Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
A bulla was originally a circular plate or boss of metal, so called from its resemblance in form to a bubble floating upon water (Latin bullire, to boil). In the course of time the term came to be applied to the leaden seals with which papal and royal documents were authenticated in the early Middle Ages, and by a further development, the name, from designating the seal, was eventually attached to the document itself. This did not happen before the thirteenth century and the name bull was only a popular term used almost promiscuously for all kinds of instruments which issued from the papal chancery. A much more precise acceptance has prevailed since the fifteenth century, and a bull has long stood in sharp contrast with certain other forms of papal documents. For practical purposes a bull may be conveniently defined to be "an Apostolic letter with a leaden seal," to which one may add that in its superscription the pope invariably takes the title of episcopus, servus servorum Dei.
In official language papal documents have at all times been called by various names, more or less descriptive of their character. For example, there are "constitutions," i.e., decisions addressed to all the faithful and determining some matter of faith or discipline; "encyclicals," which are letters sent to all the bishops of Christendom, or at least to all those in one particular country, and intended to guide them in their relations with their flocks; "decrees," pronouncements on points affecting the general welfare of the Church; "decretals" (epistolae decretales), which are papal replies to some particular difficulty submitted to the Holy See, but having the force of precedents to rule on all analogous cases. "Rescript," again, is a form applicable to almost any form of Apostolic letter which has been elicited by some previous appeal, while the nature of a "privilege" speaks for itself. But all these, down to the fifteenth century, seem to have been expedited by the papal chancery in the shape of bulls authenticated with leaden seals, and it is common enough to apply the term bull even to those very early papal letters of which we know little more than the substance, independently of the forms under which they were issued.
It will probably be most convenient to divide the subject into periods, noting the more characteristic features of papal documents in each age.
There can be no doubt that the formation of a chancery or bureau for drafting and expediting of official papers was a work of time. Unfortunately, the earliest papal documents known to us are only preserved in copies or abstracts from which it is difficult to draw any safe conclusions as to the forms observed in issuing the originals. For all that, it is practically certain that no uniform rules can have been followed as to superscription, formula of salutation, conclusion, or signature. It was only when some sort of registry was organized, and copies of earlier official correspondence became available, that a tradition gradually grew up of certain customary forms that ought not to be departed from. Except for the unsatisfactory mention of a body of notaries charged with keeping a record of the Acts of the Martyrs, c. 235 (Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, I, pp. c-cl), we meet with no clear reference to the papal archives until the time of Julius I (337-353), though in the pontificate of Damascus, before the end of the same century, there is mention of a building appropriate to this special purpose. Here, in the scrinium, or archivium sanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ, the documents must have been registered and kept in a definite order, for extracts and copies still in existence preserve traces of their numbering. These collections or regesta went back to the time of Pope Gelasius (492-496) and probably earlier. In the correspondence of Pope Hormisdas (514-525) there are indications of some official endorsement recording the date at which letters addressed to him were received, and for the time of St. Gregory the Great (590-604) Ewald has been at least partially successful in reconstructing the books which contained the copies of the pope's epistles. There can be little doubt that the Pontifical chancery of which we thus infer the existence was modeled upon that of the imperial court. The scrinium, the regionary notaries, the higher officials such as the primicerius and the secundarius, the arrangement of the Regesta by indictions, etc., are all probably imitations of the practice of the later empire. Hence we may infer that the code of recognized forms soon established itself, analogous to that observed by the imperial notaries. One formulary of this description is probably still preserved to us in the book called "Liber Diurnus", the bulk of which seems to be inspired by the official correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great. In the earlier papal letters, however, there are as yet but few signs of the observance of traditional forms. Sometimes the document names the pope first, sometimes the addressee. For the most part the pope bears no title except Sixtus episcopus or Leo episcopus catholicae ecclesiæ, sometimes, but more rarely he is called Papa. Under Gregory the Great, servus servorum Dei (servant of the servants of God) was often added after episcopus Gregory, it is said, having selected this designation as a protest against the arrogance of the Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Faster, who called himself "Ecumenical Bishop." But though several of St. Gregory's successors followed him in this preference, it was not until the ninth century that the phrase came to be used invariably in documents of moment. Before Pope Adeodatus (elected 672) few salutations were found, but he used the form "salutatem a Deo et benedictionem