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A papal bull is an official document issued by the Pope or his offices. Papal bulls can cover a wide range of situations, from excommunications to canonizations of Catholic saints. The Vatican Archives hold many historical examples of papal bulls, and their contents have been reprinted and published all over the world. Since many followers of the Christian faith view the Pope as an important figure in their church, papal bulls are often widely discussed when they are issued.
The papacy has been issuing documents for centuries, and these documents have been referred to with a wide assortment of terms, depending on the era and their contents. By the sixth century, Popes were certainly issuing formal documents such as charters, decrees, and patents which have been retroactively called “papal bulls,” even though this term did not enter common use until the 13th century.
The term is derived from the device which is used to seal a traditional formal papal bull. The device is known as a “bulla,” related to the Latin word bullire, “to boil,” a reference to the bubble-like shape of the bulla. The bulla is traditionally made from metal, and stamped with devices representing the current Pope and the Church. It is connected to the papal bull with a silk or hempen cord; silk is traditionally used for papal bulls which are issued on happy occasions, like a sanctification, while a hemp cord would be used on an order of excommunication.
Over time, people began to use “bulla” to refer both to the seal and to the document, and the concept of a papal bull was born. The exact definition of a papal bull can be difficult to nail down, as popes issue numerous formal documents while they sit in office. In general, a bull is a document of extreme importance to society and the church, and it is identifiable either with a red stamp or with a traditional lead or gold bulla.
A less formal papal document is the papal brief, a less formalized type of written communication from the Pope or the Vatican. Papal briefs are also kept in the Vatican Archives, as part of an ongoing mission to preserve the history of the Church and its officials. The Vatican Archives also hold a number of other interesting documents and works of art, and they are notoriously difficult to access, due to concerns about potential damage, theft, or threats to the reputation of the Catholic Church.
I wonder if papal bulls are easily revoked or erased -- for instance, if a papal bull was released about heresy for believing the earth revolved around the sun during the Renaissance years, how was that changed later? Or is a new papal bull issued that "covers up" the previous one?