Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"), 1870 Concile cadavérique de 897 (The “Cadaver Synod”) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes
Few stories better illustrate the problems of the medieval Catholic Church than the story of Pope Formosus. When this pope died in 856, his troubles were far from over. A personal enemy became the new pope and had Formosus’ body dug up and put on trial. To no one’s surprise, the late Formosus was convicted of illegally seizing the papal throne. His body was stripped of its priestly vestments, the fingers on his right hand (used for giving the benediction) were cut off, and his body was thrown into the Tiber River. Not surprisingly, the rest of the Church, ranging from bishops, archbishops, and abbots down to the lowliest monks and parish priests, was also seething with corruption.
The Church’s wealth, some 20-30% of the land in Western Europe, was a big part of the problem. With little money in circulation at this time, land was the main source of wealth and power, making the Church the object of the political ambitions of nobles throughout Europe. Naturally, such nobles, who were warriors by trade, usually ignored and even trampled over the religious interests of the Church.