Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The traditional Surplice...

The Surplice is the common choir dress of the lower clergy. Its name comes from the Latin super pelliceum which means ''over the fur;'' and it originally developed in cold northern countries (far removed from Rome, most likely England and northern France) where it appears to have been an adaptation of the Alb worn over bulky fur garments in the singing of the night offices in cold churches. This is why the Surplice, unlike the Alb, has wide sleeves and is worn loose (ungirded).

By the 11th century the Surplice appears to have become a common choir dress in Northern Europe. It wasn't until the 13th century that the Surplice came to Rome. By this time it was common to all clergy, at whatever function, whether assisting at the Altar at Mass (the Celebrant and Ministers still, however, wore the Alb), or assisting at other functions. By the 12th century the Italian word ''cotta'' was introduced, and if there was a difference between the Surplice and Cotta (at this time) it was that in Italy the cotta was slightly shorter than elsewhere, although at the beginning of the 16th century it still fell below the knees.

This photo depicts that learned and apostolic man Fr Adrian Fortescue with his retinue of Servers. Notice that they're all in laceless traditional Surplices.

The Surplice was always long, and plain, but gradually became shorter and more decadent. In the Middle Ages it was seldom decorated, but by the 17th century, when lace ornamentation was in vogue, it is not uncommon to find the traditional Surplice tampered with. Charles Borromeo was specific in his instruction that the Surplice must not be decorated, or ''too elegant,'' and furthermore that it should have a round rather than a square neck. I wonder how many ''traditionalists'', in their zeal for ''tradition'' (which is really only a romantic hankering after the temporal power of the Popes and the Counter Reformation period, scarcely 400 years old, or not seldom with the more ignorant kind, Catholicism of the 1950s!), know of the difference between the traditional Surplice and the Roman cotta. I am tempted to say that use of a lace cotta is a damnable heresy, but perhaps sympathetic readers (who don't take me seriously) will say: ''he's finally cracked.'' At any rate, according to the author of the article on the Surplice in The Catholic Encyclopedia online, the use of lace had vogue especially in Italy, but it frequently degenerated into undignified straining after effect and effeminate display...


  1. Whilst the length of the boys' surplices in the photograph with the good Dr. Fortescue are fine those of the men do seem on the short side to me. The ideal surplice hem is six inches above the shoe-soles of the wearer.

    Lace may be suitable decoration for a lady but it has no place in vestiture. Walking through a street market at the weekend I noticed several market traders selling net curtain lace. It struck me as the same thing one sees on albs in certain pseudo-Baroque establishments. The lace never matches and looks so undignifed compared with what proper albs with apparels.

  2. You may be surprised to find that I tend very much to agree with you on this. Despite often using lace cottas when serving (as I know you yourself also do), I do feel that there is a certain dignity to the traditional long surplice with wide sleeves. I also like the connotations of this garment as something which was put on over a habit or day clothes (perhaps ones that had been worn for work) in order to provide an air of dignity for worhip. Interestingly, some Oxbridge college chapels still provide surplices to be worn by members of the college over their street clothes (however the effect of a pair of trousers protruding from underneath one is rather comical and certainly not dignified!).I think the author of you quotation also has a point - I have seen overly-flamboyant lace cottas which definately give an impression of 'camping it up' - hardly desirable in church, methinks.

    Lace is also, I understand, a mark of rank among the clergy (hence it would be proper to use lace on the rochets of prelates). Is it possible that lay servers dressed in lace are actually committing liturgical abuses? (My turn to court controversy) - I'd be interested to hear other's thoughts.

    Once again thank you for a thought-provoking post.

    Thank you again for a thought-provoking post.

  3. Yet another most interesting Post, Patricius. Many thanks.

  4. I forgot to add that perhaps the surplice went out of fashion among Catholics due to a reactionary response to its association with Anglicanism.


  5. Matthaeus, as regards me wearing the modern lacey cotta, it's purely because I cannot currently afford a Surplice (and it is certainly not high on my list of financial priorities at the moment!).

    It is interesting what you say about the praxis in Oxford. When Tolkien served Fr John Murray's first Mass in 1959 he wore his academic gown.

    Alas for the Anglican church. They kept that tradition whereas Rome didn't. You are correct that lace is a mark of clerical rank, and the most ornate lace was lavished upon the Rochet of the Bishop.

    Thanks all for your comments.

  6. I don't appreciate this lace-bashing. It's our way of saying "I Love you" to Jesus. It's like telling the Malankara lot to stop playing their keyboard during Holy Qorbana.

    Anyway, I'm fascinated to see Fortescue's server in surplices. I thought, when he mentions surplices, he means lacey cottas. Methinks I'll have to reconfigure the Sacristy of S. Magnus!

  7. Joseph, many thanks for your comment.

    I agree entirely with Fortescue where in his foreward to the first edition of Ceremonies he complains about certain things (such as constant kissing) threatening the naturally austere temper of the Roman Rite. I see lace ornamentation as one of these things.

    Also in the first edition, the diagrams he drew features the Celebrant of Mass in a Gothic chasuble. I am not sure when this was changed to a Roman-style one but certainly by my seventh edition...