L neut. of pellicius made of skins fr pellis skin.
A loose, knee-length, ecclesiastical vestment that is usu. worn as a tunic over other garments by clergymen, acolytes, layreaders, and choristers in the Anglican, Roman, Catholic, Moravian, and other churches.

A surplice is a vestment worn by ministers and clergy of various Christian churches. Surplices are shorter than other liturgical vestments; most definitions describe it as being knee length or slightly longer. It is characterized by its wide sleeves and, often, embroidery along its edges and sleeves. Surplices are generally white in Western sects; other colours are often used in Eastern churches if and when a surplice is used at all (as it is, in modern times, generally characteristic of Catholicism and Lutheranism).

Its use can be traced back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, though a specific date or place of origination is not known. Various changes have been made to the surplice throughout the centuries, and many variations on it exist today. The surplice is currently used most often by the Catholic church, the Anglican church and some Lutheran churches.

A brief history

The surplice is believed to have first appeared in Rome during the early centuries of Christianity. At this point, sources note, it was far shorter than its current incarnation (as it reached the general hip area on individuals of “average height.”) Other early variations were far lengthier, as some were long enough to cloak the wearer’s feet and cover part of the surrounding ground.

Its earliest use was not entirely liturgical. The surplice was originally used as a choir vestment and for certain aspects of church liturgies, such as burials. Clergy began to wear surplices when administering sacraments and blessings around the fourteenth century. In this sense, it was thus distinct from the alb, the liturgical vestment used during mass. These distinctions remain in most churches where the surplice is used to this day.

The vestment's etymology has provided historians with some clues as to the reason for its creation. 'Surplice' comes from the Latin words 'super' and 'pellis', which literally translate to 'over' and 'fur.' Fur clothing was customary attire in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While such clothing was necessary to stay warm, clergy and choristers were nonetheless required to wear vestments during the appropriate times. It has been suggested that the surplice became widely used for liturgical purposes outside of the mass because its wide sleeves fit over fur clothing more easily.

Though other names were used, the surplice became widely used in Germany, England and France; Italy was one of the last European countries to use it for purely liturgical purposes. Each area added its own 'personal touch' to the vestment -- sleeves were often widened, narrowed, or sometimes removed altogether. As such, a number of variations on the surplice continue to exist. Certain orders of monks also used it as part of their daily attire.

As the clergy (particularly the lower clergy, the group that most commonly used the surplice) was supposed to be humble and modest, surplices were commonly extremely plain -- especially in the Middle Ages. During this period, the use of lace ornamentation was limited, though it did exist. Greater use of decoration began during the Renaissance, but the simplicity of the garment remained.

The Protestant Reformation and the creation of the Church of England eventually led to change in the liturgical vestment structure; the surplice, Edward VI announced, was to be used as the main liturgical vestment in the Church of England. Elizabeth I restated this and, going a step further, ordered the destruction of several other kinds of vestments. This asserted the surplice’s importance in the Anglican Church.

Current use

The surplice is used by ordained and tonsured clergy, in most churches, outside of mass when blessing, sacraments and benediction takes place. It is never worn by clergy members during mass in churches that use the alb, unless it is worn by a deacon or chorister, as all clergy may wear surplices. Variations on the surplice are often worn by lay ministers during mass and other ceremonies.

It is also used ceremonially in the tonsure ritual; men who are in the process of studying to enter clerical orders are 'accepted' into the clerical community by a bishop, who presents them with a surplice and, in most instances, helps them to put it on. This is supposed to represent the "clothing" of one's self in the new religious life. Tonsure also used to involve shaving the head of the initiate but this doesn't happen anymore. The surplice, then, is the main symbol of tonsure. Though the man is not yet considered either a priest or a deacon, once he has "received tonsure" he may wear the surplice during the appropriate times.

Unlike other vestments, the surplice can be worn without being blessed by a bishop. Such a blessing is typically an expected part of a tonsure and it is rare to expect a bishop to refuse to bless one, but there are no binding laws prohibiting its use without having been blessed. According to questionable sources, they are also readily available for sale on the internet.


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Surplice http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14343d.htm 23 April 2005
Surplice Encyclopaedia Britannica
Croft Design Surplice Collection. http://www.google.ca/url?sa=U&start=3&q=http://www.croftdesign.freeserve.co.uk/CDMainsite/surplice/Surplice.htm&e=9797 23 April 2005

Sur"plice (?), n. [F. surplis, OF. surpeiz, LL. superpellicium; super over + pellicium, pelliceum, a robe of fur, L. pellicius made of skins. See Pelisse.] Eccl.

A white garment worn over another dress by the clergy of the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and certain other churches, in some of their ministrations.

Surplice fees Eccl., fees paid to the English clergy for occasional duties.


© Webster 1913.

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