Notes on the here and now

Rage against the dead

The Cadaver Synod

In January 897, the corpse of Pope Formosus was disinterred from the tomb it had occupied for nine months, re-clad in its papal vestments, and brought to the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome to stand trial. The charges were varied, but included those of perjury and serving as a bishop while still a layman. The trial took the form of a church synod, with an array of cardinals and bishops attending. Formosus was provided with legal representation and the prosecuting counsel was allowed to question his cadaver directly. Responses were given by a deacon on behalf of the dead pope, mostly from prepared statements.

The reasons for the trial were bound up with the complex politics of ninth-century Italy. To cut a long story short, Formosus had crowned Arnulf of Carinthia as Holy Roman Emperor, but his successor as pope, Stephen VI, switched the crown to Lambert of Spoleto. Not content with this victory, Lambert wanted history put right and persuaded Stephen to put Formosus on trial.

So this was a political not a religious trial, though of course there was no sharp boundary between the two in medieval Europe. Unsurprisingly, Formosus was found guilty. The corpse’s papal vestments were exchanged for the clothes of a commoner. His prosecutors went so far as to cut off the three fingers he had used for consecrations and blessings. His corpse was reburied in a pauper’s grave, but soon after this, Stephen, seeming quite literally unable to let it lie, had Formosus dug up and thrown into the Tiber. The rage of Lambert and Stephen against the dead man was fierce, though history does not record whether the trial and the desecration of his corpse gave them any lasting satisfaction or catharsis.

A couple of years ago I wrote the first draft of a novel, set about ten years in the future, in which a radical leftist is elected Mayor of London. He appoints a committee to remove all politically incorrect statuary in the capital and replace it with images more fitting to multicultural London. The committee, unable to reach a consensus on which political and cultural figures are sufficiently untainted to be so honoured, ends up nominating fictional characters such as Black Panther and Lieutenant Uhura.

There was nothing especially prescient about any of this— the debate about decolonisation of our public spaces has going on for quite a few years now. But reality has certainty overtaken my fictional musings with the formation of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm last month.

The Greater London Authority’s website states that:

The commission will review what currently makes up London’s public realm, discuss what legacies should be celebrated, and make a series of recommendations that will help to establish best practice.
It will focus on increasing representation among Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, women, LGTBQ+ and disabled groups, as well as those from a range of social and economic backgrounds.
It will work alongside a Borough Working Group of local councils, and a Partners Board, including ActionSpace, Art Fund, English Heritage and Shape Arts, Arts Council England, Black Cultural Archives, Historic England and Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts).
The Commission is not being established to preside over the removal of statues.

So the removal of statues is off-limits, though I expect that the pressure to include them will become irresistible. However, I expect the initial battles to be focused on the names of streets and buildings. There will also, I think, be an awful lot of new art commissioned to support these objectives. In parallel with this London initiative, the now long-running campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College in Oxford has gained renewed impetus from the BLM protests and it is almost certain to be taken down very soon.

The arguments for removing the statues of Rhodes and others centre around the symbolism of Britain’s imperial past, the giving and taking of offence, and the moral qualities of the person commemorated. It’s a valid debate. But what seems to underlie many of the protests is the same rage against the dead and need for symbolic revenge that was expressed in the so-called Cadaver Synod. Though of course, now as then, there is a large amount of realpolitik at work too, in the struggle for power, status, and resources. Rhodes left substantial bequests to Oriel College and the Rhodes Trust Scholarships and no doubt these will be the next battleground. But the present day rage against the dead will never be assuaged. Prominent people from the past can never meet the exacting moral standards of the left-liberal progressives. And in the present historical moment, show trials of illustrious corpses cannot be ruled out.

[Image of Paul Laurens’ painting ‘Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]