nostram." The now consecrated phrase "salutatem et apostolicam benedictionem" hardly ever occurs before the tenth century. The Benedictine authors of "Nouveau traité de diplomatique" in ascribing a much earlier date to this formula were misled by a forged bull purporting to be addressed to the monastery at St. Benignus at Dijon. Again, in these early letters the pope often addressed his correspondent, more especially when he was a king or a person of high dignity, by the plural Vos. As ages went on, this became rarer, and by the second half of the twelfth century, it had completely disappeared. On the other hand, it may be noticed incidentally that persons of all ranks, in writing to the pope, invariably addressed him as Vos. Sometimes a salutation was introduced by the pope at the end of his letter just before the date--for example, "Deus te incolumem custodiat" or "Bene vale frater carissime." This final salutation was a matter of importance, and it is held by high authorities (Bresslau, "Papyrus und Pergament, 21; Ewald in Neues Archiv," III, 548) that it was added in the pope's own hand, and that it was the equivalent of his signature. The fact that in classical times the Romans authenticated their letters not by signing their names, but by a word of farewell, lends probability to this view. In the earliest original Bulls preserved to us BENE VALETE is written at full length in capitals. Moreover, we have at least some contemporary evidence of the practice before the time of Pope Adrian. The text of a letter of Pope Gregory the Great is preserved in a marble inscription at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. As the letter directs that the document itself is to be returned to the papal archives (Scrinium), we may assume that the copy on stone accurately represents the original. It is addressed to Felix the subdeacon and concludes with the formula BENE VALE. Dat. VIII Kalend. Februarius imp. du. n. Phoca PP. anno secundo, et consultatus eius anno primo, indict. 7. This suggests that such letters were fully dated and indeed we find traces of dating even in extant copies as early as the time of Pope Siricius (384-398). We have also some bullæ or leaden seals preserved apart from the documents to which they were once attached. One of these dates back perhaps to the pontificate of John III (560-573) and another certainly belongs to Deusdedit (615-618). The earliest specimens simply bear the pope's name on one side and the word papæ on the other.
In the time of Pope Adrian the support of Pepin and Charlemagne had converted the patrimony of the Holy See into a sort of principality. This no doubt paved the way for changes in the forms observed in the chancery. The pope now takes the first place in the superscription of letters unless they are addressed to sovereigns. We also find the leaden seal used more uniformly. But especially we must attribute to the time of Adrian the introduction of the "double date" endorsed at the foot of the bull. The first date began with the word Scriptum and after a chronological entry, which mentioned only the month and the indiction, added the name of the functionary who drafted or engrossed the document. The other, beginning with Data (in later ages Datum), indicated, with a new and more detailed specification of year and day, the name of the dignitary who issued the bull after it had received its final stamp of authenticity by the addition of the seal. The pope still wrote the words BENE VALETE in capitals with a cross before and after, and in certain bulls of Pope Sylvester II we find some few words added in shorthand or "Tyronian notes." In other cases the BENE VALETE is followed by certain dots and by a big comma, by a S S (subscripsi), or by a flourish, all of which no doubt served as a personal authentication. To this period belong the earliest extant bulls preserved to us in their original shape. They are all written upon very large sheets of papyrus in a peculiar handwriting of the Lombard type, called sometimes littera romana. The annexed copy of a facsimile in Mabillion's "De re diplomaticâ" reproducing part of a bull of Pope Nicolaus I (863), with the editor's interlinear decipherment, will serve to give an idea of the style of writing. As these characters were even then not easily read outside of Italy it seems to have been customary in some cases to issue at the same time a copy upon parchment in ordinary minuscule. A French writer of the tenth century speaking of a privilege obtained from Pope Benedict VII (975-984) says that the petitioner going to Rome obtained a decree duly expedited and ratified by apostolic authority, two copies of which, one in our own character (nostra littera) on parchment, the other in the Roman character on papyrus, he deposited on his return in our archives. (Migne, P.L., CXXXVII, 817) Papyrus seems to have been used almost uniformly as the material for these official documents until the early years of the eleventh century, after which it was rapidly superseded by a rough kind of parchment. Apart from a small fragment of a bull from Adrian I (22 January, 788) preserved in the national library at Paris, the earliest original bull that remains to us is one of Pope Paschal I (11 July, 819). It is still to be found in the capitular archives of Ravenna, to which church it was originally addressed. The total number of papyrus bulls at present known to be in existence is twenty-three, the latest being one issued by Benedict VIII (1012-24) for the monastery of Hildesheim. All these documents at one time had leaden seals appended to them, though in most cases these have disappeared. The seal was attached with laces of hemp and it still bore only the name of the pontiff and the word papæ on the other. After the year 885, the letters of the pope's name were usually stamped round the seal in a circle with a cross in the middle.
