Once upon a time in Rome, the shiny fisherman's ring of office didn't exactly poof from one pope's finger to the next in a graceful flurry of white doves and smoke. Transitions were a tad bumpier than the stately shenanigans that recently graced St.Peter's Square. It wasn't all about kicking around in the Sistine chapel admiring the pictures and drinking Benedictine while waiting for a super-secret conclave (flock? davinci? gibson?) of cardinals to make a decision. Those who would be pope used to take a bit more of a hands-on approach to things.
More blood, more assassins, and sometimes... zombie popes. Or at least Pope of the Living Dead. Kinda.
And so we turn our minds back to events following April 4, 896 when Pope Formosus (yes I know, would you call your son Formosus? Maybe some would, after all it means "good-looking" in latin, but what's wrong with a nice biblical name like Manger, anyway?) shuffled off this mortal coil due to old age, heartbreak, guilt or chagrin depending on whose version of events you read.
Before his death, Formosus had been caught up in political squabbles over who got to rule the Holy Roman Empire.** While he favoured Arnulf of Carinthia (East Frankish Carlovingian/Carolingian/Karling dynasty), his next successor-but-one Stephen VI (Boniface VI, the pope in between, lasted only two weeks) preferred the rugged and manly charm of Lambert, Duke of Spoleto. Since both these gentlemen had been crowned emperor by Formosus at different times (long story), Stephen VI took drastic action to ensure Lambert's legitimacy and undermine Arnulf's descendents claim. Lambert and his mother Agiltrude, no fan of the Carolingians herself, also wanted vengeance on Formosus for his double-dealing.
(gross bit coming up)
And so in January 897 they disinterred Formosus' decomposing corpse (do the maths - that's grim), dressed him in his papal togs and propped up him up on his throne.Then they convened a special synod and tried him as a usurper. The synod would come to be known as the synod horrenda or cadaver synod. (p.167)
After a bit of angry shouting by Stephen VI, the synod convicted Formosus, chopped off the three fingers he used for papal blessings, stripped him of his vestments and dumped him in a pauper's grave. But there was no rest for Formosus yet, since grave-robbers made off with his body. When they found nothing of value on it, they dumped it in the Tiber. (p.168)
Stephen's macabre trial did little to endear him to the people of Rome, and their discontent found a focus when a monk wandering along the riverbank later that year spotted a body which he quickly identified as Formosus (well, what other corpse could possibly have been bobbing along down Porto way with missing fingers?) and fished him out. Rumours quickly circulated that the waterlogged remains had the power to perform miracles. A public uprising followed and Stephen VI was deposed and put in prison where he was strangled in either July or August of that year.
In November that year, Pope Theodore II found time during his 20-day reign to annul the synod's verdict, and the body was kitted out in a new outfit and returned to its tomb in St.Peter's Basilica. His successor, Pope John IX declared any future trial of a dead person unlawful and burned the synod records.
Even this wasn't the end of the story. A later pope, Sergius III, (904-911) would overturn these rulings and write a lovely epitaph for Stephen VI's tomb. There are also reports that he exhumed Formusus' much-abused corpse, tried and convicted it a second time and then beheaded it. Although never over-turned, Sergius III's decisions were disregarded afterwards due to his Spoletan bias. Accusations of murder, corruption and the nefarious influence of his concubine, Marozia, probably didn't help.
Now of course, it could be argued that this was the sort of thing that those addled medieval-types got up to when they'd sampled a bit too much of their home-brewed mead. But this was by no means the last time a corpse was tried… (what a cliff-hanger - insert doom-laden music here, preferably with bagpipes).
**Charlemagne, son of Pepin (not a hobbit) was the most famous Carolingian King of the Franks, a Germanic confederation which covered the Low Countries, western Germany and most of France apart from Brittany. The treaty of Verdun of 843 saw three of his grandsons split his kingdom into three parts: Lothair got Middle Francia, Louis the German got East Francia and Charles the Bald (hee!) got West Francia.
East Francia slowly and stickily became the Holy Roman Empire of the West (aka of the German nation aka the Reich), the process finishing under Otto I the Great in 962. A bit before Otto, Charles the Fat (son of Louis the German) helped things along, since he managed to inherit large chunks of his uncles' territory owing to their unfortunate habit of dying without heirs. But nothing was straightforward and the situation often became as messy as their Merovingian predecessors' hair in a force 10 gale.
Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII, 1870, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, via Wikipedia