The use of a seal by men of wealth and position was common before the Christian era. It was natural then that high functionaries of the Church should adopt the habit as soon as they became socially and politically important. An incidental allusion in one of St. Augustine's letters (217 to Victorinus) lets us know that he used a seal. The practice spread and it seems to be taken for granted by Clovis at the very beginning of the Merovingian period (Mon. Germ. Hist.: Leg., II, 2). Later ecclesiastical synods require that letters under the bishop's seal should be given to priests when for some reason they lawfully quitted their own proper diocese. So it was enacted at Chalon-sur-Saône in 813. Pope Nicholas I in the same century complains that the bishops of Dôle and Reims had contra morem sent their letters to him unsealed (Jaffé, "Regesta", nn. 2789, 2806, 2823). The custom of bishops possessing seals may from this date be assumed to have been pretty general. At first they were only used for securing the document from impertinent curiosity and the seal was commonly attached to the ties with which it was fastened. When the letter was opened by the addressee the seal was necessarily broken. Later the seal served as an authentication and was attached to the face of the document. The deed was thus only held to be valid so long as the seal remained intact. It soon came to follow from this point of view that not only real persons like kings and bishops, but also every kind of body corporate, cathedral chapters, municipalities, monasteries, etc., also required a common seal to validate the acts which were executed in their name.
During the early Middle Ages seals of lead, or more properly "bulls", were in common use both in East and West, but except in the case of the papal chancery, these leaden authentications soon went out of favour in western Christendom and it became the universal practice to take the impressions in wax. In England hardly any waxen seals have survived of earlier date than the Norman Conquest. In the British Museum collection the earliest bishop's seals preserved are those of William of St. Carileph, Bishop of Durham (1081-96) and of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). The importance of the seal as a means of authentication necessitated that when authority passed into new hands the old seal should be destroyed and a new one made. When the pope dies it is the first duty of the Cardinal Camerlengo to obtain possession of the Fisherman's Ring , the papal signet, and to see that it is broken up. A similar practice prevailed in the Middle Ages and it is often alluded to by historians, as it seems to have been a matter of some ceremony. Thus we are concisely told: "There died in this year Robert de Insula, Bishop of Durham. After his burial, his seal was publicly broken up in the presence of all by Master Robert Avenel." (Hist. Dunel. Scrip. Tres., p. 63). Matthew Paris gives a similar description of the breaking of the seal of William, Abbot of St. Albans, in 1235.
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online