowing himself to be translated from the see of Porto to that of Rome. (At the time, is was against canon law for a bishop to move from one see to another – a restriction that was often waived.)   Formosus was found guilty, and his papacy was invalidated as were the ordinations he made while pope. Two fingers were cut off of his right hand (the fingers he would have used to annoint), and he was buried in a pauper’s cemetery, from which he was immediately dug up again and thrown into the Tiber River (with weights to hold the body down).

It has long been claimed that Pope Stephen VI was the “creature” of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude, and the trial was their revenge for his having abandoned Lambert in favor of Arnulf. It used to be assumed that they were even present at the synod. An Italian historian long ago showed that is probably not true. As I have tried to show, Formosus did not invite Arnulf to invade, and our major source for the synod, the acts of the 898 Synod of Ravenna, would indicate that Arnulf was not a valid emperor because he had seized the imperial title by force. Moreover, Stephen VI became pope while Arnulf’s governor, Farold, was still in control of Rome, so he was the “creature” of Arnulf, not of Lambert and Ageltrude. (His first extant letter is dated in the reign of the Emperor Arnulf.)   It is also often claimed that Stephen VI, having been ordained Bishop of Anagni by Formosus, annulled his papacy and his ordinations in order to absolve himself of the very same crime of translation from one see to another. But, since this restriction was often waived, such twisted reasoning was hardly necessary.

Formosus had a long and controversial career in the Church, and had made many friends and also many enemies. There were very powerful factions in Rome at the time, and their origins and their memberships are obscure, and would be a good subject for research. Stephen VI and the small group of other clerics who put Formosus on trial found some valid accusations against him, but none of the crimes would necessitate placing the actual body of the accused on trial. The only really good explanation is that some other people considered Formosus to be a very holy man, and even perhaps a martyr, having been killed as a result of Arnulf’s forcible capture of the imperial title. The enemies of Formosus could not bear the idea of their arch-enemy being regarded as a saint!   The whole point of putting his body on trial was to desecrate it and to destroy his tomb, thus putting an end to the growing cult!   In this they succeeded, despite that fact that the acts of the Cadaver Synod were overturned and burned. The body of Formosus was found and reburied in St-Peter’s, but he has never been considered a saint in the Roman Church.

My arguments depend on much more detail that was provided in the papers listed, and will be documented in my dissertation which I will certainly publish in some form later.   I hope to have finished this dissertation by the end of 2014.    A list of my own papers on this topic are in the previous post.


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As I mention in the “About” page on this blog, I have been working for a long time on a PhD dissertation on the subject of Pope Formosus, who was Pope from 891 to 896, but had a long and very interesting career before that as Bishop of Porto (the port of Rome).   Most people I talk to about this have never heard of Pope Formosus, but if someone has it is always because of what happened to him after his death. I have put it this way in the introduction to several papers I’ve presented on the subject:

“Sometime near the beginning of the year 897, a shocking spectacle took place in Rome, as the sitting Pope put one of his predecessors on trial. That the predecessor was dead was only one unusual fact about the trial. What shocked contemporaries even more was that Stephen VI actually had the body of Formosus removed from its tomb and placed on the papal throne to face the charges against him! The contemporary Annales Fuldenses report the event in spare terms:

‘At Rome pope Formosus died on the holy day of Easter [April 4]; in his place Boniface was consecrated, who was attacked by gout and is said to have survived for barely two weeks. In his place a pope called Stephen [VI] succeeded, a man of notorious reputation, who in unheard-of fashion turned out his predecessor, Formosus from his grave, had him deposed by proxy and buried outside the usual place where popes are buried. (Annals of Fulda, trans. by Timothy Reuter (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), under the year 896, p. 135.’”

When I came upon this event many years ago, I found it interesting enough to investigate further. But I was not satisfied with the existing explanations for the ghastly trial, known commonly as the “Cadaver Synod.” So I began to do more research into the subject, and I determined that one cannot really understand the trial without looking at the entire context, including the long career of Formosus, which no one had done in about a hundred years. Many fine historians had investigated various aspects of the subject, as they related to issues they themselves were studying, such as the deposition of popes, or the question of who might judge a pope, but they always accepted the basic assumptions of a hundred years before (which was a natural thing to do in such cases). Over the past ten years and more, I have presented nine papers on various aspects of the career of Formosus, and on the Cadaver Synod, and have reached very different conclusions. I am currently attempting to stitch these papers (listed below) together into a dissertation, but because I get inquiries about this topic, I would like to present the conclusions I have reached, and how they differ from the earlier assumtions that one generally finds in the literature.

The general story can be found in Wikipedia, much of which is based on the work of Horace Kinder Mann, which was based on the work of Louis Duchesne. Duchesne was a great historian of early Christianity and of the papacy, and his work was extremely good, but suffered from some biases not unusual for his day.    In the next post, I will address how my conclusions differ from the generally accepted story.    Meanwhile, here is a list of the papers I have presented over the years that have brought me to those conclusions.

A Synod of Ravenna Confirming the Cadaver Synod?” Paper presented at the XIV International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, Toronto, 5-11 August 2012.     (In publication)

“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.

“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.

“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.


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