A papal bull is a type of public decree, letters patent, or charter
issued by a pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is named after the
leaden seal (bulla) that was traditionally appended to the end in
order to authenticate it.
5 See also
8 Further reading
Printed text of
Pope Leo X's Bull against the errors of Martin Luther,
also known as Exsurge Domine, issued in June 1520
Papal bulls have been in use at least since the 6th century, but the
phrase was not used until around the end of the 13th century, and then
only internally for unofficial administrative purposes. However, it
had become official by the 15th century, when one of the offices of
Apostolic Chancery was named the "register of bulls" ("registrum
By the accession of
Pope Leo IX in 1048, a clear distinction developed
between two classes of bulls of greater and less solemnity. The
majority of the "great bulls" now in existence are in the nature of
confirmations of property or charters of protection accorded to
monasteries and religious institutions. In an epoch when there was
much fabrication of such documents, those who procured bulls from Rome
wished to ensure that the authenticity of their bull was above
suspicion. A papal confirmation, under certain conditions, could be
pleaded as itself constituting sufficient evidence of title in cases
where the original deed had been lost or destroyed.
Since the 12th century, papal bulls have carried a leaden seal with
the heads of the Apostles
Saint Peter and
Saint Paul on one side and
the pope’s name on the other. Papal bulls were originally issued by
the pope for many kinds of communication of a public nature, but by
the 13th century, papal bulls were only used for the most formal or
solemn of occasions.
Papyrus seems to have been used almost
uniformly as the material for these documents until the early years of
the eleventh century, after which it was rapidly superseded by a rough
kind of parchment.
Modern scholars have retroactively used the word "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.
Today, the bull is the only written communication in which the pope
will refer to himself as "Episcopus Servus Servorum Dei" ("Bishop,
Servant of the Servants of God"). For example, when
XVI issued a decree in bull form, he began the document with
"Benedictus, Episcopus, Servus Servorum Dei".
While papal bulls always used to bear a metal seal, they now do so
only on the most solemn occasions. A papal bull is today the most
formal type of public decree or letters patent issued by the Vatican
Chancery in the name of the pope.
A bull's format formerly began with one line in tall, elongated
letters containing three elements: the pope's name, the papal title
"Episcopus Servus Servorum Dei" ("Bishop, Servant of the Servants of
God"), and its incipit, i. e., the first few
Latin words from which
the bull took its title for record keeping purposes, but which might
not be directly indicative of the bull's purpose.
The body of the text had no specific conventions for its formatting;
it was often very simple in layout. The closing section consisted of a
short "datum" that mentioned the place of issuance, day of the month
and year of the pope's pontificate on which issued, and signatures,
near which was attached the seal.
For the most solemn bulls, the pope signed 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 signatures 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 omitted.
Lead bulla (obverse and reverse) of Gregory IX, pope 1227 to 1241
The most distinctive characteristic of a bull was the metal seal
(bulla), which was usually made of lead, but on very solemn occasions
was made of gold, as those on Byzantine imperial instruments often
were (see Golden Bull). On the obverse it depicted, originally
somewhat crudely, the early Fathers of the Church of Rome, the
Saint Peter and Saint Paul, identified by the letters Sanctus
PAulus and Sanctus PEtrus (thus, SPA •SPE or SPASPE). St. Paul, on
the left, was shown with flowing hair and a long pointed beard
composed of curved lines, while St. Peter, on the right, was shown
with curly hair and a shorter beard made of dome-shaped globetti
(beads in relief). Each head was surrounded by a circle of globetti,
and the rim of the seal was surrounded by an additional ring of such
beads, while the heads themselves were separated by a depiction of a
cross. On the reverse was the name of the issuing pope in the
Latin form, with the letters "PP", for Pastor Pastorum
("Shepherd of Shepherds"). This disc was then attached to the document
either by cords of hemp, in the case of letters of justice and
executory letters, or by red and yellow silk, in the case of letters
of grace, that was looped through slits in the vellum of the document.
The term "bulla" derives from the
Latin "bullire" (""to boil""), and
alludes to the fact that, whether of wax, lead, or gold, the material
making the seal had to be melted to soften it for impression.
In 1535, the Florentine engraver
Benvenuto Cellini was paid 50 scudi
to recreate the metal matrix which would be used to impress the lead
Pope Paul III. Cellini retained definitive iconographic
items like the faces of the two Apostles, but he carved them with a
much greater attention to detail and artistic sensibility than had
previously been in evidence. On the reverse of the seal he added
several fleurs-de-lis, a heraldic device of the Farnese family, from
Pope Paul III descended.
Since the late 18th century, the lead bulla has been replaced with a
red ink stamp of Saints Peter and Paul with the reigning pope's name
encircling the picture, though very formal letters, e. g. the bull of
Pope John XXIII convoking the Second Vatican Council, still receive
the leaden seal.
Original papal bulls 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 lead bullae, however, still survive from as early as the 6th
Main article: List of papal bulls
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, Apostolic constitutions,
canonizations, and convocations.
The bull was the exclusive letter format from the Vatican until the
14th century, when the papal brief appeared. The brief is the less
formal form of papal communication and was 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 encyclicals, are issued
Bull of the Crusade
Great Seal of the Realm
Rota (papal signature)
^ a b c One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text
from a publication now in the public domain: Thurston, Herbert
(1908). "Bulls and Briefs". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic
Encyclopedia. 3. New York: Robert Appleton.
^ "Papal bull". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
^ Mann, Stephanie A., "What Is a Papal Bull?", Our Sunday Visitor,
September 1, 2016
^ Botsford, George Willis; Botsford, Jay Barrett (1922). A Brief
History of the World: With Especial Reference to Social and Economic
Conditions. Macmillan. p. 293.
Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and
"Papal bull". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Papal bulls.
Albert, C.S. “Bull.” Lutheran Cyclopedia. New York: Scribner,
1899. p. 67
Papal Encyclicals Online
List of Conciliar documents at the Theology Library
Cherubini Laertius: Magnum Bullarium Romanum
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