Did Pope Urban II issue the papal bull “terra nullius” in 1095?

Did Pope Urban II issue the papal bull “terra nullius” in 1095?

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Countless sources claim that the origin of the term terra nullius is from a papal bull issued by Pope Urban II in 1095 called "Terra nullius". Here are a two:

Pramod K. Nayar, The Postcolonial Studies Dictionary, 2015

Terra nullius comes from the Papal Bull Terra Nullius issued by Pope Urban II, at the beginning of the Crusades.


In 1095 Pope Urban II issued a bull, inaugurating the doctrine of Terra nullius, which declared that lands occupied by non-Christians could be legally interpreted as unoccupied and then claimed by Christians. The doctrine became the legal underpinning for the conquest of Muslim territories during the First Crusade.

The same claim is made in lots of Google Books pages, but they are so hard to copy paste from.

My question is if this claim is correct? If it is, can someone please link to and cite relevant sections from this papal bull? I haven't been able to find it myself.

It seems likely this is a historical myth.

According to WikiPedia's list of Papal Bulls*, Urban II did issue a bull that year, but it had to do with who was allowed to excommunicate the ruler of the Kingdom of Aragon. I can't find a link to the text online either, so it seems possible other topics were dealt with, but that one's so different it seems unlikely.

Also 1095 is famous as the year this same pope delivered what must have been a real banger of a speech, which effectively kicked off the First Crusade. This wasn't a "bull", and the records that exist of it are contradictory about the exact contents, so we can't say for sure if the words "terra nullius" were in there or not. But it seems possible at least that the "patient zero" of this information was thinking of the general contents of this speech, and confused it with the unrelated papal bull of that year. Our best source (an actual first-hand witness) said the rationale used most mostly about defending themselves and their churches (so a mix of just war and holy war). Nothing about "terra nullius".

Interestingly, I wasn't super-familiar with the term, and when I looked it up there seems to be a big historical dispute about where it came from. Even the historians who think its an old usage apparently only date it back to the 15th Century. However, there are apparently serious historians who insist the term, when used in the context of a legal framework for territorial claims, is actually quite new. Some say as recently as the late 20th century. Mostly the folks using it and arguing over it appear to be Australians. I noticed one of the links in the question started by talking about its use in an computer game whose head designer had Australian ties2.

This seems like an argument among historians that would not be possible if there was a documented instance of a Pope using that term for that purpose in the 11th century. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that no such bull exists, and those two sources are wrong.

The bull is bull.

1 - It was pointed out in the comments that this list is incomplete. I found at least one other Bull issued by Urban II that did deal with crusading activities, but it was from 6 years earlier, dealt with the Reconquista in Spain, and appears to have centered around granting indulgences for crusading-related sins.

2 - The author at that link got this detail completely wrong too, claiming the English studio and Irish designers were both Australian. (H/t to llama in the comments) This is a good example of why if you find one informational apple in a written work that is this rotten, its probably best to throw out the whole bunch.

Short answer

Pope Urban II issued no such bull for the First Crusade. The source which first made this claim, possibly Pramod K. Nayar, in 'The Postcolonial Studies Dictionary', appears to have falsely assumed that Urban II's speech at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 was a papal bull (it wasn't), and then retroactively applied the much more recent legal term terra nullius (nobody's land) to this speech. Further, no copy of the actual speech survives so it is not possible to say that Urban II used this term in his speech; we only have the accounts of chroniclers (see below). They do not use the term terra nullius, but one does mention taking land from Muslims.

Neither Steven Runciman in A History of the Crusades, Vol. 1 nor the similar titled vol 1. edited by M. W Baldwin make any mention of a 1095 bull concerning the First Crusade (both these volumes are very detailed and meticulously sourced). The first papal bull (known as Quantum praedecessores) issued concerning a crusade to the Holy Land was in 1145, for the Second Crusade (see also Runciman's A History of the Crusades, Vol. 2).

