1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Biretta
BIRETTA (Ital. berretta, Med. Lat. biretum, birettum, dim. of birrus, “a hooded cloak”; from the Fr. form barrette is derived the Eng. “barret-cap”), a cap worn by the Catholic clergy. It is square and stiff, being made of a framework of cardboard covered with cloth or silk; on the top, along the sutures of the stuff, are three or four raised, board-like, arched ridges, at the junction of which in the centre is a knob or tassel (floccus). Its colour varies with the rank of the wearer, that of the pope being white, of the cardinals red, of bishops purple, and of the lower clergy black. It is not in the strictest sense a liturgical head-dress, its use not being confined to liturgical functions. In these functions, moreover, its use is strictly limited; e.g. it is worn at low masses by the priest only when he goes to and from the altar, at high masses also when the celebrant sits during the singing of the Kyrie, Gloria and Creed, and at processions when these take place outside the church and are not sacramental, and so on.
Though the form of the biretta, devised in the 17th century, is peculiar to the Roman Church, it is but a variant of the original biretum, which developed in various countries into head-coverings of different shapes and significance. At the outset there was little to distinguish the biretum from the pileus or pileolus (skull-cap), a non-liturgical cap worn by dignitaries of the Church under the mitre and even under the biretta. When the word biretum first appears in the 13th century, it practically means no more than “cap,” and is used as a synonym of pileus. As an ecclesiastical vestment the cap can be traced, under the name of pileus, to the 12th century; under that of infula, to the end of the 10th. It would seem to have been worn by the cantors as a protection against cold. The same utilitarian reason led to its introduction among the clergy generally. Thus in 1243 Pope Innocent IV. granted leave to the Benedictines of St Augustine’s at Canterbury, and to those of Winchester, to wear the pileus in choir. With the extension of its use, too, the custom grew up (c. 1300) of investing clerks with the biretum as the symbol of the transfer of a benefice, a custom which survives, in Roman Catholic countries, in the solemn delivery of the red biretta by the head of the state to newly created cardinals, who afterwards go to Rome to receive the red hat. This red biretta is called the zucchetto.
This use of the biretum as a symbol of office or dignity was not confined to the clergy. With various modifications of form it was worn by all persons of standing, e.g. barons, judges, and doctors and masters of the universities. The biretum was also used in the investiture of laymen with office, e.g. a duke or the prefect of the city of Rome (Du Cange, Gloss. s.v. birretum). The “cap of maintenance” or “cap of estate,” still borne before the British sovereign on state occasions, is a barret-cap of the type of the 14th and 15th centuries; it is of crimson velvet, turned up with ermine. By the 16th century the barret-cap had become the common head-gear of all people of substance, men and women. It was flat, square or round, sometimes with edges that could be turned up or down according to convenience, and was often elaborately decorated. By the 17th century it had given place in ordinary civil life to the brimmed hat; but in various shapes it still survives as official head-gear in many European countries: the Barett, worn in church by the Lutheran clergy, in the courts by German lawyers, and by the deans and rectors of the universities, the barrette of French judges and barristers, the “black cap” of the English judge, and the “college cap” familiar in English and American universities, and vulgarly known as the “mortar-board.”
Meanwhile the ecclesiastical developments of the biretum are not without interest and significance. Originally this had been a round cap, low or moderately high, slightly bulging out at the top, and ornamented with a round knob. By the 16th century, both in England and on the continent, a tendency had begun to emphasize the ridges of the sutures and thus produce a square shape. Henceforth the evolution followed different lines. In England, in the 17th century, the square flat top began to be enlarged, forming a rim of thick stuff projecting beyond the close-fitting cap. This was the “square cap” so virulently denounced by the Puritans as a symbol of High Church Erastianism. With the triumph of High Church principles at the Restoration it was natural that a loyal clergy should desire to emphasize this squareness, and the consequent exaggeration of the square top of the cap necessitated a further stiffening. In the 18th century, accordingly, the top began to be made of a board of wood or card covered with cloth, the close-fitting cap proper retired farther from the edges, the knob developed into a long tassel, and the evolution of the modern “college cap” was complete (see fig. 1).
On the continent, meanwhile, in the Roman Catholic Church, the biretum had also developed into its present characteristic form, and by a very similar process. By the end of the 16th century the square shape was everywhere prevalent; at the beginning of the 17th century cardboard was introduced to stiffen the sides and emphasize the squareness, and the actual form of the biretta, as described above, had become fixed (see fig. 2). Only in Spain has the biretta continued to be worn without the raised ridges.
The use of the Roman biretta has been introduced by a certain number of the clergy into the Anglican Church. It is clear that there is no historical justification for this; for though both college cap and biretta are developed from the same “square cap,” the biretta in its actual shape is strictly associated with the post-Reformation Roman Church, and its actual ceremonial use is of late growth. Braun (Liturgische Gewandung, p. 513) thinks that the symbolism of the cross may have had some influence in fixing and propagating the square shape, and he quotes a decree of the synod of Aix (1585) ordering the clergy to wear a biretta sewn in the form of a cross (biretum in modum crucis consutum, ut ecclesiasticos homines decet). So far as the legality of the use of the biretta in the Church of England is concerned, this was pronounced by Sir R. Phillimore in the Court of Arches (Elphinstone v. Purchas, 1870) to be legal “as a protection to the head when needed,” but this decision was reversed on appeal by the judicial committee of the privy council (Hebbert v. Purchas, 1871). Of late years the old square cap of soft padded cloth or velvet has been revived in the Anglican Church by some dignitaries.