History of the Surplice.
A word that comes from the Late Latin: superpeliceum = "over fur" because that’s how it was originally worn, with a fur… it has the form of a tunic of white linen or cotton fabric, reaching the knees and it has wide sleeves. It originates probably in France or England in the XI century and it was gradually introduced to Italy only during the late XII century. There is probably a connection between the western surplice and the Gallican alb - an ungirdled liturgical tunic. Though appareled albs were more common in France and especially in England - it was much more used in the Sarum rite, especially during main liturgies. The reform of the Augustinian canons in the second half of the XII century might have had an influence over the spread of the surplice.
Example of late Medieval surplice in Orvieto Cathedral.
The surplice originally reached to the feet and its length was more or less the same through the Middle Ages and until the late Renaissance - even after the Council of Trent and during a considerable part of the XVII century surplices were considerably long - after all history and customs don’t change in day.
Fresco in the Monastery of St. Frances, Rome - mid XV century.
The main change to happen during the late Renaissance (1570s to the 1590s) was the introduction of particularly intricate patterns. In the mid XVII century the surplice still fell to the middle of the shin and became considerably shorter during the very end of the century. In certain areas of Europe the surplice underwent certain modifications - given mostly to the use it was made of it. Some variations include a sleeveless surplice, the Anglicans developed the Medieval surplice making its arms larger - the so called “wings”, a sort of surplice in the form of a bell-shaped mantle and also a huge number of incredibly short surplices - the rise of this type of surplice was given by the ease of manoeuvring such garments compared to the long ones. These examples of surplices were particularly used in Southern Germany and Venice, but despite the prohibitions made by different synods they survived thanks to their convenience, in Northern Europe they were also used to cover oneself during the cold winters, hence the name “superpellicium” - a fur would have been worn on it. This was of course a Medieval fashion that went into disuse during the 1400s.
Mass of St. Gregory - XV century - Rome.
According to another theory - the surplice dates as far back as the 5th and it can be found in the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna. The surplice forms no more than an evolution of the liturgical alb, the first document to mention this liturgical garment is an ordinance by King and Saint Edward the Confessor. Rome however has known the surplice from the XII century and it was originally used only as a choir vestment, in the XIII century it replaced the the alb as the proper vestment for the administration of sacraments. The Renaissance saw a great use of it.
The Virgin and Child appear to Saint Philip Neri, Carlo Maratta, XVII century. Notice the long surplice.
The shape of the surplice remained mostly unchanged until the second half of the XVII century - when it progressively got shorter and shorter until it became what we know today as “cotta”. Though it didn't become as short as it got until the XVIII century. Cottas often featured lace decoration or embroidered bordures - the lace or embroidery, if present, will often be in the form of inserts set a few inches above the edge of hem or sleeves - cottas got as short as they fell even above the waist and they got their peculiar squared neck. This is still today the most common version of surplice, especially in the Roman Catholic Church where, though, has become once again simpler in its patterns after the Second Vatican Council. Despite the changes of the Council traditional churches still use elaborate cottas.
After the Council of Trent - long surplices still in use.
Since the surplice is meant to be the evolution of the alb which is the symbol of the white garment to be worn at Baptism - it can be worn by any cleric or altar server who is instituted for the liturgical service. It is also worn by seminarians and non-clerical choirs. It is worn over a cassock. It can be worn under a stole by deacons and priests for liturgical ceremonies they are not presiding at of for the celebration of sacraments outside of Mass. During the offices or other occasions the cope is worn over the cassock, surplice and stole.
Short cottas came into use in the XVIII century.
In the Roman Catholic Church it is not normally worn by prelates such as the Pope, cardinals, bishops, monsignori, etc. instead these clerics were a rochet which is a variant of the surplice.
Tridentine Mass in Rome - elaborate cottas.
The surplice belongs to the "sacred vestments" but requires no benediction before it is worn.
In the Church of England.
The second Anglican Prayer Book in 1552 prescribed the surplice as, with tippet, the sole vestment for the church for all types of services. The rochet for bishops was the only variant accepted, since it was seen as the episcopal variation of the surplice. Despite the attacks by more extreme reforms the Elizabethan act of Uniformity in 1559 retained the garment and enforced its use, though the act also ordered the destruction of chasubles, albs, stoles, etc… Despite the Oxford movement during the XIX century, the long Anglican surplice remained, with the exception of the cope, the sole vestment authorized by the Church of England until 1965. Above the surplice the “tippet” or “black scarf” is usually worn - a protestant variation of the stole, though some claim it must not be confused with it as it used to be part of the outdoor dress for clerics during Tudor times… together with the surplice… hardly so. At the end of the XVII century when large wigs came into fashion, surplices begun to have buttons at the neck - this fashion sometimes still continues today in certain cases - such as in universities. In general, however, the tendency followed continental influence, and curtailed the surplice's 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. Except in English cathedrals or at Evensong or Mattins anywhere else, of course. In some Anglo-Catholic churches, the surplices follow the style of the Roman cotta. Cottas may in some churches be worn by servers and members of the choir and clergy may wear surplices in services where they do not wear eucharistic vestments.