SURPLICE (Late Lat. super pelliceum; FT. super, over, and pellis, fur; Span, sobrepellice; Fr. surplis; in Ital. cotta and Ger. Chorrock, choir coat), a liturgical vestment of the Christian Church. It is a tunic of white linen or cotton material, with wide or moderately wide sleeves, reaching according to the Roman use barely to the hips and elsewhere in the churches of the Roman communion to the knee It is usually decorated with lace, but in modern times in Germany at least also with embroidered bordures. The surplice originally reached to the feet, but as early as the 13th century it began to be shortened, though as late as the 15th century it still fell to the middle of the shin, and it was not till the 17th and 18th centuries that it was considerably shortened. More drastic were other modifications which it underwent in course of time in several localities, which led to the appearance of various subsidiary forms alongside of the original type. Such were the sleeveless surplice, which was provided at the sides with holes to put the arms through; the surplice with slit- up arms or lappels (so-called " wings ") instead of sleeves; the surplice of which not only the sleeves but the body of the garment itself were slit up the sides, precisely like the modern dalmatic; and, finally, a sort of surplice in the form of a bell-shaped mantle, with a hole for the head, which necessitated the arms being stuck out under the hem. The first two of these forms were very early developed; and, in spite of their prohibition by synods here and there (e.g. that of Li6ge in 1287), they survive in various places to the present day. The latter two only appeared after ( the close of the middle ages: the first of them in South Germany, the second more especially in Venetia, where its use is attested by numerous pictorial records. As a rule, however, these subsidiary forms of surplice were worn mostly by the lower clergy. They were the result partly of the influence of the secular fashions, but more particularly of considerations of convenience.
The surplice belongs to the vestes sacrae, though it requires no benediction. It is proper to all clerics, even to those who have only received the tonsure, the bishop himself vesting with it those who have been newly tonsured by him. Its use in divine service is very varied. It is worn in choir at the solemn offices; it is the official sacral dress of the lower clergy in their liturgical functions; it is worn by the priest when administering the sacraments, undertaking benedictions, and the like; the use of the alb being nowadays almost exclusively confined to the mass and functions connected with this. In general it may be said that this was, in all main particulars, the custom so early as the i 4th century.
The older history of the surplice is obscured by lack of exact information. Its name is derived, as Durandus and Gerland also affirm, from the fact that it was formerly put on over the fur garments which used to be worn in church and at divine service as a protection against the cold. It has been maintained that the surplice was known in the 5th century, the evidence being the garments worn by the two clerics in attendance on Bishop Maximian represented in the mosaics of S. Vitale at Ravenna; in this case, however, the dalmatic has been confused with the surplice. In all probability the surplice is no more than an expansion of the ordinary liturgical alb, due to the necessity for wearing it over thick furs. It is first mentioned in the 11th century, in a canon of the synod of Coyaca in Spain (1050) and in an ordinance of King Edward the Confessor. In Rome it was known at least as early as the 12th century. It probably originated outside Rome, and was imported thence into the Roman use. Originally only a choir vestment and peculiar to lower clergy, it gradually certainly no later than the 13th century replaced the alb as the vestment proper to the administering of the sacraments and other sacerdotal functions.
In the Oriental rites there is no surplice, nor any analogous vestment. Of the non-Roman Churches in the West the surplice has continued in regular use only in the Lutheran churches of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and in the Church of England (see below). (J. BRA.)
Church of England. The surplice was prescribed by the second Prayer-Book of Edward VI., as, with the tippet or the academical hood, the sole vestment of the minister of the church at " all times of their ministration," the rochet being practically regarded as the episcopal surplice. Its use was furiously assailed by the extremer Reformers but, in spite of their efforts, was retained by Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity, and enforced by the advertisements and injunctions issued under her authority, which ordered the " massing vestments " chasubles, albs, stoles and the like to be destroyed. It has since remained, with the exception of the cope (q.v.), the sole vestment authorized by law for the ministers, other than bishops, of the Church of England (for the question of the vestments prescribed by the " Ornaments Rubric " see VESTMENTS). Its use has never been confined to clerks in holy orders, and it has been worn since the Reformation by all the " ministers " (including vicars-choral and choristers) of cathedral and collegiate churches, as well as by the fellows and scholars of colleges in chapel. The distinctive mark of the clergy (at least of the more dignified) has been the tippet or scarf above mentioned, a broad band of black silk worn stole-wise, but not to be confused with the stole, since it has no liturgical significance and was originally no more than part of the clerical outdoor dress (see STOLE). The surplice was formerly only worn by the clergy when conducting the service, being exchanged during the sermon for the " black gown," i.e. either a Geneva gown or the gown of an academical degree. This custom has, however, as a result of the High Church movement, fallen almost completely obsolete. The "black gown," considered wrongly as the ensign of Low Church views, survives in comparatively few of even " evangelical " churches; it is still, however, the custom for preachers of university sermons to wear the gown of their degree.
The traditional form of the surplice in the Church of England is that which survived from pre-Reformation times, viz. a widesleeved, very full, plain, white linen tunic, pleated from the yoke, and reaching almost, or quite, to the feet. Towards the end of the 17th century, when large wigs came into fashion, it came for convenience to be constructed gown-wise, open down the front and buttoned at the neck, a fashion which still partially survives, notably at the universities. In general, however, the tendency has been, under continental influence, to curtail its proportions. The ample vestment with beautiful falling folds has thus in many churches given place to a scanty, unpleated garment scarce reaching to the knee. In the more " extreme " churches the surplices are frank imitations of the Roman cotla. (W. A. P.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)