I am still working through the Parvum Officium and I am having a little trouble parsing the first verse of this hymn. I am pretty confident you people can straighten me out. The verse:

Memento rerum conditor,

Nostri quod olim corporis

Sacrata ab alvo Virginis

Nascendo formam sumpseris.

I'm fairly confident I understand the first and third lines, but let me attempt translation just in case I do not. First:

Remember! Creator of [the] things!


From the holy womb of [the] Virgin

Now, (gulp) the second. I think nostri and corporis are linked together to mean of our body and that quod olim is a kind of parenthetical, subordinate adjectival clause:

..., that at that time, of our body...

Perhaps that is right. Perhaps not.

I have even less to work with in the fourth line, because I do not really understand the gerundive nascendo. I suspect that the accusative formam is linked to the nostri ... corporis in the second line.

So, it seems my questions are:

  • Are any of my above assertions incorrect?
  • How does nascendo operate in this text?

I have an English translation in hand, but given that this is a hymn and subject to rhyme and meter constraints, I do not expect it to follow very rigidly, and I really want to understand the Latin on its own terms. Here is the translation for reference:

Remember, O Creator Lord!

That in the Virgin's sacred womb

thou wast conceived, and of her flesh

Didst our mortality assume.


1 Answer 1


Here's my understanding of the verse. (Note: I'm only a beginner with Latin.)

Remember (Memento), O founder/maker (conditor) of things (rerum), that (quod) once (olim), you took (sumpserīs) the form (formam) of our (nostri) body (corporis) by being born (nascendo) from (ab) the sanctified (sacratā) womb (alvo) of a virgin (virginis).

Nascendo / gerund vs. gerundive

Nascendo here is a gerund, not a gerundive. That is, it's functioning as a noun, not an adjective modifying some other noun. It's in the ablative case to mean that it's by being born that the Maker takes on human form.


A gerund in Latin is a verb functioning substantively, i.e., as a noun, in an oblique case. In the ablative case, nascendo means by being born. Notice that English has the same construction, also called "gerund", in which a verb plays the role of a noun. "Being born happens early in a person's life." A gerund has the active voice. For example, in:

Desine fata deum flecti sperare precando. [Aeneid, 6.376]
= Stop hoping to bend the will of the gods by praying.

the person doing the praying is Aeneas, i.e., the person being addressed. Since nascor is a deponent verb, nascendo takes an active meaning even though the verb is basically passive (or at least we think of it that way in English: to be born, being born).


The gerundive has the same form as the gerund, but a gerundive is a participle, i.e. a verb functioning as an adjective. For example, in:

Karthago delenda est.
= Carthage must be destroyed.

delenda is an adjective modifying Karthago. It changes case to agree with the noun that it modifies, like this:

Ceterum censeo Karthaginem delendam esse.
= And lastly, I say that Carthage must be destroyed.

Unlike the gerund, the gerundive is passive. Cato isn't recommending that Carthage do some destroying; he's recommending that Carthage be destroyed. In the case of nascendo, though, since nascor is deponent and intransitive, I'm not sure there's any difference in meaning between understanding it actively or passively.

Since there's no noun in the verse for a gerundive nascendo to modify, it seems unlikely that it's meant as a gerundive. It might cause some confusion that in Latin, an adjective can function substantively, and that applies to gerundives, too. For example, mutatis mutandis, "the necessary changes having been made," or literally, "the things that need to be changed, having been changed." Without a noun to modify, the gerundive means "things that are to be X'ed." However, in the verse, I don't think it would make sense to understand nascendo that way; then it would mean "by someone who is to be born".

By the way, I did not think any of the above through when reading the sentence. Happily, even with my fairly meager experience reading Latin, I understood it simply by analogy with sentences like the one above ending in precando. The text below mentions a couple other possibilities for how to understand nascendo in this context.

