When Jehan de Graincourt, the master of the school attached to the collegiate church of Saint-Amé in Douai, in Flanders, died in 1451, he left a favorite item of clothing to a poor student: "to Haquin from Bailleux, currently wearing the cloak of the Bons-Enfants, a black houppelande which the deceased wore every day" (a Haquin de Bailleux pour lors portant le cappe des Bons Enfans une noire houpplande que portoit ledit deffunct a toute jour). The student's friend Lyonnel, apparently not himself residing in a charitable house of Bons-Enfants, was given a black jacket lined with black lambskin (ung noir palletot fourré de noirs agniaulx). The precise relationship between these two young men and Jehan de Graincourt is not specified, but they may have studied under him at the collegiate school, learning "in French and Latin" (tant en rommant comme en latin) alongside the paying students whose outstanding fees were collected by Jehan's executors.

Jehan left another black houppelande, a nice one lined with fur (une bonne hupplande noire fourree), to his brother Jacotin, along with a breviary, other books "suitable for church," (les livres appartennans et convegnables al'eglise), and his choral garments, le cappe soupplis sarros. Jacotin, who was also one of Jehan's general heirs, must have also been a cleric in order to be singled out to receive these items.

These two entries appear in a document written up by Jehan's executors to confirm their fulfillment of his wishes. Compared to an inventory, a document like this gives a very partial picture of Jehan's material world. But these entries offer us a glimpse of how he felt about his garments.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, 1445–1450. Oil and gilding on panel, 200 x 223 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, inv. nr. 393–395.

Jehan clearly considered his two black houppelandes, both the everyday one and the better one, to be suitable clothing for clerics. It was a respectable garb for a working cleric like Jehan, university trained (maistre en ars), certainly tonsured but apparently not a priest, and drawing a living from a variety of sources. The document, which lists the debt and outstanding salary collected on Jehan’s behalf by his executors, reveals several of these: in addition to running the collegiate school, Jehan copied accounts and books for the canons of Saint-Amé and other patrons, and lodged some students in his house. This is the sort of career to which a poor student like Haquin might aspire, and Jehan likely hoped that the black houppelande would serve the boy well when he put away the uniform of the Bons-Enfants.

The testamentary gift that Jehan made to his brother Jacotin is just as revealing. The bonne hupplande is listed amidst a variety of items which are explicitly clerical in nature. This includes books and other clothing, lumped in a group phrase without number or punctuation: le cappe soupplis sarros. Of these, the soupplis, or surplice, and the sarros were what could be called choral garments, worn by clerics of all orders when singing in choir or performing any of the other small liturgical or sacramental tasks that were part of the running of a large late-medieval urban church like Saint-Amé, of the kind that were panoptically represented in Rogier van der Weyden's Seven Sacraments Altarpiece. Cappe, in contrast, is a word with many meanings, but its inclusion here suggests that what is meant is something like the cappa clausa, the long robe which conciliar legislation from the later Middle Ages ordered as proper (everyday) clothing for clerics. Here, however, the cappe is distinguished from the everyday houppelande, and its grouping with the soupplis and sarros seems to indicate that its use might be restricted to similar churchly functions.

All three of these items appear in other documents in the DALME collections, principally probate inventories of the goods of other clerics. Looking closely at a small number of these, from Jehan's contemporaries in Douai and from men of an earlier generation in Marseille, can tell us many things about these items: what they were made of and how much they were worth, where they were stored and even how they were cared for.

soupplis and sarros

The easiest of these to define today is the soupplis, surplice or superpellicium, which was and is a common item of liturgical clothing. This is the large white tunic worn by most clerics on Rogier's altarpiece, from the canon hearing confession in the back of the left wing to the two clerics performing the last rites on the bottom right. (The exceptions are the few priests wearing albs: the two who are saying mass, in the upper left and in the center, who wear an alb under their bright chasubles, and the one being ordained on the left edge of the right wing. The alb is distinguished primarily by its narrow sleeves.)

