Papal bull

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Papal bull of Pope Urban VIII, 1637, sealed with a leaden bulla.

A Papal bull is a special kind of patent or charter issued by a pope and named for the seal (bulla) that was appended to the end to authenticate it. Papal bulls were originally issued by the pope for many kinds of communication of a public nature, but after the 15th century, only for the more formal or solemn of occasions. Modern scholars have retroactively used the term "bull" to describe any elaborate papal document issued in the form of a decree or privilege (solemn or simple), and to some less elaborate ones issued in the form of a letter. Popularly, the name is used for any papal document that contains a metal seal.

Papal bull's have been in use since at least the 6th century, but the term was not first used until around the middle of the 13th century and then only for internal un-official papal record keeping purposes; by the 15th century the term had become official when one of the offices of the chancery was named the "register of bulls" (registrum bullarum).



The bull's format began with one-line in tall elongated letters containing three elements: the pope's name, the pope's title (episcopus servus servorum Dei), and a phrase indicative of the bulls purpose for record keeping purposes (the incipit), from which the bull would also take its name. The body of the text had no special formating and was often very simple in layout. The closing section consisted of a short datum, mentioning the place it was issued, the day of the month and the year of the pope's pontification, signatures, and finally the seal.

The Pope, for the most solemn bulls, would sign the document himself, in which case he used the formula Ego N. Catholicae Ecclesiae Episcopus (I, N, Bishop of the Catholic Church). Following the signature in this case would be an elaborate monogram, the signature of any witnesses, and then the seal. Nowadays, a member of the Roman Curia signs the document on behalf of the Pope, usually the Cardinal Secretary of State, and thus the monogram is omited.

The most distinctive characteristic of a bull was the metal seal. This seal was usually made of lead but on very solemn occasions was made of gold. It depicted the founders of the church of Rome, the apostles Peter and Paul, identified by the letters Sanctus PAulus and Sanctus PEtrus. The name of the issuing pope is on the reverse side. This was then attached to the document by either cords of hemp or red and yellow silk that was looped through slits in the document. The term bulla actually is the name of this seal, which to ancient observers looked like a bubble floating on water. Bullire in Latin means "to boil". Since the late 18th century, the lead bulla has been replaced with a red ink stamp of Sts. Peter and Paul with the reigning pope's name encircling the picture, though very formal letters, e.g. the bull of John XXIII convoking the Second Vatican Council, still receive the lead seal.

Original papal bull's exist in quantity only after the 11th century onward when the transition from fragile papyrus to the more durable parchment was made. None survives in entirety from before 819. Some original leaden seals, however, still survive from as early as the 6th century.


In terms of content, the bull is simply the format in which a decree of the pope appears. Any subject may be treated in a bull, and many were and are, including statutory decrees, episcopal appointments, dispensations, excommunications, constitutions, canonizations and convocations. The bull was the exclusive letter format from the Vatican until the 14th century, when the Papal brief began to appear. The Papal brief is the less formal form of papal communication and is authenticated with a wax impression (now a red ink impression) of the Ring of the Fisherman. There has never been an exact distinction of usage between a bull and a brief, but nowadays most letters, including Papal encyclicals, are issued as briefs.

Today, the bull is the only written communication in which the pope will address himself as episcopus servus servorum Dei, meaning "Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God." For instance, Benedict XVI, when he issues a decree in bull form, will begin the document with Benedictus, Episcopus, Servus Servorum Dei. While it used to always bear a metal seal, it now does so only on the most solemn occasions. It is today the most formal type of patent issued by the Vatican Chancery in the name of the pope.

Examples of papal bulls

See also

External links

fr:Bulle it:Bolla pontificia no:Pavelig bulle pl:Bulla pt:Bula ru:Булла


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