Today I’d like to tell you about Pope Formosus, who died on this day in the year 869. Before he became Pope he had already been excommunicated and reinstated once. As Bishop of Portus, he took off to Bulgaria to persuade a man called Charles the Bald that he really ought to be Holy Roman Emperor. The Bulgarians liked him so much that they wanted to keep him. So he got into trouble for seeming a bit above himself and also for ‘despoiling the cloisters’ in Rome. Whether he did or didn’t do these things isn’t really what I’m interested in today. I want to tell you about what happened to him after he died.
As far I can tell he didn’t really do anything bad. There are plenty of Popes who were far worse. But, twenty-eight years after his death, in 897, the whole Bulgarian thing was a still a problem to one of his successors, Stephen VI. He decided that Formosus should have been excommunicated after all and had his body exhumed. He then had him dressed in papal robes, seated on a throne, tried and found guilty. His papacy was declared null and all of his actions invalidated. If Stephen had thought this through properly, he might have remembered one of Formosus’ actions had been to make Stephen a bishop. But just in case you need further evidence that Pope Stephen wasn’t thinking clearly, here’s what happened next… Formosus’ corpse was stripped of it’s robes and had three of it’s fingers cut off, (the ones Formosus would have used in life for blessing). He was briefly reburied then dug up a second time and thrown in the Tiber. Everyone was pretty angry about that and Stephen was deposed, imprisoned and then strangled. The next Pope had Formosus’ body retrieved and reburied in St Peter’s. He also declared that there would be no more trials against dead people. Sadly that wasn’t the end for poor Formosus. It is possible that he was dug up and tried again during the reign of Pope Sergius III, found guilty again and was beheaded.
Here’s something a bit more cheerful though. Today is also the feast day of Saint Isadore of Seville. When he was Bishop of Seville he gathered together all the learned texts that survived from classical times and edited them all into one massive work. It was published in the seventh century and was a sort of encyclopaedia that contained everything in the world ever.
His Etymologiae ran to twenty volumes and covered a massive range of subjects. You could read it and find out all about history, mathematics and grammar, or everything Isadore considered worth knowing about dust. It became the most used text book of the middle ages. Pliny the Elder’s ‘Natural History’ was a major source of his information. So all those medieval bestiaries full of pictures of people with faces in their chests, dog’s heads or one massive foot as well as exotic animals, real or imagined have all come through him from the writings of Pliny which first appeared around 77AD. Pliny, in turn, had them from Heroditus, a Greek writing in the 5th century BC.
It is because of his comprehensive gathering of all knowledge that he has become known as the patron saint of the internet. Like the internet, his work has good and bad points. Because his books were so popular, it is often the only existing source of some information, because the original documents that he studied have been lost. On the other hand, the reason some of them are lost was that scribes spent so much time copying out Isadore’s book that they didn’t bother to copy the originals any more. If you’ve searched the internet for the original source for some wild claim, you’ll be familiar with this problem.
When I was looking for a picture of him, I found that he is often pictured as a bishop holding a pen and surrounded by bees. I thought this was an excellent image for the patron saint of the internet, because trying to focus on writing on a machine that has access to everything in the world ever is pretty much like trying to write with bees buzzing everywhere – distracting. I tried to find you a picture of him with the bees, it took ages, I got horribly side tracked and came up with nothing. So I’ve drawn you one.