Seven_Sacraments_Rogier ordination.jpeg

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, detail, Ordination and Marriage: On the left, a bishop is anointing the hands of a new priest. The bishop is wearing a white mitre and a cope over a surplice. The ordinand is wearing an alb, distinguished from the surplice by the narrower sleeves, and belted by a cingulum; he is also wearing a stole, and an amice, visible as additional folds of white fabric around the neckline. The priest performing a marriage to the right is wearing a surplice, which is looser than the alb and unbelted; he is also wearing a stole, which he crosses over the hands of the newlyweds.

Although the use of the surplice was apparently mandated rather late, it was discussed in liturgical commentary by the thirteenth century. William Durandus of Mende, in his Rationale divinorum officiorum, sought to generalize the use of the surplice, which he described as "a certain wide garment of linen," worn over ordinary clothes by "anyone serving the altar or performing sacred acts." Like the cope, or capa, the wide cloak worn during processions or other non-eucharistic ceremonies, the surplice was an afterthought to Durandus' discussion of vestments. He buried both at the end of the introductory chapter. The other chapters of Book Three of the Rationale itemize the garments worn by a celebrant during the mass, from the alb to the chasuble. The surplice and cope, though important enough to be discussed, do not belong to this series and thus did not receive their own chapters.

The sarros or sarrau seems to be a very similar garment, but narrower, which was worn perhaps under the surplice or alb to protect the liturgical garments proper or, perhaps, as a sign of clerical status outside of liturgical activities. Either way, it does not appear in the Rationale.

Mass vestments and copes were often made of, or adorned with, silk, and they tended to belong to churches (see, for instance, the inventory of the church of Pennes in Marseilles). But as Jehan's will and other clerics' inventories show, surplices (and sarraus) belonged to clerics themselves by the late fourteenth century.

In the inventory of Jehan Lavroy, a canon of Saint-Amé with half a prebend, taken in 1452, and the post-mortem sale of Jehan Couvret, a canon with a full prebend, held in 1469, surplices are included with other linens. Couvret's linens occupy folios 8v to 14r of the sale document, starting with tablecloths and ending with bedsheets (lincheux). In between are four sarrots (11v–12r), with or without sleeves, good or bad; six shirts (quemises) sold in lots of two (11v) and four surplices (12r). Prices for these items are different, but none are very high. The sarrots range from two (for an old one, i malvais sarrot, likely mostly in rags) to twenty-two sous, the shirts from nine to fourteen sous a pair, and the surplices from eighteen and a half to forty sous. Given that the surplice was — and is — an exceptionally wide and wide-sleeved garment, the overall tendency in the prices likely reflects the quantity of linen used, perhaps also the quality.

The inventory of Jehan Lavroy gives a slightly lower price range, with similar variation — in this case, value estimates rather than final sale prices — and adds additional detail. Like the auction document, the inventory is organized taxonomically, and sarrots, shirts, and surplices are all grouped together after uncut linen (on 11r). The sarrots (11v) are valued at anywhere from two to eight sous, the surplices (12r) from sixteen to twenty-eight sous. The three shirts are in a lot (14r) at ten sous apiece, with another four unsewn shirts (tailliees non cousues) at the same price.

The unsewn shirts are marked, signees de ++. The sarrots and surplices are also marked: Lavroy had eight of each, one marked with a + and others with letters A to G. Similar marks are also found on the table linen, like one five ells long marked with an A (i doublier signé par a contenant v aulnes prise ii s, 12v). These marks were probably used to keep track of linens during the washing, especially if they were sent out of the household to a professional laundress; the practice of linen marking is well attested by the eighteenth century. If this is the correct interpretation for these marks, it implies that surplices and sarrots were lumped with the rest of the linen, not only in the inventory, but also in the wash.

