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.
At 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
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?