Importantly, not one of the sources claiming the existence of a 1095 papal bull terra nullius cites a primary source (most do not even cite a secondary one). See, for example, Native Americans, The Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (book, 2017); Don't Thank Me For My Service (book, 2018); Political Spirituality for a Century of Water Wars (book, 2019); Federal Indian Policy: The Papal Bulls and Divine Authority (website, c. 2016); Planting the Flag - What's Yours Is Ours (website, 2016); Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity (book, 2016); Papal Bull 1095 Terra Nullius (website, 2016); The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Doctrine of Native Genocide (website, 2016); The Doctrine of Discovery (undated, but possibly pre-2014).

Note that, except (possibly) the last source and (defintely) Nayar's book, all of the above were published in 2016 or later.


This misinformation may well stem the application of the (later term) terra nullius to the account of one of the chroniclers who recorded the announcement of the summons to what became the First Crusade on Tuesday the 27th of November 1095 at the Council of Clermont. The council

sat from 18 November to 28 November I095. Some three hundred clerics were present and their work covered a wide range… But the Pope wished to use the occasion for a more momentous purpose. It was announced that on Tuesday, 27 November, he would hold a public session, to make a great announcement. The crowds, clerical and lay, that assembled were too huge to be contained within the cathedral, where hitherto the Council had met. The Papal throne was set up on a platform in an open field outside the eastern gate of the city; and there, when the multitudes were gathered, Urban rose to his feet to address them.

Source: Runciman (vol. 1)

One chronicler specifically mentions that the Pope held out the promise of crusaders taking land from the Muslims Robert the Monk, as with the three other chroniclers who wrote about the Pope's speech, does not claim to present exactly what the Pope said, just the 'gist' of it. In addition to gaining God's favour, penance and plunder, there was

the hope of conquest: "wrest that land (terra sancta) from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves, that land which, as the scripture says, 'floweth with milk and honey'… "

Source: Frederic Duncalf, 'The Councils of Piacenza and Clermont', chapter 7 in M. W. Baldwin (ed), 'A History of the Crusades, vol. 1'

Duncalf continues

Urban seemed to believe that the French needed Lebensraum for colonization. Their land, Robert quotes him as saying, "is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely enough food for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another."

Nonetheless, according to the chroniclers, the emphasis of Urban II's speech was on "moral and spiritual rewards" (Duncalf). There is no evidence that the Pope went any further than granting an indulgence ("remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due for sins after absolution"), this in one of the canons at Clermont.

In his 1145 papal bull calling for the Second Crusade, Pope Eugenius III

said that he was reissuing what Urban II had enacted for his expedition


there is no record that such regulations were incorporated in any bull for the First Crusade.

Source: Duncalf

Eugenius' bull, by the way, did not give anyone the right to take land for themselves.

The term terra nullius has also been mentioned in relation to the papal bull Romanus Pontifex of 8 January 1455, but only in terms of setting

the tone for contemporary Terra Nullius discourse.

On the supposed 1095 papal bull, Douglas Farrow, in an article Time to Bury the Bulls of Donation, writes that it is:

a bull that no one can quote and that no one has ever read, because it was never written. (Who is responsible for its invention I have not yet managed to discover…

I doubt the first words of the bull were "terra nullius," as that term has a general meaning in international law as "land that is legally unoccupied or uninhabited."

Pope Urban II's acts in 1095 are listed in Jaffé's Regesta pontificum romanorum (vol. 2) pp. 676-684. Jaffé p. 688 does say the following, under 12 July 1096:

In eodem concilio de liberanda Terra sancta agitur.
[In the same council, the freeing of the Holy Land is treated.]


Cives Ianuenses rogat, ut Terrae sanctae subveniant.
[The citizens of Genoa demand that the Holy Land be relieved.]

He also convened councils in Piacenza and Clermont in 1095, so perhaps the terra nullius "bull" is really a conciliar document?