The details specified in the "double dates" of these early bulls afford a certain amount of indirect information about the personnel of the papal chancery. The phrase scriptum per manum is vague and leaves uncertain whether the person mentioned was the official who drafted or merely engrossed the bull, but we hear in this connection of persons described as notarius, scriniarius (archivist), proto scrinarius sanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ, cancellarius, ypocancellarius, and after 1057 of camerarius, or later still notarius S. palatii. On the other hand, the datarius, the official mentioned under the heading data, who presumably delivered the instrument to the parties, after having superintended the subscriptions and the apposition of the seal, seems to have been an official of still higher consequence. In earlier documents he bears the titles primicerius sanctæ sedis apostolicae, senior et consiliarius, etc., but as early as the ninth century we have the well-known phrase bibliothecarius sanctæ sedis apostolicæ, and later cancellarius and bibliothecarius, as a combined title borne by a cardinal, or perhaps by more than one cardinal at once. Somewhat later still (under Innocent III), the cancellarius seemed to have threatened to develop into a functionary who was dangerously powerful, and the office was suppressed. A vice-chancellor remained, but this dignity also was abolished before 1352. But this of course was much later than the period we have now reached.
The accession of Leo IX, in 1048, seems to have inaugurated a new era in the procedure of the chancery. A definite tradition had by this time been created, and though there is still much development we find uniformity of usage in documents of the same nature. It is at this point that we begin to have clear distinctions between two classes of bulls of greater and less solemnity. The Benedictine authors of "Nouveau traité de diplomatique" call them great and little bulls. Despite a protest in modern times from M. Léopold Delisle, who would prefer to describe the former class as "privileges" and the latter as "letters," this nomenclature has been found sufficiently convenient, and it corresponds, at any rate, to a very marked distinction observable in the papal documents of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The most characteristic features of the "great bulls" are the following:
Under Innocent III, there again took place what was practically a reorganization of the papal chancery. But even apart from this, we might find sufficient reason for beginning a new epoch at this date in the fact that the almost complete series of Regesta preserved in the Vatican archives go back to this pontificate. It must not, of course, be supposed that all the genuine bulls issued at Rome were copied into the Regesta before they were transmitted to their destination. There are many perfectly authentic bulls which are not found there, but the existence of this series of documents places the study of papal administration from this time forward on a new footing. Moreover, with their aid it is possible to make out an almost complete itinerary of the medieval popes, and this alone is a matter of considerable importance. In light of the Regesta were are able to understand more clearly the working of the papal chancery. There were, it seems, four principals bureaus or offices. At the office of the "Minutes" certain clerks (clerici), in those days really clerics, and known then or later as abbreviatores, drew up in precise form the draft (litera notata) of the document to be issued in the pope's name. Then this draft, after being revised by a higher official (either one of the notaries or the vice-chancellor) passed to the "Engrossing" office, where other clerks, called grossatores or scriptores, transcribed in a large official hand (in grossam literam) the copy or copies to be sent to the parties. At the "Registration" office again it was the duty of the clerks to copy such documents into the books, known as Regesta, specially kept for the purpose. Why only some were copied and others not, is still uncertain, though it seems probable that in any cases this was done at the request of the parties interested, who were made to pay for the privilege which was regarded as an additional security. Lastly, at the office of "Bulls," the seal, which now bore the heads of the two apostles on one side, and the name of the pope on the other, was affixed by the officials called bullatores or bullarii. