It has been a strange time for Catholicism of late. Two living popes and terrible scandals have seen the Church struggle to retain its influence and accept the consequences of the past two millennia.
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation incited much mumbling about how such an event had not happened for nearly 600 years. The papacy’s constancy has softly lulled away the Roman Catholic Church’s turbulent past.
The last Papal resignation was actually two resignations, one excommunication and the creation of the wonderful term, ‘Antipope’.
In fact, the last Papal resignations were an attempt to end a strange period of Papal history known as the Western Schism. For over 40 years—slightly less than the average lifespan for the average European at the time—multiple popes vied for power from their seats in Avignon, Pisa and Rome.
While such an abundance of popes competing for supremacy was unusual, there were several occasions, sometimes lasting up to two years, between 1268 and 1417 where the Church could not agree on who should be Pope and no one held the role.
Let’s go back further, to a time when pontiffs were briskly shuffled through office as they, and those around them, angled and campaigned for greater influence and power in a landscape scarred with instability.
The period known dramatically as the Saeculum Obscurum (translation: the dark age) was a time so rife with corruption that it was later referred to it as either Pornocracy or Rule of the Whores, by Protestants seeking to spin stories to eager crowds.
Though the details are unclear, it is alleged the noble Theophylacti family, and particularly the women, conspired to remove and elect popes as it suited their whims and desire for wealth and power. Theodora and her daughter Marozia shaped Rome’s political and spiritual worlds so overtly it’s a miracle they have not yet been the focus of an HBO series.
Described as ‘whores’ by their enemies and afforded newly-suffixed titles of senatrix and patricia of Rome, Edward Gibbon believed these women are the basis of the female Pope myth.
Marozia was a teenage concubine to Pope Sergius III (who will we will hear more about later) and ensured their son became Pope John XI. Sergius, however, wasn’t her only entertainment. Marozia, in addition to her many lovers, also had three different husbands (the Duke of Spoleto, Guy of Tuscany and half-brother Italian King, Hugh of Arles) and had no hesitation in arranging murders (such as former lover Pope John X) if it suited her needs.
Theophylacti nepotism even outstripped the Borgia’s and Marozia birthed a papal family tree that Gibbon described as ‘the bastard son, the grandson, the great grandson, and two great great grandsons of Marozia—a rare genealogy—were seated in the Chair of St. Peter.’
Their era of influence ended at the deposing of Pope John XII (an indirect descendent), possibly so named because it was either a really popular name or the population just couldn’t keep up with the frenzied succession of popes.
Our knowledge of this period relies on the records left by Bishop Liutprand, whose account may have been coloured by his hostility towards the Roman aristocracy’s fondness for controlling Papal elections.
But going back just a little further to 897, a mere 7 years before the Pornocracy, is the most amazing story of all; one so batshittingly complex and viscerally insane that even George R.R. Martin hasn’t yet suggested it as a story line.
As with all the other events described above, it was political in nature and featured labyrinthine twists and turns, before descending into an abyss.
In 893, Pope Formosus invited rival Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Rome (not once, but twice!) to depose co-Holy Roman Emperors, the Spoleto family. Arnulf was successful on the second attempt and died in less than a year, as did Formosus. The Spoletos did not forget their grudge.
Rome enjoyed comparative tranquillity under the papacy of Formosus’ successor, Pope Boniface (who enjoys the distinction of being elected to papacy despite being twice degraded from holy orders for immorality). Unfortunately he died, quite unexpectedly, within two weeks of taking office. Well … that’s what some say. Others are convinced he was vigorously persuaded to disappear by the Spoleto family, who had a very definite score to settle.
Enter Stephen VI, Boniface’s successor and friend to the Spoletos (who he wanted to return to power). In 897, Stephen and the Spoletos demanded Formosus be exhumed.
It was probably around January that year that the decomposing corpse of Formosus was placed on a throne in the papal court. No testimony exists and, depending on whose account you read, it was either a sombre line of questioning or a fully unhinged hysterical spray before an audience either cowering in fear or, well, rotting.
Along with the remains of Pope Formosus, Stephen VI also dug up old claims against the dead pope which formed the basis of his legal ‘argument’. Formosus’ rotting corpse was charged with perjury, coveting the papacy, transmigrating (moving from his see of Porto to Bulgaria) and fraudulently serving as bishop and pope while a layman.
Who was there to speak for a dead man? A deacon, who was ordered to answer for Formosus and probably stammered out stock ventriloquisms in the vain hope of placating the living pope.
It was at this point that Stephen had all Formosus’ clothes ripped off, invalidated all his ordinations and cut from his corpse the three fingers used for blessing.
When the sham trial was finally over, Stephen refused to allow Formosus to be returned to his tomb. He was thrown into the Tiber, where panicked locals swore the body performed miracles.
Swayed by scandal and superstitious panic, the public led an uprising to have Stephen removed from the papacy and thrown into prison. The Spoletos abandoned him and, a few months later, the disgraced Pope was strangled in jail and Formosus’ body was reinterred to its rightful place.
There are some claims that Sergius III, former lover of Morazia, had Formosus exhumed again for another trial and, this time, actually had the corpse beheaded, but there is little evidence to support this.
In 1985, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger commissioned a study of the The Supremacy of the Bishop of Rome in the First Millennium. The resulting tome was released in 1991, an exploration of how people lived, worshipped and occupied power a millennium ago. There is a chapter about theSaeculum Obscurum in the book, but I suspect, as with most motivated histories, it is a book with omissions and missing chapters.
Times have changed and, though they no longer exhume dead bodies, the Church still battles with ghosts, secrets and the passage of time. The first millennium was a tumultuous time for Catholicism—it fought off invaders, it converted the masses, refined its rules, warred with factions and accumulated riches and power. The second millennium was much the same.
The only question now is: how they will face the third?
Authors note: go back through this article and try to spot the metal band name! Hint: there are three.