Urban II's writings can be found in Migne's Patrologia Latina vol. 151.

Above, TED has answered very successfully. I will just complement.

I refer to my previous answer to state that the Crusades had ample justification without any concept of Terra Nullius.

And the Iberians had a lot of dealings with the Muslim polities. Besides, Muslims were not the only non-Christians known. At the time of the Crusades, there was even an exchange of letters with the Mongols and dreams of an anti-Muslim alliance with those pagans. They also knew India existed somewhere. Just to state 'non-Christian kingdoms are Terra Nullius' is too much. It's not realistic. It is not in accord with their behavior or expectation. A typical 'dark ages' myth.

Another point: in the XVI c., there were discussions about the Aztecs in Salamanca (Las Casas was involved). We know that Cortez did not ask for authorization for invading, but after the fact they asked: Could it be possible to live peacefully with the Aztec Empire? Was the conquest justified morally?

The discussion is interesting. One argument was

If their kingdom is based on human sacrifice, and we can destroy it, then let it live would not be an sin of omission?

which some see as a glimpse of the modern concept of human rights.

If they are right or not is not the point, the point is that they did not assume that any pagan kingdom is by definition Terra Nulius due to a previous papal bull.

It is not difficult to find references about these discussions, I have read a bio of Las Casas which I can not find, but I just got 2 random references in google: book1 book2

Sorry to say that, but the currently best answer on this seems to be only: "we also have not been able to locate it by searching the net".

To conclude from that that it doesn't exist in the papal archives or other books not digitized - seems a bit premature?

The question comes in three interrelated but distinct parts:

-# 1. Did Urban issue a bull of that name in 1095? 2. Is the 'bull' origin of that term? 3. Is "terra nullius" a legal concept that is reflected in anything Urban issued at the time when calling for the crusade and offering perks?

  1. Unless someone digs through printed books or files at Vatican Secret Archives (location known and open to scholars) and concludes after thourough search: "nope, no litteræ apostolicæ bearing the title "Terra nullius". It is best to conclude "perhaps yes, many scholars mention it". And not only did it enter legal discourse of international relations as late as being invented when Westerners going to Australia, but before and at the same time that Urban II used it as well - and that it was also the basis for "how to handle the Americas"

Gaius on the Occupation of terra nullius ("insula nata"):
The hypothetical case of an "island which rises from the sea" (insula nata) served as an example of the principle that territories not in anyone's possession can be occupied by the first-comer who has the intention to establish his sovereignly there.

Inst II, 1,22 (CIC 1,49). Insula quae in mari nata est, quod ra- re accidit, occupantis fit: nullius enim esse cfeditur.
(if an island arise in the sea the sea, an uncommon event, it is open to occupation for it is regarded as belonging to no one.)

- Wilhelm G. Grewe (ed): "Fontes Historiae Iuris Gentium - Sources Relating to the History of the Law of Nations, Vol 1, 1380 v.Chr./B.C. - 1493", deGruyter: Berlin, New York, 1995.

It is said that this 1095 papal argument was the predecessor of the argumentation in the bull Inter Caetera from 1493, which is online in English. Land occupied by unbelievers is unoccupied land after all. (Cf Andrea Weindl: "Inter caetera, mare liberum und terra nullius - das europäische Völkerrecht und die außereuropäische Welt", in: Inken Schmidt-Voges et al. (eds), "Pax perpetua. Neuere Forschungen zum Frieden in der Frühen Neuzeit", deGruyter, 2010.)

Looking at an admittedly incomplete list of bulls on Wikipedia that only mentions one of Urban's bulls - not only from the year in question but in total! - just proves that Wikipedia is incomplete.

