What Is A Surplice?
A large-sleeved tunic of half-length, made of fine linen or cotton, and worn by all the clergy. The wide sleeves distinguish it from the rochet and the alb; it differs from the alb inasmuch as it is shorter and is never girded. It is shorter and is never girded. It is ornamented at the hem and the sleeves either with embroidery, with lace-like insertions, or with lace. The lace should never be more than fifteen inches wide, as otherwise the real vestment is necessarily too much shortened by this merely ornamental addition. The surplice belongs to the liturgical vestment in the strict sense, and is the vestment most used. It is the choir dress, the vestment for processions, the official priestly dress of the lower clergy, the vestment worn by the priest in administering the sacraments, when giving blessings, at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, etc.; in the last-mentioned cases it is the substitute for the alb, which, according to present custom, is worn only at Mass and a few other functions. The blessing of the surplice by the bishop or by authorized priest is proper, but not strictly prescribed. As the distinctive sacerdotal dress of the lower clergy the bishop, after giving the tonsure, places it on the candidate for orders with these words: "May the Lord clothe thee with the new man, who is created in righteousness and true holiness after the image of God."
The time of the introduction of the surplice cannot be determined. Without doubt it was originally merely a choir vestment and a garment to be worn at processions, burials, and on similar occasions. As a liturgical dress in this sense it is met outside of Italy (in England and France) as early as the eleventh century, but it is not found in Italy until the twelfth century. The surplice may have been used in isolated cases during the twelfth century instead of the alb in administering the sacraments and at blessings, but this use did not become general until the thirteenth century. Towards the close of the twelfth century the surplice was already the distinctive dress of the lower clergy, even though this was not the case everywhere. However, the placing of the surplice on the clerics after the giving of the tonsure (cf. above), is first testified by the Pontificals of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The name of the surplice arises from the fact that it was worn by the clergy, especially in northern Europe, over (super) the universally customary fur clothing (pelliceoe). This is stated by Durandus and by the English grammarian Gerlandus, both of whom lived to the thirteenth century. The fur clothing not only led to the name of the surplice, but it was probably the cause of its appearance. For it is evident that a large-sleeved, ungirdled tunic was better suited to go over heavy fur coats than a narrow-sleeved, girded alb. It seems most probable that the surplice first appeared in France or England, whence its use gradually spread to Italy. It is possible that there is a connection between the surplice and the Gallican alb, an ungirdled liturgical tunic of the old Gallican Rite, which was superseded during the Carlovingian era by the Roman Rite. The founding of the Augustinian Canons in the second half of the eleventh century may have had a special influence upon the spread of the surplice. Among the Augustinian Canons the surplice was not only the choir vestment, but also a part of the habit of the order. In addition to the surplice we find frequent early mention of a "cotta". It is possible that between the superpelliceum and the cotta there may have been some small difference (perhaps in length or width), but most probably these terms were only different names for the same liturgical vestment (cf. Braun, op. cit. in bibliography, p. 142). Originally the surplice was a full-length tunic — that is, it reached to the feet. In the thirteenth century it began to be shortened, although in the fifteenth century it still reached halfway between the knee and the ankle. In the sixteenth century, however, it was so short that it frequently reached only just below the hips. As the length of the surplice was lessened, the length and breadth of the sleeves was naturally reduced, so that in this respect also there is a great difference between the original surplice and that of the eighteenth century. More striking than these mere alterations of size were other changes made in the surplice, some of which appeared as early as the thirteenth century, and by which its entire shape and appearance was more or less altered, various forms of the surplice being produced. Thus, surplices appeared with slit-up sleeves (thus with wings of material rather than sleeves); then surplices which, besides being slit up on the under side of the sleeve, were also open at the sides, the surplices being thus like scapulars in form. Also surplices without sleeves, having mere slits for the arms; finally surplices resembling the medieval bell-shaped chasuble with only an opening in the middle for the head — this shape was customary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in Venetian territory. These variations met with the disapproval of provincial and diocesan synods, but their prohibitions had not permanent effect. The scapular-like band that took the place of the surplice among the Augustinian Canons on non-liturgical occasions is not a curtailment of the surplice, but a substitute for it.
In the Middle Ages the surplice apparently seldom received rich ornamentation. In pictures and sculpture it appears as a garment hanging in many folds, but otherwise plain throughout. There is a surplice at Neustift near Brixen in the Tyrol that dates back to the twelfth (or, at least, to the thirteenth) century; it is the only medieval surplice that we possess. This surplice shows geometrical ornaments in white linen embroidery on the shoulders, breast, back, and below the shoulders, where, as in the albs of the same date, large full gores have been inserted in the body of the garment. After the lace industry developed in the sixteenth century the hem and sleeves of the surplice were often trimmed with lace — at a later period, unfortunately, too often at the expense of the vestment itself. It apparently did not become customary to lay the surplice in folds until the close of the Middle Ages. This custom had vogue especially in Italy, but it frequently degenerated into undignified straining after effect and effeminate display.
- article from the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.org