What is a Papal edict?

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What is a Papal edict?
The Pope uses edicts to communicate with the faithful and his bishops. (Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

A papal edict, also commonly referred to as a papal bull or bulla, is the name for an official letter written by the Pope to a particular audience of bishops. The Popes used edicts to communicate their decisions or will. Usually edicts were written in several copies simultaneously to disseminate to different recipients, keeping one for internal records of the Roman Catholic Church. Edicts traditionally were very important documents, but diminished in strength with the decline of the Pope’s political influence in Europe and throughout the world.


The name “bulla” originally referred to a circular plate or boss of metal which was so called because of its resemblance to a bubble floating on water. In the Middle Ages the leaden seals which authenticated all papal documentation were named bullas. In the thirteenth century the name “bulla” was applied to the whole document itself. However, in those early ages ‘bulla’ referred to any type of document written by or on behalf of the Pope. Only in the fifteenth century was the name attached to a particular type of document -- a letter with a leaden seal.

Different names

Papal documents carried different names during the course of the long history of the Church. The names were more or less descriptive of their nature and importance. For example, decisions, also called constitutions, were addressed to all the faithful and contained information about particular matters of faith or discipline. Encyclicals were more ‘global’ documents as they were usually addressed to all the bishops of Christendom, or at least to all those in one particular country, and set out guidelines for dealing with people. Decrees were statements on issues directly affecting the Church’s welfare. Decretals were formal decisions on the ways problems arising before the Church should be solved, with the power of overruling all similar past precedents. Interestingly, all these types of documents were commonly referred to as bulls, or edicts, up until the fifteenth century.

The University of Glasgow

The University of Glasgow was founded by papal edict issued by Pope Nicholas V on 7 January 1451. In 1560, during the Scottish Reformation and the political unrest accompanying it, the original bull was taken to France for safety reasons. The University failed to bring it back. It has not been found to this day. However, the University continues to use the bull as an authority by which it grants degrees.

Martin Luther

In 1520 the Pope used edicts to communicate with the “father” of Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther. This was before the latter started his revolutionary movement.

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