He issued more letters, and more letters in that year. Not only the listed one about the kingdom of Aragon, but two about cloister and convent affairs. (Also not quoted but numbered in list here.) And in 1091 the bull "Cum omnes insulae" - which happens to grant Corsica to the bishop of Pisa (text). (Found via Las bulas alejandrinas de 1493 y la teoría política del Papado medieval : estudio de la supremacía papal sobre islas, 1091-1493 with a ToC & intro.)

  1. No, the term and legal concept came from Roman law and was used throughout the middle ages. It began to take concrete shape after jurists pondered about newly created land, like "insula inter mari nata", island emerging from the sea.

    In Roman law, the main class of objects which fell into the category of terra nullius was ferae naturae, i.e. wild animals and fish. A wild creature belonged to everybody and nobody until such time as a person killed or captured it at which point it became the private property of the killer/captor (even if he was a trespasser) rather than the person on whose land it was found. From this developed the notion of terra nullius which (although it was gradually extended 'to justify acquisition of inhabited territories by occupation if the land was uncultivated or its indigenous inhabitants were not "civilized" or not organized in a society that was united permanently for political action') was initially applied to the acquisition of 'new' uninhabited territory.
    - Jane Morgan: "Digging Deep: Property Rights In Subterranean Space And The Challenge Of Carbon Capture And Storage"

  2. That Urban did offer perks seems evident. That these not only addressed spiritual benefits in the afterlife is also clear. How he argued that material benefits in the secular world fit into or are justified from his Christian bishop's view is the one thing even more relevant than finding a bull of the very title. Since the quotes discussed so far often just declare "Pope said it in 1095" without pointing to a more exact location, it might very well be that he did convey a message that follows suit on the exact legal concept in his interpretation, even if it's buried in one of the documents and that just the "bull-title" part is the result of Chinese whispers effect.

One such paper making the connection between Urban and terrae nullius, that may either omit "bull" or partly source/represent such a confusion, if it is one, might be exemplified by this paragraph:

The representations of non-Christian, non-European people made by Pope Urban II, Vitoria, Locke, Vattel and Dampier provided Cook and Banks with accepted ideas that informed their characterisations of the native inhabitants of Australia. The status of Aborigines was initially constructed on representation of them as primitive barbarians. Without prospects of developing trade relations and the perception that Aborigines posed little military threat, no treaty was concluded between the British Crown and theAborigines. As settlement proceeded on the basis that Australia was a terra nullius, Aboriginal resistance brought conflict, which gave them the status of enemies of the state. As resistance diminished, individual Aborigines were brought into colonial society as violators of colonial law or as wards of the state. Similar to other European colonies, the construction of Aborigines brought with it a perceived responsibility for the Crown to uplift the natives from their apparent primitive state. The authority to uplift Aborigines was clearly articulated by Governor Hindmarsh in the Proclamation of South Australia in 1836.
- Jackie Delpro: ""THE TIDE OF HISTORY": Australian Native Title Discourse in Global Perspective", MA Thesis, Victory University Sidney, 2003 (PDF)

That the very term "terra nullius" itself would be just a late invention "myth", not even applicable to the age of discovery has been argued.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” and Terra Nullius: A Catholic Response, Concacan, 2016. (PDF)

The challenge, from a historical point of view, is that the term terra nullius is not as old as its Latin name suggests. While the “law of the first taker” existed in Roman Law, it generally applied to things like wild animals. The term terra nullius, however, was not used at all until the late 19th century and was at that time mainly confined to disputes over Antarctica and the North Pole.