Turning to DALME's large collection of Marseillais inventories, we find surplices in several places, including in the homes of two clerics: Guillelmus Valencie, a priest with a benefice in the cathedral whose inventory was drawn up in 1407, and Arnulphus de Parisius, apparently at one point bailiff of the cathedral (named bailivus in the inventory of the church of Pennes, taken 1388) whose inventory was taken in 1395. These inventories, unlike the ones from Douai, are not sorted into categories, but organized according to the lay of the house. So we know that, at the time of his death, Guillelmus kept what is probably a surplice, written superllitilium, in the hall or aula of his house (5v). It is listed next to other items of clerical clothing, an almuss (a cowl or capelet) of dark blue wool (unam almussam panni lividis folratam penna alba) and a black capa (unam capam panni nigri). Worldly clothing was in the same room, in a separate large chest (unam capsiam factam ad modum arquibanqui): a lined hood (capucium), a mantle, and a houppelande. Arnulphus, meanwhile, kept several items of clothing in his chamber (in camera dicte domus), including a surplice of little value (i superpelitium modici valoris, 21v), listed after a merlinus of black squirrel fur, apparently a cowl somewhat similar to the almuss. Next come shirts and woolen items, including a capa (i capa nigra de sargia) and a houppelande (i choppa modici valoris panni obscuri). After the first inventory was taken, Arnulphus' executors found another container (22r), called a cornuta, which contained a cartulary, a small box with purses, and some armor and clothing, including a hood (caputium) and two surplices, one "good" (bonum) and the other "of little worth" (modici valoris).


It seems that Guillelmus and Arnulphus made only a slight differentiation between clothes like houppelandes, which laymen as well as clerics could wear, and more specialized clothing. Interestingly, however, both kept a surplice more or less in the vicinity of an almuss or merlinus. Materially, these capelets of wool or fur had nothing in common with the linen surplice, and they would require very different care. But they would likely be worn at the same time: by the fourteenth century, the almuss, originally a word for a hood in common use, had come to be a special privilege of some canons or other clerics in big churches, worn over the surplice in choir.

Seven_Sacraments_Rogier confession.jpeg

Confession: The priest hearing confession at the jubé is a canon: over his surplice and cappa, he is wearing an almuss, a fur hood, which he drapes over his head.

Almusses are frequently seen on the tomb effigies of canons, worn across the shoulders; they also appear in the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, worn two ways. In the middle ground of the left panel, just before the choir screen, a canon is hearing confession; he wears his almuss as a hood over his head, an archaic touch for the fifteenth century. In the right foreground, the almuss is shown carried in a more typical way by one of two clerics administering the last rites, displaced into the church space for pictorial purposes. The one on the right is the senior, a canon and priest. He wears a long stole over a very fine, nearly transparent surplice, and carries his almuss folded over his left arm, with its fringe of tails (from a weasel, perhaps?) hanging down towards the outside.

Seven_Sacraments_Rogier last rites.jpeg

Last Rites: Both clerics are wearing a cappa and surplice, though of varying quality. The one on the right has fur lining to his capa and his surplice is made of a very fine, transparent linen. He is also wearing a stole, indicating his leading sacramental role, and carries a fur almuss slung over his left arm, to indicate his role as a canon.

Returning to the inventories from Douai, not far from Rogier's home ground, we can see what sorts of almusses the two canons Jehan owned. Jehan Couvret had two almuches (8r–8v), one "lesser" (le menre) and one "good" (le bonne), worth forty-four and sixty-two sous respectively. (The good one was bought at the auction by a fellow canon, monseigneur le thesaurier.) He also had an almuchette worth only two sous (7v), which might still be a secular hood. Jehan Lavroy likewise had two almusses (10r), one malvaise worth, indeed, only sixteen sous, and one bonne, which was in the furrier's shop, perhaps unfinished at the time of the canon's death (1e bonne aulmuche par pieces ale maison du fourreur); he, too, had an almuchette (10r).

