Some people say “reality is stranger than fiction,” and throughout the course of human history, this has definitely been true. Here are just five of those moments that were as strange – or stranger – than something you would find in books or on tv:

1. Putting a Dead Pope on Trial - The Cadaver Synod (897)

In the ninth century, the Pope was an incredibly powerful and unstable political figure ruling over central Italy. Between 872 and 965, over two dozen popes were appointed, often with a new one every year, all coming from rival factions in Rome, leading to some internal tensions. In 896, Pope Formosus died after a five year pontificate filled with power struggles and external influences over the Papacy. His successor and former rival, Pope Stephen VI, accused the now-dead Formosus of perjury and being appointed pope illegally, having his corpse removed from its tomb and brought to the papal court for judgment, where a trial was held and Formosus was found guilty! Pope Stephen VI then decreed that the guilty body of Formosus be dumped in Rome’s river Tiber. After this had been done, however, the people of Rome protested, rumouring the body was performing miracles, and Stephen was imprisoned and killed by a popular uprising, with the following pope reversing the previous trial.

2. Three Popes at the Same Time? – The Western Schism (1409-1417)

On the topic of popes, by the end of the Middle Ages the title had been used by kings to gain power over the Catholic Church, placing puppets on the throne to secure their authority. From 1309 to 1377, the Papacy had left Rome for the Southern French city of Avignon, where they had been under the influence of the French kings, but decided to return to Rome in 1377 under Pope Gregory XI. When Gregory XI died just a few months later, however, the College of Cardinals elected two separate popes, Urban VI and Clement VII, one of whom returned to Avignon and the other stayed in Rome. The Church Council of Pisa in 1409 only complicated things, where it was declared that both popes were illegitimate, electing a third Pope, Alexander V, who only lived a few months afterwards. This three-poped situation would only end after the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which elected Martin V as the new, single, pope, reigning from Rome.

3. When Everybody Got Footloose – The Dancing Plague (1518)

When people think of plagues, they usually think of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, deadly worldwide diseases that spread and killed quickly and mercilessly. Rarely does anyone consider dancing as a cause of death, or even that it might spread from person to person. But in 1518, in the Alsacian city of Strasbourg, in modern-day France, somewhere between 50 and 400 people took to the streets, dancing for days before collapsing to their deaths. In July of that year, a woman suddenly began to dance in the streets, after which she was joined by several young women, but the dancing did not stop, eventually spreading to others beyond the original group. Medicine at the time thought that these people were victims of demonic possession or ‘overheated blood,’ and some sources claim that up to 15 people died per day, but after a few months of this dancing plague, it eventually began to subside in early September of the same year.

4. Throwing Diplomats out of Windows – The Defenestration of Prague (1618)

The sixteenth century saw the Protestant Reformation sweep across Europe, throwing Kings, Princes, and the Popes into a frenzy of tensions, wars, and conflicts. By the seventeenth century, the waves were calming down, but it was far from over, especially in the Kingdom of Bohemia, the modern day Czech Republic, a land full of Protestants ruled over by a Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. In 1618, after an alleged imperial decree forbidding Protestant church construction on royal lands, four Catholic Bohemian lords were sent to the assembly of the Protestants, arguing the superiority of their faith, with both sides calling for the other’s arrest. Instead of arresting anyone, however, the Protestants grabbed two of the Catholic lords and defenestrated them – threw them out of the window – where they fell from the third floor, surviving the 70-foot fall. Catholic sources say that this was a miracle and that they were saved by angels or the Virgin Mary herself, while Protestants say that the two lords fell into a pile of manure.

5. That One Time the Dutch Ate Their Prime Minister – Johan de Witt (1672)

Political protest is a sensitive issue, with those passionate about their causes taking to the streets and often meeting significant backlash. In 1672, a year subsequently dubbed the Disaster Year by Dutch historians, however, it seemed as if everything was on the table, including cannibalism. The Dutch Republic was, at the time, at war with England, France, and the city states of Cologne and Munster, and the people of the Netherlands were starting to feel the negative effects of a wartime society and beginning to question the rule of their Prime Minister, Johan de Witt, who had been reigning for nearly 20 years. Following an assassination attempt in late June, de Witt resigned, but this was not enough for his enemies nor the people, and he was sent to be tortured and exiled. On the way to the jail, however, the former Prime Minister and his brother were attacked and left to the mob, who began to roast and eat their bodies in a frenzy after having killed them.

Aleks graduated from Yale with a double major in History and Religious Studies. He is now finishing his MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Columbia University, exploring both New York and the History of the Church through the study of Medieval and Inquisitorial manuscripts.


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