This is recurring to

Terra nullius, it seems, was an impostor. Debate is turning to why we embraced this legal fiction. [… ] If terra nullius was not employed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to justify dispossession, where did it come from? It is remarkable that even during the ascendancy of terra nullius as an historical tool no historian managed to answer this question and it remains unanswered. Most early and mid twentieth-century sources identify the polar regions debate of the late nineteenth century as the origin of the idea terra nullius…

Here historians have made an effort to explain that terra nulliuswas derived from the Roman law doctrine of res nullius. But these efforts at historical clarification have just added to the layers of ambiguity and confusion, as there was no Roman law doctrine of rex nullius. The relevant passage of Roman law is the law of the first taker, or the law ferae bestiae - literally, the law of wild beasts - in which the word nullius, 'nobody's', was employed. Ferae bestiae states that any thing, such as a wild beast, that has not been taken by anybody becomes the property of the first taker. The Roman law Institutes of Justinian provided the longest discussion and made the connection between the law of the first taker and natural law:

Now things become the property of individuals in many ways: for of some things ownership arises by natural law which, as we have said is called the law of nations [iusgentium], and of others at civil law. It is more convenient to start with the older law and, obviously, the older law is natural law which the nature of things introduced with humankind itself… Hence, wild animals, birds and fish, i.e. all animals born on land or in the sea or air, as soon as they are caught by anyone, forthwith fall into his ownership by the law of nations [iusgentium]: for what previously belonged to no one is, by natural reason, accorded to its captor [quod enim ante nullius est id naturali ratione occupanti conceditur].
- Andrew Fitzmaurice: "The genealogy of Terra Nullius", Australian Historical Studies, 38:129, 1-15, DOI

Sounds nice to find an historical invention or myth?
That cannot be true either.

As for example Samuel Pufendorf wrote in De habitu religionis christianae ad vitam civilem,, 1678, that the land taking of the Israelites after the Exodus was justified, as the land of Canaan was:
terrae nullius

Sic Moses cum populares suos in Aegypto in liberum populum erigere non posset, in deserta loca, et ab humano imperio vacua eosdem eduxit, quoad terram Canaan deletis veteribus incolis occuparent. Huc antequam delati forent Israëlitae, nihilominus liber, suique juris populus fuere, nullius alterius imperio obnoxius, et qui ex loco, ubi peregrinabatur, temporarium imperium haut subierat, partim quod illae terrae nullius essent, partim quod per alios fines ad modum exercitus transiret, cui libertas sua gladio asseritur, et imperia domini territorii armis eluduntur.

(horrible English translation)

The New World, on paper, was legally "vacant" -- terra nullius or vacuum domicilium in Latin. Title to all Indian land is thus held by the discoverer, and Indian people are subject to the overriding political sovereignty of the discoverer! How was this justified? [… ] The answer is because the land of Canaan was inhabited.
- Steven Paul McSloy: "Because The Bible Tells Me So": Manifest Destiny and American Indians", St. Thomas Law Review vol. 9, no. 1, Fall 1996, pp. 37-48.

A more subtle retracing of the evolution of the relationship between legal concept and precise term, although equally only on firm footing after Columbus, in: - Yogi Hale Hendlin: "From Terra Nullius to Terra Communis: Reconsidering Wild Land in an Era of Conservation and Indigenous Rights", Environmental Philosophy 11:2 pp. 141-174

But since all short-tempered SE readers are already anxious to divide up the plunder eager to read a result:

It is at least very plausible that Urban used the old concept to give it a new interpretation at the time. For the alleged bull with that very title, we netizens are hampered by what we find for this online: in this case often something between hearsay and recursive indirect citations. That is far from good. But also far from enough to call "Urban wrote (about) that" "a myth". Such a verdict is possible, but it is not the last word on it now either.

A papal bull, letter, decree with that exact name seems not very likely to exist, at this time of answering. It looks like that bit is the result of Chinese whispers conflation. That Urban used the precise term is difficult to ascertain or refute absent access to the sources. However, that Urban might have used the concept and the meaning of "terra nullius" in writing or at least when preaching sermons seems very possible.

Confer - Alfons Becker: "Papst Urban II (1088-1099): Der Papst, die griechische Christenheit und der Kreuzzug", Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica Volume 19, Hiersemann, Stuttgart, 1988. (Detailing from the Canon of Clermont the distinction between motivation (pure spirituality) and secular goals (permanent Christian land ownership), p384.)