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the great bulls, or privilegia, as they were then usually called, with their complex forms and multiple signatures became notably more rare, and when the papal court was transferred to Avignon in 1309 they fell practically into disuse save for a few extraordinary occasions. The lesser bulls (litteræ) were divided, as we have seen, into tituli and mandamenta, which became more and more clearly distinguished from each other not only in their contents and formulæ but in the matter of writing. Moreover, the rule of authenticating the letter with a leaden seal began in certain cases to be broken through, in favor of a seal of wax bearing the impression of the "ring of the fisherman." The earliest mention of the new practice seems to occur in a letter of Pope Clement IV to his nephew (7 March, 1265). We do not write [he says] to thee or to our intimates under a [leaden] bull, but under the signet of the fisherman which the Roman pontiffs use in their private affairs. (Potthast, Regesta, no, 19,051) Other examples are forthcoming belonging to the same century. The earliest impression of this seal now preserved seems to be one lately discovered in the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran, and belonging to the time of Nicholas III (1277-80). It represents St. Peter fishing with a rod and line and not as at present drawing his net.
The introduction of briefs, which occurred at the beginning of the pontificate of Eugenius IV, was clearly prompted for the same desire for greater simplicity and expedition which had already been responsible for the disappearance of the greater bulls and the general adoption of the less cumbersome mandamenta. A brief (breve, i.e., "short") was a compendious papal letter which dispensed with some of the formalities previously insisted on. It was written on vellum, generally closed, i.e., folded, and sealed in red wax with the ring of the fisherman. The pope's name stands first, at the top, normally written in capital letters thus: PIUS PP III; and instead of the formal salutation in the third person used in bulls, the brief at once adopts a direct form of address, e.g., Dilecte fili--Carissime in Christo fili, the phrase being adapted to the rank and character of the addressee. The letter begins by way of preamble with a statement of the case and cause of writing and this is followed by certain instructions without minatory clauses or other formulæ. At the end the date is expressed by the day of the month and year with a mention of the seal--for example in this form: Datum Romae apud Sanctum Petrum, sub annulo Piscatoris die V Marii, MDLXXXXI, pont. nostri anno primo. The year here specified, which is used in dating briefs, is probably to be understood in any particular case as the year of the Nativity, beginning 25 December. Still this is not an absolute rule, and the sweeping statements sometimes made in this matter are not to be trusted, for it is certain that in some instances the years meant are ordinary years, beginning with the first of January. (See Giry, "Manuel de diplomatique," pp. 126, 696, 700.) A similar want of uniformity is observed in the dating of bulls though, speaking generally, from the middle of the eleventh century to the end of the eighteenth, bulls are dated by the years of the incarnation, counted from 25 March. After the institution of briefs by Pope Eugenius IV, the use of even lesser bulls, in the form of mandamenta, became notably less frequent. Still, for many purposes, bulls continued to be employed--for example in canonizations (in which case special forms are observed, the pope by exception signing his own name, under which is added a stamp imitating the rota as well as the signatures of several cardinals), as also in the nomination of bishops, promotion to certain benefices, some particular marriage dispensations, etc. But the choice of the precise form of instrument was often quite arbitrary. For example, in granting the dispensation which enabled Henry VIII to marry his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, two forms of dispensation were issued by Julius II, one a brief, seemingly expedited in great haste, and the other a bull which was sent on afterwards. Similarly we may notice that, while the English Catholic hierarchy was restored in 1850 by a brief, Leo XIII in the first year of his reign used a bull to establish the Catholic episcopate of Scotland. So also the Society of Jesus, suppressed by a brief in 1773, was restored by a bull in 1818. A very interesting account of the formalities which had to be observed in procuring bulls in Rome at the end of the fifteenth century in contained in the "Practica" recently published by Schmitz-Kalemberg.