More precision on the almuss comes from a Douasien inventory which we have not yet considered, that of the priest Lanwin le Coultier, treasurer of the chapter of Saint-Amé (presbre thesorier et chanoine de l'eglise Saint Amé en Douay). Lanwin's goods were auctioned in 1453. Like the other canons, Lanwin had two aulmuches but here the text specifies that they were cut "in the fashion of canons" (a usage de canonne). The first was valued at twelve livres (2r) and eventually sold for eight livres nine sous or 169 sous (8r); the second was valued at forty sous (2r) and sold for twenty-nine and a half (8r). The note in Lawin's inventory makes it clear that these are canonical almusses, not general hoods, and even that their cut was standardized to show rank. Widely differing prices, however, confirm that such standardization did not mean uniformity.


The description of Lanwin le Coultier's almusses as "in the fashion of canons" echo a note in the inventory of Jehan Lavroy, describing a cappe as "in the fashion of half-canons," (1e cappe a usage de demi canoine, 10r) referring to Lavroy's half prebend. Although the inventory does not specify, it is quite possible that his almusses were likewise differentiated from those of full canons. The mention of a specific kind of cappe, meanwhile, returns us to Jehan de Graincourt's bequest to his brother, the cape soupplis sarros which constituted part of his specifically clerical inheritance.

The inventory of Jehan Lavroy does not provide concrete indications on the material of his half-canon's cappe, but it does give a value estimate of a hundred sous or five livres, higher than Lavroy's two fur-lined houppelandes, which were four livres each (une robe de brunette fourree de tetelettez d'escuireux prisee iiii lb, 1e aultre robe noire fourré de ficeaulx et d'escuireux iiii lb, 9v). Jehan Couvret, too, had a cappe (8r), although a less valuable one, apparently made of serge or wool twill (saye), and sold for thirty-one sous to the dean of the chapter (monseigneur le doyen). We have encountered similar capae in the Marseillais inventories already: Arnulphus de Parisius, the bailiff, had a capa of black serge (1 capa nigra de sargia), and Guillemus Valencie kept a capa of black wool cloth (panni nigri) with his surplice in the hall.

Seven_Sacraments_Rogier confirmation.jpeg

Confirmation: A bishop is confirming children and adolescents in the faith. He wears his episcopal mitre and a cope (capa) with gold-embroidered orphreys, over a surplice and a fur-lined robe (capa). The assistant cleric, who wraps cloth around the children's foreheads to catch the precious chrism (or oil) is likewise wearing a surplice over a robe.

The word capa is difficult to define, because it had many meanings over the course of the Middle Ages. The most stable meaning is that of a cope, the processional vestment in the shape of a semicircular cloak which appeared next to the surplice in Durandus' Rationale. (In the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, the bishop confirming children on the left wing is wearing a cope over his surplice.) Copes, however, would not typically be made of cheaper woolen fabrics like serge.

Capa could also designate outer garments in more general use, which might or might not be much like a modern-English "cape." In that sense, capa frequently appears in conciliar legislation on the clothing of priests — outside of the liturgy. Although such legislation has been passed throughout the Middle Ages, it became more frequent after the Fourth Lateran Council, which discussed clerical dress in its 16th canon, prohibiting bright colors and other excesses. As local synods throughout Europe adopted the council's legislation, their wording frequently was more specific than that of the council itself. Many of these decrees specified that priests should wear black or dark clothing, and many specified some sort of cappa, frequently clausa or rotunda; a cappa clausa was regulated university wear since the thirteenth century as well, the ancestor of academic gowns still worn in the Anglo-American world. At the papal court in fourteenth-century Avignon, cappae of different colors were used to distinguish different offices. Through these rules and regulations, the word cappa came to be associated with clerics. In a survey of narrative sources from the Central Middle Ages, Maureen Miller found that cappa was only rarely used to describe lay clothing.

DALME allows us to make a related, if more localized, observation. Among the many inventories from Marseille, capae appear in lay inventories up to the mid to late fourteenth century: those of Colratus Cavallerii, taken in 1295; Sanxia Raolina, taken in 1339; Poncius Gassini, taken in 1354; Johannes Bermundi and Bartolomeus Egidii, both taken in 1359; and Laura Aronine, taken in 1376. Amid the many fifteenth-century inventories in the collection, the word seems not to appear. This suggests a change in vocabulary, as the word capa came to be locally more clerical over the course of the fifteenth century. The shift also appears to coincide with changes in lay male fashion in the fourteenth century, which grew shorter and more fitted, leading to clearer differences between lay and clerical dress.

