The Yule Days – Day 7 – ‘A bull that was brown’

Sunday 18 December 2022

The king sent his lady on the seventh Yule day,
A bull that was brown, three goldspinks, three starlings,
A goose that was gray,
Three plovers, three partridges, a papingo-aye;

Wha learns my carol and carries it away? 

As the song moves away from birds, rather than a ‘Brown bull’ today we offer a ‘papal bull’. The only survivor of six bulls (so-called because of the lead ‘bulla’ or seal used to authenticate such documents) issued at Peniscola in Aragon in 1413, it is a letter sent from the Pope. It affirms a charter already issued by the bishop of St Andrews and authorises the university to award degrees that licensed its graduates to teach theology, canon and civil law, arts and medicine.

The bulls arrived in St Andrews on 3 February 1414 and were greeted by magnificent celebrations. According to the contemporary chronicler Walter Bower, there were solemn services in the cathedral, grand processions of clergy and even street parties in which the citizens indulged ‘in boundless merry-making and kept large bonfires burning in the streets … while drinking wine in celebration.’

There was already a group of masters and scholars associated with the Augustinian priory in St Andrews before this document formally established the university there. At that time getting papal authority was one of only two possible ways to achieve university status. So this document is the charter of incorporation of the first university in Scotland and the 50th in Europe, marking the birth of the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. At a time of schism in the church when rival popes were competing for authority, Scotland remained affiliated to the pope in Avignon who granted the bulls, but since later popes of Rome didn’t countermand the acts made by their ‘anti-Pope’ predecessor, the date of foundation stands.

The papal bull was recently selected as one of the Scottish Council on Archives Twenty Treasures:
to mark its 20th anniversary.

Blended image of the papal bull and an illustration of a bull from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (created by Eddie Martin).

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