What Urban did write is relatively easy to follow in a more comprehensive manner than Wikipedia thinks relevant in a Latin collection of his works: - Urban, Pope; Mathilde, of Swabia; Eugène de Rozière; J -P Migne: "B. Urbani II pontificis Romani Epistolae, diplomata, sermones", Patrologiae cursus completus. Series latina, t. 151, Turnholti, Belgium : Typ. Brepols, [1978?] 1853.

Sadly, a cursory reading did not come up with "terra nullius".

But somewhere seems to exist a document, from Urban, from 1095, called "Inter Fines Expeditionis Sacrae Crucis Liberationem Ecclesiarum Orientalis". (pointer)

I point out another reason why the concept of terra nullus was probably not used during the first crusade.

There are two types of land rights. Rights to rule land and rights of ownership of land.

The target region included lands ruled by various Muslim rulers which various Christians may or may not have claimed had no legal rights to rule those lands, but included countless thousands and thousands of individual plots of land owned by many thousands of individuals.

Since those lands were ruled by Monotheists who had no tolerance for polytheists their populations were mainly Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. And it was quite probable that many of the Muslim landowners in those regions were descended from native Christians who had converted to Islam during centuries of rule by Muslims.

And it is true that long standing differences between the eastern and western churches had resulted in a schism between Roman Cathoics and Eastern Orthodox since 1054. But it is uncertain whether that schism had caused sufficient hostility for a pope to decide that eastern Orthodox people had no rights to own or rule land.

And it was true that many eastern Christians in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, etc., belonged to Christian sects which had split with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox many centuries earlier and which were considered more or less heretical. But I am not certain that would be enough for the pope to classify them as losing all legal rights.

Since everyone who had ever returned from pilgrimages to the Holy Land reported that there was still a sizable minority of Christians in Muslim-ruled lands, even someone who believed that Muslims had no rights to rule those lands might have to admit that maybe the local Christians should have a big say in deciding who would rule them once the Muslims were hypothetically defeated, and that the local Christians had the right to keep on owning properties that they owned.

So it seems to me that most persons in western Europe who thought about the matter would probably conclude that the local Christian communities in the Middle East, even if they were schismatics or heretics, probably had a lot of political and land owning rights and it would not be right to take over those lands as though they were uninhabited.

I also point out that medieval people would have been acquainted with the ideology of the Roman Empire well enough to know that the Roman Empire claimed to be the rightful government of the whole world for all eternity. If any place was ever ruled by the Roman Empire it was rightfully a Roman possession forever.

And it was a historic fact that the Roman Empire ruled for many centuries almost every region that the crusaders would have any slightest hope of conquering. Those lands had been conquered by Muslims about 550 years earlier, but the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" Empire had struck back and reconquered some Middle Eastern lands from the Muslims in recent centuries.

Then the Turkish invasions in recent decades had taken a lot of land from the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" Empire and greatly weakened it. But Emperor Alexios I Komnenos who reigned from 1081-1118 was a great military leader who defeated many enemies and regained much land. At the time of the First Crusade Alexios I was the first or second most powerful Christian ruler and someone a lot better to have as friend than as foe.

And the crusaders would have to cross a lot of land ruled by the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" Empire to reach their targets and would need to have good relations with the Emperor to do so.

Emperor Alexios I did make the crusaders promise to hold any former imperial lands - which would be just about every place that the crusaders could hope to conquer - they might conquer as imperial fiefs, and the failure of some to do so led to considerable conflict in the future.

So it would be diplomatically unwise for a pope to claim that former imperial lands - none of which had been ruled by Muslims for more than about 550 years - were terra nullus, no longer rightfully imperial possessions, and free for the taking by western Europeans.

So for these reasons there would have been ethical and practical problems with publicly claiming that the lands in the Middle East were terra nullus and the rightful property of any Catholics who could conquer them.

Watch the video: The Doctrine of Discovery - Domination


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