A sacred and significant artifact of European history-a genuine papal bull from the Middle Ages-was recently found tucked among the books and papers of Washington State University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.

The bull, or bulla, named for its original form as a bubble-shaped metal plate, and later for the lead seal affixed to an official document, was most often a legal missive from the pope. Papal bulls did everything from advocate for an individual’s safe travel to advise the citizens of a country to follow their king.

The written communication from the pope now at WSU once protected a house for lepers in the French city of Caen. It came from Innocent III, the pope who took the medieval papacy to its greatest heights. Reputed to have been strong and humane, Innocent III was also known for his lengthy disputes with France’s Philip II Augustus and England’s King John. And it was during his papacy that the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade took place. Innocent III died suddenly of a fever in 1216, just 38 days after the bull was written.

The document may have continued to rest forgotten in the files, but for a preservation grant to organize the manuscript archives. One day late last spring, librarian Cheryl Gunselman, who was new to the archive collections, was working in the small manuscripts collection, painstakingly sifting through hundreds of boxes to check on their contents and familiarize herself with the materials, when she pulled out a content paper that listed a papal bull dating back nearly 800 years. “In my mind, I was thinking, ‘This has got to be a photo copy,'” she says. “But when I pulled the folder out, it had a weight to it.” Opening the folder, she saw a single sheet of ancient vellum to which was affixed a lead seal marked with the imprimatur of Pope Innocent III. Her heart quickened.

She immediately took the bull to the library’s conservation lab, where the conservator built a special case for it. And then Gunselman set about discovering how a bull signed by a pope in Perugia, Italy, long before Europeans ever set foot in the Americas, came to be in Pullman.

“There’s no question, this is the real thing,” says Gunselman, who notes the original silk cord and seal are still intact.

Professor Paul P. Kies, who taught English here from 1924 through 1956, brought the bull to campus. He had spied it for sale in a catalogue from a French dealer in 1951, and for 8,200 old francs-which at the time amounted to a mere $24.65, according to a hand-written note-picked up the document for the library.

“That’s remarkable,” says Gunselman, noting that today it might be impossible to buy a bull at any price.

The bull was donated to the manuscripts collection by the Friends of the Library that year. Though she hasn’t found any paperwork explaining why the bull was sought out for the archives, Gunselman theorizes that because of Pullman’s remote location, the librarians wanted to develop a broad collection of examples from distant times and places so students could see history up close. A librarian says as much in a note written about other similarly unique acquisitions, including fragments of letters on papyrus.

Now the library wants to let students and scholars know about the bull. “We plan to try to take advantage of it being here,” says Gunselman. Besides sharing it with the general education classes, she hopes to get the attention of scholars around the country. “From what we can determine,” she says, “there aren’t many of these in the United States.”