Murder, whores, and corpse trials: the bizarre history of the papacy

When you imagine popes, you probably don’t imagine a mountain of murderous, whore-mongering scumbags clawing at each other in the attempt to briefly rise to the top of a bleeding pile of corpses made of other popes. But that is exactly what happened during period luridly referred to as the ‘Pornocracy’, or more formally as the Saeculum Obscuram (‘The Dark Age’).

As it turns out, not even a thousand years after the death of Christ, popes were murdering each other with such regularity that they basically needed a papal mill to keep up with demand. For a while there, the average pope ruled for just two years before he was killed; one poor guy made it only 20 days before he was murdered (probably by strangulation, which seems to have been the favored method of dispatch), while another was reputedly smothered to death in prison by his mistress.

Imagine being a cardinal, and having the other cardinals vote you in as pope while they snickered behind their sleeves. It was basically a pat on the wrist before they stuck the knife in.



So much weird shit happened during the Saeculum Obscuram that I can’t cover it all, but without a doubt, the weirdest event of them all was the Cadaver Synod.

Flogging a dead pope

In January 897, Pope Stephen VI, one of the more murderous popes in the history of the Catholic church, pulled Pope Formosus – his extremely dead predecessor – out of his tomb. They dressed him up, stuck him on a throne, and put him on trial. Formosus was obviously unable to speak for himself, so what I presume was the unluckiest Deacon in the world was told to speak on behalf of the dead pope. Stephen accused Formosus of perjury and of having acceded to the papacy illegally.

Jean_Paul_Laurens_Le_Pape_Formose_et_Etienne_VII_1870At the end of the trial, Formosus was pronounced guilty and his papacy retroactively declared null. All of his ordinations and rulings were declared invalid and were overturned. This is particularly funny because Formosus had ordained Stephen VI as a Bishop, meaning that Pope Stephen was no longer ordinated himself. This is pretty representative of the clusterfuck that was the Holy See at the time.

After being declared guilty, Pope Formosus had his blessing fingers amputated, and his body was thrown into the Tiber River. He washed up some time later and was then reinterred by the next pope after Stephen VI (who was strangled in prison after being overthrown, probably for strangling and murdering other popes). But that wasn’t the end for poor Formosus: he was likely re-exhumed and beheaded by Pope Sergius III.

You may ask: “Why was Pope Formosus the cause of so much slippered rage?” Jealousy, basically. The people of Bulgaria wanted him as their Bishop, and nagged and nagged the Vatican so much that they got the idea that Formosus wanted to lead a peasant revolution against the Church in the East. You know there’s too much lead in the water when popes are digging up their forebears to yell at their corpses for four months at a time.

Popes behaving badly

Popes really liked to screw. Our contemporary popes are pretty laid-back and highly principled compared to the stewards of Christ in the past, probably because they don’t have any actual power now.

Pope Sergius III’s pontificate has been variously described as “dismal and disgraceful” and “efficient and ruthless”. He murdered his predecessor and an antipope named Christopher (which is actually a pretty great name for an Antipope). A then-15 year old girl named Marozia became his mistress and bore him an illegitimate son. Marozia, the daughter of husband and wife proto-mafia duo Theophylact and Theodora, really deserves an article of her own: she effectively commanded the papacy until her death, which was – you guessed it – being strangled by some faceless assassin while in prison.

Sergius III was nowhere near the most debauched pope in the hi

He also had a mouth like a cat's bum.

Sergius III also had a mouth like a cat’s bum.

story of the church, though. John XII absolutely put him to shame. He committed incest, had numerous affairs, gambled, hunted, and apparently ordained a deacon in a horse stable:

“John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops, specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi… They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father’s concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons.”

Pope Paul II ate himself to death (melons, apparently),  Alexander VI fathered at least seven illegitimate children, and Julius III had a long and torrid affair with a man with the beautiful name of Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, who served as a cardinal. He was not innocent in any way: after Julius died, he murdered two men and raped two lower class women, and eventually died in anonymity.

So there you have it: who needs the Illuminati when you have the Catholic Church?

The Internet Propaganda Machine

Also the blog post which could have been titled: “You won’t believe what the Internet is doing to your brain!”

Or maybe: “10 Ways Blogs Are Destroying Politics As We Know It.”

I bet those kinds of titles are all too familiar to the average reader. They’re the hallmark of clickbait, blog posts which are designed, psychologically speaking, to reflexively rouse curiosity, anger or awe – the three trigger emotions which are most associated with sharing posts. Shared enough times, a post becomes viral. Viral posts generate ad revenue for bloggers, so bloggers have a concrete incentive to write clickbait.

And, much like the cigarette advertisers of the 1970s and 1980s, they have psychological manipulation down to a fine art.

It was only a matter of time before interested parties caught on to the propaganda potential of the Internet in its current form. Political parties, activist groups… anyone with the potential to hire people like Edward Bernays, considered to be the founding father of P.R – or ‘manufactured consent’. They don’t call P.R that any more, naturally – it smacks of manipulation, and that would be… well, bad P.R.

Bernays, in the opening of his book Propaganda, writes: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

conflicting_headlinesOne of the most recent manifestations of this propaganda machine is clickbait. As Ryan Holiday covers in his rather amazing book Trust Me, I’m Lying, the Internet – and blogs, in particular – is the ultimate propaganda platform. Anyone can say anything, as much as they want, in ways that are visually stimulating, in mediums that arrest and compel, and they don’t have to be true to be convincing… editing, spin, even fake videos are used to build up and destroy people and organizations. Planned Parenthood, for example: Planned Parenthood is a reoccurring target of the political Right, and is currently in the media after doctored videos purporting to show them selling ‘chopped up baby parts’ were published online. Of course they don’t do this – but even though the videos are fakes, they are emotionally stimulating and they conform to the beliefs of people who really really want Planned Parenthood’s baby part black market to be real, so that they can continue to be angry and offended and justified in those beliefs.

P.R originated in the USA, and it is the USA that really suffers the brunt of clickbait, to the point now where the next U.S election almost certainly rests on the success of bullshit posted online. Left, Right, Fringe… it doesn’t matter. There’s so much convincing propo and so many talented marketers, busy-bee bloggers aspiring for moments of viral fame, and corporate (and not-for-profit) hounds pulling the strings that stunts will win out over policies, if everyone tweets about it enough.

The scary thing? We know this happens. We know we’re vulnerable to this. But no one stops it, and no one stops themselves from reacting.

I’m not American, but I worry about the next U.S election. The rise of the Internet propaganda machine has contributed to a sharp increase in extremist positions. When I was a teenager, the mantra on 4chan was that the Internets were not serious business, that anything you did online stayed online and didn’t translate to your ‘IRL’ persona. This is increasingly tenuous. The Internet is having very real consequences on politics and the public mind, contributing to a fanatical frenzy at both ends of the political spectrum, on people whose entire worldview is shaped by blog-based propaganda.

The regimes of the past could only have dreamed of a system like this. Not only are people still as receptive to bullshit as they ever were, they can now access free sources which exclusively feed their cultured worldview, however bizarre or contradictory that worldview is. We are seeing people increasingly focused in on their extreme point of view, hostile and hurt by exposure to ideas that they don’t agree with.

In other words, we are the self-perpetuating propaganda machine: the Facebook memers, the #hashtaggers, the Imgurians.

Edward Bernays said: “Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject.” But when it is a mass of /b/tards or Stormfronters or David Icke’s true believers, those groups are no longer small.

I don’t think even Edward Bernays saw this one coming.


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