History of Medieval Corpse Trials


In a desire to order all things according to God’s universal laws medieval communities dragged into its courts all manner of things, even corpses pulled from their tombs.

The Middle Ages not only tried and sentenced animals in their courts but also held trials of the dead, and of inanimate objects. It was not concerned with the individual criminal or his subjective understanding of justice. In 1591 Pierre Ayrault said that it was no more pointless to condemn the guilty after death than to posthumously acquit the innocent.

The Object Trials

To be convicted, any object on trial must have been witnessed as ‘moving toward the death’ of the victim, although what this means was difficult to ascertain. Certainly the statue of Athenian athlete Nikon was just minding its own business when rival sports fans pulled it down, killing one of their own in the melee. Church bells were found guilty whether they fell on the campanologist’s head, or dragged him up the belfry because he forgot to let go of the rope.

In addition, trials were careful only to incriminate the death-dealing parts of arraigned objects. Cartwheels were taken apart so that singular rims or axles, or spokes of axles, could receive due punishment. One bale of hay, smaller than its fellows, was judged to be responsible for destabilising a whole stack and causing it to fall and kill a person.

Medieval Catholics & the Corpse Trials

The corpse is a type of inanimate object. Medieval Catholic ritual changed inanimate objects into living things as a matter of course. Through God’s action the wafer became flesh and the wine became blood, as is still celebrated by today’s Catholics. Through a similar process the corpse and the thing can both be understood as sufficiently animated, or re-animated, by God and His law to attend court.

Pope Formosus & the Cadaver Synod

The first corpse trial on record was held in 897CE Rome and concerns Pope Formosus. After eight months in its grave Formosus’ corpse was exhumed, dressed in papal robes and seated on the throne to answer old charges against him, which included trying to usurp the papacy. His successor, Stephen VI, screamed his questions at the corpse, which remained unmoved.

Formosus was found posthumously and unanimously guilty. Its papal robes stripped, the corpse was then dragged out of the baptistery and buried in a potter’s field. Grave robbers dug up the body but finding nothing useful threw it into the Tiber.

After Stephen’s death his successor, Theodore II, ‘found’ Formosus’ body and had it returned to Rome. It had been buried for eight months, out of the tomb for one-and-a-half years and floating in the river for about ten months. Theodore had the ex-pope reclad in pontifical robes and set upon the throne. The rotting corpse was venerated for several days before being reburied with all honours.

After this, the trial of corpses was banned.

Time-span of the Corpse Trials

Despite the ban, over the thirteenth century the Inquisition disinterred and burnt hundreds of corpses as standard inquisitorial practice. In fifteenth century Nuremberg the bodies of those who died waiting to go to trial would be brought to court in chains where lawyers would point out that the accused was not ‘in full possession of his faculties’ and so required the court’s help with any defence.

The trials continued through the medieval period and into the enlightenment. In 1670 the regional legal codes of France were brought into a national code, under which it would be mandatory for all traitors, suicides, duellists, and dead prisoners to go before the court. Living offenders were offered no defence counsel whereas corpses were entitled to a lawyer.

Why did They Execute the Dead

To the medieval mind evil was contagious. They feared the evil inherent in the physical world, including its objects. They feared the dead, suspecting they did not remain so. They feared God’s wrath, which would not only fall upon those who committed sin but also upon their communities.

This mindset was not confined to the Middle Ages. At one of the final posthumous executions in 1806 it was the people, not the courts, who insisted on the sentence and on their traditional rights to mutilate the body.