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(A tangent off of a question and comment by David Charles.)

This verse from roughly the ninth century:

Memento rerum conditor,
Nostri quod olim corporis
Sacrata ab alvo Virginis
Nascendo formam sumpseris.

exhorts the creator to remember that he took human form from the womb of a virgin. Since this is taken as a known fact, why is sumpseris (thou took) in the subjunctive mood? Why not the indicative sumpsisti?


A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, by John F. Collins, §135, “Indirect Statements: Object Clauses with Subjunctives”, offers:

Indirect statements in the form of object clauses introduced by quod, quia, quoniam ‘that’ may take the indicative; this is called the retained indicative. But the use of the subjunctive mood in such clauses emphasizes the grammatical subordination of the indirect statement:

Invēnimus quod Paulus Rōmam jam īsset.
‘We discovered that Paul had already gone to Rome.’

Crēdunt quia Chrīstus sit Dominus.
‘They believed that Christ is Lord.

(Thanks to jon for finding this.)

Medieval Latin, 2nd. ed., by Harrington and Pucci, §7.10.1, “Mood in Indirect Discourse”, says:

Greek ὅτι is followed by the indicative. Quia and quod may be followed by either the indicative or the subjunctive; quod tends to take the subjunctive, quia the indicative.

Neither explanation really clarifies what is meant by choosing the subjunctive mood in the verse above. It does not seem to be indirect discourse. The subjunctive with quod does not appear to be purely a medieval phenomenon. Jerome translates Genesis 1.4 thus:

Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona et divisit lucem ac tenebras.

Deuteronomy 15.15 has both subjunctive and indicative subordinated to the same quod:

Memento quod et ipse servieris in terra Aegypti et liberavit te Dominus Deus…


So, what's the reason for the subjunctive here?

  • Does memento quod customarily take the subjunctive for some reason?

  • Does the indicative change the meaning or perhaps alter the shade of meaning?

  • Or is the custom regarding different moods in this context so weak that the mood makes no difference here?

  • Or is there something about the meaning of sumo here that calls for the subjunctive?

  • Or (the worst hypothesis of all) is sumpseris ungrammatical or nonsensical, chosen only because it rhymes?

If you could provide other examples of the choice of indicative or subjunctive in similar or contrasting circumstances, that might be especially enlightening. What I'm really hoping to understand is: What does memento quod sumpseris "echo" in the mind of a listener?

  • I am currently working through the Collins book and this is exactly what he calls 'indirect discourse'. What do you understand 'indirect discourse' to mean? – davidrmcharles Jul 11 '16 at 21:02
  • Staring at this is causing it to start harmonizing with other uses of the subjunctive: (1) for desires or wishes, and (2) for hypotheticals. In those cases, as in this one, there is a shift from the world of concrete realities to the world of speech and thought. – davidrmcharles Jul 11 '16 at 21:17
  • Be careful with Jerome. He took a more reverential approach to translating scripture than with other works; see his Ep. 57.5 (or in English). However, later writers were influenced by Jerome's decisions even if they did not understand the underlying 'language reasons' for his decision. – jon Jul 12 '16 at 1:05
  • I'd add that the 'tends' in Elliot's Grammatical intro. (in Harrington) should be emphasized heavily. I'd say (unscientifically) that the 'tends' is more like a 60-40 ratio at best, not (say) an 80-20. However, I'd add two points: (1) using the indicative could be meant to lend an extra air of reality to the clause (it really happened; I know it; etc.), while the subjunctive was a way of distancing oneself from the reported speech; (2) quia and quoniam, in this context, come closer to being a direct translation of ὅτι, hence the indicative (usually). But later mdvl authors didnt know this – jon Jul 12 '16 at 1:15
  • @DavidCharles I had understood 'indirect discourse' to mean reported speech, in which the meaning but not the exact words are reported. But now that you bring it up, many examples of indirect discourse in Latin grammar books do not involve reporting on what someone said. I'm going to have to look into this. Thanks for pointing it out. – Ben Kovitz Jul 12 '16 at 1:33
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+50

Let us first look at the Latin Vulgate, which had an enormous influence on medieval Latin. The exact phrase memento quod occurs 5 times (of which 4, interestingly, are in Deuteronomy) and each occurrence uses the subjunctive. I unfortunately do not have a critical apparatus handy at the moment, but my text of Deut 15:15 (both here and here) uses liberaverit, not liberavit:

memento quod et ipse servieris in Aegypto et eduxerit te inde Dominus Deus tuus (Deut 5:15)

memento quod et ipse servieris in terra Aegypti et liberaverit te Dominus Deus tuus (Deut 15:15)

memento quod servieris in Aegypto et eruerit te Dominus Deus tuus (Deut 24:18)

memento quod et tu servieris in Aegypto (Deut 24:22)

memento quod ignores opus eius (Iob 36:24)

Thomas Aquinas, a towering figure of medieval philosophy and a composer of many medieval hymns, also uses memento quod with the subjunctive, though in the context of quoting others. He quotes the above verse from Job, and, interestingly, he paraphrases Ex 20:28 (memento ut diem sabbati sanctifices) putting quod instead of ut. (Super Mt. cap. 23 l. 2.) It is perhaps significant that the ut and quod both are seen as serving the same purpose: ut obviously taking the subjunctive.

Some notes taken from some ad hoc analysis of the Corpus Thomisticum:

  1. The quintessential medieval form of indirect discourse, dixit quod X takes the indicative in every case I could find. The same goes for other "objective" verbs such as scio.

  2. The moment we depart from such words and move on to verbs like cogito and (especially in medieval Latin!) videtur, the subjunctive predominates.

As noted in the comments, I believe the generic medieval Latin primer advice that quia takes the indicative and quod takes the subjunctive is misleading if taken as a general prescription. This is not a hard and steadfast rule: I found some examples of memini with the indicative as well in other medieval writers. If we are to talk of a shade of meaning in this specific example of sumpseris, this has much more to do with the fact that we are asking the Redeemer to recall from his memory an event that happened to him: it is not some subtle way of calling into questions the factual accuracy of that event.

  • Do you mean that the subjunctive mood here might actually be a form of politeness, since the sentence actually gives a command to the deity? – Ben Kovitz Aug 9 '16 at 22:58
  • Thanks for running down so many examples from such authoritative and influential sources! It is quite interesting and informative that dico, scio, etc. always take the indicative, while cogito, videtur, and the like predominantly but not exclusively take the subjunctive. – Ben Kovitz Aug 9 '16 at 23:02
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    No, I really don't think politeness is involved: cogitavit quod Albertus tecum esset uses the subjunctive because of the subjectivity of cogitare (though perhaps that is a bad example, since this implies that the opposite is true, which is not the case for memini) – brianpck Aug 9 '16 at 23:58
  • Would the shade of meaning then be emphasis on the Redeemer's mind rather than on the act of taking human form? Indeed, the translation I linked to renders it as "Be mindful, creator…" In other words, "Keep in mind that…" rather than simply "Recall that…"? – Ben Kovitz Aug 12 '16 at 22:48
  • Actually, rereading and noting the italics in the last sentence of your answer has finally gotten the point to sink in: the subjunctive emphasizes the person doing the remembering, holding the quod proposition in relation to that person. Can you add to your answer one of the examples you found of meminisse quod with an indicative verb? The contrast with a subjunctive example might bring out the difference in meaning or emphasis especially clearly (similarly to the very enlightening contrast between dico, scio and cogito, videtur). – Ben Kovitz Aug 13 '16 at 15:11

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