The Mysterious Corpse Trials and Other Judicial Curiosities

When we think of trials we imagine all of the power and pomp that goes into it giving it a very dignified look and certainly the impression that what passes before a judge is being considered by the wisest members of a given community. But unlike the trials we are so used to, the trials of the ancient world were often not exclusive to humans. Animals, and even in some cases inanimate objects also had to be carefully considered before justice could be rendered. But why were these trials so common, and under what circumstances were they eventually phased out? And it wasn’t only statues, but the corpses of the once living that were often tried and – if found guilty, executed.

One of the strangest trials ever to grace the pages of history happened during a Corpse Trial or as it was known a Synodus Horrenda involving then Pope Formosus who would serve as the body despite the fact that he had died prior to the proceedings. It is unclear why anyone truly found it necessary to put the deceased pope on Trial in Italy, but it is suspected this was all done with the intention of reversing some of the political moves he had made at the end of his life. Only criminal action recognized by the court would ultimately reverse the decisions of the previous one and allow appointments and other decisions to be made by the court.  And so with the corpse on trial, they may have some way to reverse the actions of the then pope.

But surely this was a unique event, and all other trials were intended only for alive individuals taking a less literal interpretation to the term Habeus Corpus (bring the body).  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  In fact, throughout history there have been hundreds of cases where inanimate objects, insects, animals, and even statues have stood trial – with different results in many cases.  Sometimes those involved receive excellent defense attorneys, while other times they are not and must endure the punishment rendered by the judge.  One case in particular saw a bronze statue in France which was ordered to be executed “humanely by beheading.”

And the long list of strange trials does not end there.  Last year we brought you a story of some of the more incredible cases of animal trials, but one of the core questions of this arises not simply from the strangeness of putting a statue on trial, but what it means for us all if the same justice is applied to the inanimate and animate alike – and both humans and animals were subject to the same law.

Of course it’s also strange to consider the concept of justice itself as anything but a purely human enterprise.  After all, the animals in these cases did indeed receive trials.  And when they were found innocent they were granted full pardon.  How then are we less strange now that we allow the technocracy of policy utter dominion over our animals?  Animals who are considered dangerous by individuals can be “destroyed” and “euthanized” without a trial on the advice of a solitary individual and with little investigation into the claim afterward.  In that context, the question of which world was stranger is suddenly less clear.  And now our dead are remembered only by rumor and legend and the recollections and affairs of others rather than having the same trials as others.