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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

“Formosus, Fermenting” 

Overheard at Basilica Salvatoris (Basilica of the Saviour), Rome, Italy, January of the year 897:


“Your Eminence, Formosus is here.”

“Good. Send him in.”

“Yes, your Eminence.”

“Please, Formosus, sit down.”

“Thank you.”

(cracking sounds)

“I see that you are dressed in the papal vestments.”

“As you requested, your Eminence.”

“You look well, all things considered.”

“Your Eminence is too kind. Eighty years have weighed heavily on this body. My – oops! Pardon me, your Eminence. My flesh has become prone to decay, and occasionally falls from the bone like so much tender meat on a fire.”  

“A quite disgusting malady, but not unheard of in this age of mysterious disease and pestilence. So tell me – aside from the rotting, how’ve you been?”

“Dead, your Eminence. I’ve been quite dead for some time now.”

“Ah yes, ha ha. I do seem to recall your having passed away a while back – how long has it been?”

“Nine months, your Eminence.”

“Nine months spent in the womb of the earth, and now, here you are, temporarily reborn.”

“A very eloquent way of putting it, your Eminence. Some would simply say I’ve been unceremoniously exhumed for a farce of a trial. I do prefer the poetry of your words. You have a grace of the tongue that is truly a gift from God.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Formosus. Nor will it benefit any eighteen year old deacons who might be standing behind your dead body and speaking for you. “

“I am sure I speak not only for myself, but also for the fine young man manipulating my limbs and supplying my voice for this meeting, when I say that I did not mean to offend, your Eminence.”

“In vain, I’m afraid. Your odor, for one thing, is quite offensive.”

“My apologies, your Eminence. It is an unfortunate side effect of my present state, that being putrefaction.”

“You can hardly be blamed; it can only be expected that the putrefaction of your body should match the putrefaction of your heretic soul.”

“Thank you, your Eminence.”

“Certainly. And speaking of your heretic soul, let us move along with these proceedings. Some of us have better things to do than sit around all day, dropping our own decayed flesh onto the ground.”

“Yes, your Eminence – the proceedings. Though I should point out that some would say, your Eminence, that this trial has been motivated strictly by politics; that your  Eminence was installed as pope only by the power of Agiltruda the Lombard, mother of Lambert, the whelp who would be Holy Roman emperor, and that your Eminence is simply exacting revenge on behalf of Agiltruda, upon Formosus – I mean, me – for naming Arnulf the Frank as emperor last February instead of her son.”

“Others might say that the Holy See acts by the grace of God, and that the Lord struck down Arnulf the pretender with his current paralysis as retribution for his pride and trangressions. They would say that the name of Formosus should be stricken from the papal records because he is, and was, a tool of evil.”

“Or they might say, instead, that any pope who would try a dead man must be deranged, and unfit to hold the position.”

“Evil, evil.”

“Let us say that we shall agree to disagree, then, your Eminence.”

“It is not so simple as that, unfortunately for you.”

“Yes, it is more complicated than that, isn’t it? The payback of old favors is one thing, but might not your Eminence also be looking to protect his position as Pope? For your Eminence has held two bishoprics, a duality expressly forbidden by the Council at Nicaea. And to my eternal embarrassment, it was I who named you to one of them. By invalidating my papacy, which I assume to be the purpose of this trial, you will invalidate one of your bishoprics, leaving you with one bishopric in good historical and doctrinal standing. Your papacy would be seen as legitimate. ”

“This papacy is legitimate! Enough of this! Is the council ready to hear the charges against this man? Give me bidding to continue.”

            “This audience is comprised, properly, of the cardinals and bishops of the Holy See. We are ready to hear the case against Formosus.”

“For the purpose of proper formality, I must ask the accused: Do you know who it is that addresses you, Formosus?”

“You are Stephen VII, sometimes called ‘The Trembler,’ because of your nervous disease and general nervous manner, which many call an indication of insanity.”

“And your name, Formosus, means ‘good-looking’ in Latin, does it not? There, now we have established that names carry no currency. What is my title?”

“You are the Holy See, the Pope and the rightful steward of the church.”

“Well done. And do you know why you are here?”

“(sigh) Because I was evil, your Eminence.”

“Now you’re talking, Formosus.”

“That wasn’t Formosus speaking, your Eminence. It was me, here behind him, speaking on his behalf. Formosus is dead and can’t speak any more.”

“Get back behind him, dolt! Continue with the confession!”

“Sorry, your Eminence. I, Formosus, knowingly accepted the Bishopric of Rome after previously serving as Bishop of Porto. I accepted the title and office of pope unjustly. I further plotted to grant the title of Holy Roman emperor to an unfit recipient, he who is known as Arnulf.”

“That about sums it up, I suppose. What do you propose we do about it?”

“Do about it? Your Eminence, now that your authority has been confirmed, and the authority of Formosus denied its legitimacy, what more is there to do?”

“There is the matter of punishment, of course.”

“Your Eminence, with my being dead, any punishment you could administer would be pointless.”

“Not pointless. It would be a kind of entertainment for me, and useful as such.”

“To what punishment would you sentence me, then?”

“Hmm… I hadn’t given much thought to the details. Let me see if our audience, strangely reserved during this trial so far, has any ideas. Cardinal Sergius?”

“Um, yes, your Eminence?”

“Have you any suggestions as to a punishment for this usurper?”

“Well… you might have him slap himself about the face, your Eminence.”

“Yes. Yes, I might do just that. Formosus – slap yourself about the face.”

“Y-your Eminence?”

“Now, Formosus.”

“Unngh. His hand – I mean, my hand – seems to be stuck in place, your Eminence. It is stiffened with death.”

(cracking sounds)

“Your Eminence, I seem to have broken off the first three fingers of my right hand.”

“Excellent! See, Formosus, you are not so barren of ideas after all. As a false pope, it is fitting that the fingers used in the papal blessing be denied you. Sergius, deliver those fingers to Agiltruda. She will appreciate the gift’s irony, as well as its trophy value. And rip those papal vestments from Formosus –  he is not entitled to wear them. Nor is he entitled to a Christian burial. When you have finished, dump his body in the Tiber River. Formosus, it’s been a pleasure.”

“I wish I could say the same, your Eminence.”

“Your Eminence ‑ perhaps we should deliver the complete, naked corpse of Formosus to Agiltruda?”

“Don’t be morbid, Sergius. That would be beyond the bounds of good taste.”


* Based on actual events, now known to historians as The Cadaver Synod.



Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Formosus, Fermenting." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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