Ever since the sixteenth century the briefs have been written in a clear Roman hand upon a sheet of vellum of convenient size, while even the wax with its guard of silk and the impression of the fisherman's ring was replaced in 1842 by a stamp which affixed the same devices in red ink. The bulls, on the other hand, down to the death of Pope Pius IX retained many medieval features apart from their great size, leaden seal, and Roman fashion of dating. In particular, although from about 1050 to the reformation the writing employed in the papal chancery did not noticeably differ from the ordinary book-hand familiar throughout Christendom, the engrossers of papal bulls, even after the sixteenth century, went on using an archaic and very artificial type of writing known as scrittura bollatica, with manifold contractions and an absence of all punctuation, which was practically undecipherable by ordinary readers. It was in fact the custom in issuing a bull to accompany it with a transsumption, or copy, in ordinary handwriting. This condition of things was put an end to by a motu proprio issued by Leo XIII shortly after his election. Bulls are now written in the same clear Roman script that is used for briefs, and in view of the difficulties arising from transmission by post, the old leaden seal is replaced in many cases by a simple stamp bearing the same device in red ink. In spite, however, of these simplifications, and although the pontifical chancery is now as an establishment much reduced in numbers, the conditions under which bulls are prepared are still very intricate. There are still four different "roads" which a bull may follow in its making. The via di cancellaria, in which the document is prepared by the abbreviatori of the chancery, is the ordinary way but it is, and especially was, so beset with formalities and consequential delays (see Schmitz-Kalemberg, Practica) that Paul III instituted the via di camera (see APOSTOLIC CAMERA) to evade them, in the hope of making the procedure more expeditious. But if the process was more expeditious, it was not less costly, so St. Pius V, in 1570, arranged for the gratuitous issue of certain bulls by the via segreta; and to these was added, in 1735, the via di curia, intended to meet exceptional cases of less formal and more personal interest. In the three former processes, the Cardinal Vice-Chancellor, who is at the same time "Sommista," is the functionary now theoretically responsible. In the last case it is the Cardinal "Pro-Datario," and he is assisted in this charge by the "Cardinal Secretary of Briefs." As the mention of this last office suggests, the minutanti employed in the preparation of briefs form a separate department under the presidency of a Cardinal Secretary and a prelate his substitute.
There can be no doubt that during a great part of the Middle Ages papal and other documents were fabricated in a very unscrupulous fashion. A considerable portion of the early entries in chartularies of almost every class are not only open to grave suspicion, but are often plainly spurious. It is probable, however, that the motive for their forgeries was not criminal. They were prompted by the desire of protecting monastic property against tyrannical oppressors who, when title deeds were lost or illegible, persecuted the holders and extorted large sums as the price of charters of confirmation. No doubt, less creditable motives--e.g., an ambitious desire to exalt consideration of their own house--were also operative, and while lax principles in this matter prevailed almost universally it is often difficult to distinguish the purpose for which a papal bull was forged. A famous early example of such forgery is supplied by two papyrus bulls which profess to have been addressed to the Abbey of St. Benignus at Dijon by Popes John V (685) and Sergius I (697), and which were accepted as genuine by Mabillion and his confrères. M. Delisle has, however, proved they are fabrications made out of later bull addressed by John XV in 995 to Abbot William, one side of which was blank. The document was cut in half by the forger and furnished him with sufficient papyrus for two not unsuccessful fabrications. Though deceived in this one instance, Mabillion and his successors, Dom Toustain and Dom Tassin, have supplied the most valuable criteria by the aid of which to detect similar fabrications, and their work has been ably carried on in modern times by scholars like Jaffé, Wattenbach, Ewald, and many more. In particular a new test has been furnished by the more careful study of the cursus, or rhythmical cadence of sentences, which were most carefully observed in the authentic bulls of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It would be impossible to go into details here, but it may be said that M. Noæl Valois, who first investigated the matter, seems to have touched upon the points of primary importance. Apart from this, forged bulls are now generally detected by blunders in the dating clauses and other formalities. In the Middle Ages one of the principal tests of the genuineness of bulls seems to have been supplied by counting the number of points in the circular outline of the leaden seal or in the figure of St. Peter depicted on it. The bullatores apparently followed some definite rule in engraving their dies. Finally, regarding these same seals, it may be noted that when a bull was issued by a newly elected pope before his consecration, only the heads of the Apostles were stamped on the bulla, without the pope's name. These are called bullæ dimidiatæ. The use of golden bullæ (bullæ aureæ), though adopted seemingly from the thirteenth century (Giry, 634) for occasions of exceptional solemnity, is too rare to call for special remark. One noteworthy instance in which a golden seal was used was that of the bull by which Leo X conferred upon King Henry VIII the title of Fidei Defensor.