Other bits and pieces

I think you are right that nostri corporis modifies formam. Nostri corporis might seem an awfully long distance from the noun that it modifies. In between them there is another genitive, even! Possibly that long distance is actually intentional bracketing of the enclosing clause rather than a compromise with meter. Seen that way, enclosing sacrata ab alvo Virginis nascendo inside nostri corporis formam might even be a way to indicate how the causal relation between the two phrases is intended to be understood.

I think of olim as meaning something similar to English "once upon a time" or "long ago", but not limited to the past, so it can also mean "someday", and not limited to children's stories, so it can also mean "once" or "one time", as in "Once, I adopted a stray cat."

Something I'm not completely sure of is sumpseris. With a short i, sumpserĭs, it's future perfect: "Keep in mind that one day, you will have taken the form…" With a long i, sumpserīs, it's perfect subjunctive: "Remember that once, you took the form…" I figure that the past tense makes more sense here, but the subjunctive mood seems strange because the event is already accomplished fact. Possibly imperative memini customarily governs a subjunctive verb even when referring to known fact; someone with better knowledge of Latin will have to clarify that. (See new question about this.)

Alas, I'm pretty sure that vowel quantity plays no role in medieval rhyme, so I don't think that we can use the short vowels of corporĭs and virginĭs to infer the quantity of the last vowel in sumpseris.

Regarding gerund vs. gerundive, perhaps one could argue that nascendo modifies an implied noun te, so the meaning is "by you who are to be born". I don't think this makes sense with either reading of sumpseris, though. As sumpserĭs: "Remember that thou took'st human form by thee who art to be born…" As sumpserīs: "Keep in mind that thou wilt have taken human form by thee who art to be born…"

Ablative of time?

I found a few English translations that treat nascendo as referring not to the means but the time of the Maker's taking human form. The Manual of Devout Prayers (1688), p. 84, has:

Divine Creator, bear in mind,
That thou, of our corporeal kind,
The form assumedst heretofore,
When thee a Sacred Virgin bore.

Unless nascendo is commonly used to refer to when someone was born, analogous to "et requievit die septimo", I think it needs a preposition or adverb to refer only to the time of the birth, but I thought I should mention this. The grammar might mark an important point of theology: that the Maker got human form from Mary's womb, indicated by ab. I think that in ordinary Latin grammar, this means that the act that transferred the form was the birth—hence the need for an ablative gerund.

  • 2
    I think your translation is correct. A couple of notes: (1) already in Classical Latin there is confusion between -erĭs and -erīs in the pf. subj., so even if vowel quantity mattered for medieval verse (which it doesn't) that might not tell us anything. (2) The syntax here is non-Classical. CL would use an indirect statement construction after memento, rather than quod + subj. as here. (I'm assuming sumpseris is subj. because fut. pf. makes no sense.) Maybe someone who knows more about Ecclesiastical Latin can tell us if this construction is regular.
    – TKR
    Jul 9, 2016 at 16:40
  • @TKR, would the classical analogue of memento quod sumpseris be memento te sumpsisse?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 9, 2016 at 19:41
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Yes, I believe so.
    – TKR
    Jul 9, 2016 at 21:24
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    @Joonaslimavirta -- medieval and ecclesiastical Latin often 'introduce' indirect speech with a quod, quia, or quoniam (where quia and quoniam sometimes indicate the indirect speech is directly related speech). When indirect speech is constructed this way, the mood of the (as it were) 'main verb of the indirect speech clause' is often indicative (while subordinate clauses therein are usually still subjuntive). Needless to say, these sorts of 'object clauses' with quod, etc., can mess up the sequence of tenses.
    – jon
    Jul 10, 2016 at 4:07
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    @TKR -- In Collins, ed., A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (Washington, 1985), § 135, it says that the normal situation is the 'retained indicative', but that quod, quia, and quoniam may be followed by the subjunctive when the clause 'emphasizes the grammatical subordination of the indirect statement'. (Compare Greek's ὅτι.) ... Now, is that what is 'really' going on here, or are there metrical reasons at play that helped push us to the subjunctive ..?
    – jon
    Jul 11, 2016 at 1:26

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