Cappes seems to have even more solidly clerical in fifteenth-century Douai, and differentiated to the point where the demi-canoine and the Bons-Enfants could both be distinguished by their cappe. (The two Douaisien lay inventories published by Jean-Pierre Deregnaucourt, both from the fourteenth century, feature numerous capperons, but no cappes.) Looking elsewhere, Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane have found a "church chape in black wool" (chape d'église de drap noir) in the inventory of a bishop of Reims, who died in 1389, and a capa of black sarge "for wearing in the church" (ad portandum in ecclesiae) in that of a priest of Lyon.

Seven_Sacraments_Rogier baptism.jpeg

Baptism: The priest is wearing a surplice and stole over a cappa of matte, rust-red wool, which is lined with fur. He also seems to be wearing a sort of cap.

All of this suggests that, by the later fourteenth century, the cappa had gone from being expected non-liturgical clothing for clerics to a form of near-liturgical garment parallel to the surplice, differentiated from the daily houppelande. The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece provides visual confirmation: beneath every surplice, peeking through at the neck, wrists, and hem, is a long robe in a matte wool, mostly dark brown or blue, mostly but not always lined with fur. Despite significant variation in color and material, these garments — capae — as painted by Rogier all seem to have a very similar cut, with straight sleeves neither wide nor tight, a high collar with a front closure, and a fairly wide skirt supporting the surplice.

a middle tier

Maureen Miller has described the system of clerical clothing which coalesced by the time of Lateran IV as based on "a stark visual contrast: dark, plain, and humble outside the sanctuary, but bright, glistening, and ornamented within church." What the inventories we have looked at allow us to focus on is something of a middle tier, the cappe, soupplis, sarros of Jehan de Graincourt and the almusses and merlinus of canons. These items, made of dark woolens, white linens, and soft furs, were visually similar to the houppelandes and shirts that formed street-wear as such, but they were more strictly regimented and worn in official functions and contexts. These items could also be combined with the glistening liturgical vestments proper; for priests performing non-Eucharistic sacraments, it would be typical to wear the stole (and occasionally a cope) over a surplice.

The middle tier, therefore, has somewhat open boundaries in either direction, towards streetwear or vestments. In one way, however, they were firmly on the side of streetwear: they belonged to the individual clerics, to be sold off or passed on to designated heirs in the same way as more ordinary clothing. Liturgical vestments properly speaking — the ones from the alb to the chasuble that received their own chapters in Durandus' Rationale — did not belong to individual clerics, but to churches. When they appear in probate inventories, it is attached to a private chapel, as in the case of Johannes Casse of Marseille.

The private ownership of the middle tier appears to be a late-medieval phenomenon. The visitation records of Eudes Rigaud, archbishop of Rouen from 1248 to 1275, repeatedly castigate clerics who do not own a cappa clausa or who fail to wear it when out in public, such as when riding a horse or in the tavern. Eudes Rigaud, however, expected surplices to be part of church goods, and twice ordered the chapter of Saint-Mellon in Pontoise to have surplices and altar cloths made (in 1263 and 1264). For Eudes, surplices and cappae clausae had different purposes, and correspondingly different ownership regimes. Two centuries later, in the prosperous cloth towns of Flanders, home to Jehan de Graincourt and Rogier van der Weyden, the cappae and soupplis had converged in use. The cape was clearly no longer the expected clothing of a cleric about town — he could wear a houppelande there, albeit a dark and modest one — but a specialized garment ad portandum in ecclesie, worn below the surplice. The cape soupplis sarros formed an ensemble which, while distinguished from daily wear, nonetheless fell under individual property regimes (where these existed, as in secular chapters) rather than part of the common goods of the church.