Ortolan in Dict. de theol, cath., II, 1255-63--see remark, page 49, col. 2; Grisar in Kirkenlex, II, 1482-95; Giry, Manuel de diplomatique (Paris, 1894), 661-704--an excellent summary of the whole subject; Pflugk-Harttung, Die Bullen der Papste (Gotha, 1901)--mainly concerned with the period before Innocent III; Melampo in Miscellanea di Storia e Cultura Ecclesiastica (1905-07), a valuable series of articles not too technical in character, by a Custodian of the Vatican Archives; Mas-Latrie, Les élementes de diplomatique pontificale in Revue des questions historiques (Paris, 1886-87), XXXIX and XLI; De Kamp, Zum papstlichen Urkundenvessen in Mittheilungen des Inst. f. Oesterr. Geschictesforschung (Vienna, 1882-83), III and IV, and in Historiches Jahrbuch, 1883, 1883, IV; Delisle, Des régitres d'Innocent III in Bibliothéque de l'écoles des chartres (Paris, 1853-54), with many other articles; Bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre (Leipzig, 1889), I, 120-258; De Rossi, Preface to Codices Palatini Latin Bib. Vat. (Rome, 1886); Berger, preface to Les régistres d'Innocent IV (Paris, 1884); Kehr and Brockman, Papsturkunden in various numbers of the Göttinger Nachrichten (Phil. Hist. Cl., 1902-04); Kehr, Scrinium und Palatium in the Austrian Mittheilungen, Ergènzungaband, VI; Pitra, Analecta Novissima Solesmensia (Tusculum, 1885), I; Schmitz-Kahlemberg, Practica (1904). Among earlier works mention may be made of Mabillion, De Re Diplomatica (Paris, 1709), and the Nouveau traité de diplomatique by the Benedictines of Saint-Maur (Paris, 1765, VI volumes).
Early Bulls--Bresslau, Papyrus und Pergament in der papstlichen Kanzlei in the Mittheilungen der Instituts für Oest. Geschictsforschung (Innsbruck, 1888), IX; Omont, Bulles pontificales sur papyrus in Bibl. les l'école des chartes (Paris, 1904), XLV; Ewald, Zur Diplomatik Silvesters II in Neues Archiv (Hanover, 1884), IX; Kehr, Scrinium und Palatium in the Austrian Mittheilungen, Ergènzungaband, (Innsbruck, 1901) VI; Kehe, Verschollene Papyrusbullen in Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven (Rome, 1907), X, 216-224; Rodolico, Note paleografiche e diplomatiche (Bologna, 1900).
For facsimiles both of early bulls and their seals, the great collection of Pflugk-Harttung, Specimena Selecta Chartarum Pontificum Romanorum (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1887) is of primary importance but isolated facsimiles are to be found elsewhere.
On the cursus it will be sufficient to mention the article of Noæl Valois, Etudes sur le rythme des bulles pontificales in Bibl de l'école des chartes (1881), XLII, and De Santi, Il Cursus nella storia litter. e nella liturgia (Rome, 1903).
APA citation. (1908). Bulls and Briefs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03052b.htm
MLA citation. "Bulls and Briefs." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03052b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.