(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?

  • 1
    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? Jul 11, 2016 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. Jul 11, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 1:33

2 Answers 2


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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 22:48
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    The subjunctive emphasizes what is going on in someone's mind, whether true or not. It does not by itself imply counterfactual propositions (even though counterfactuals obviously exist only in someone's mind). For instance the sentence, "Scio qui sis" (I know who you are) does not imply that "who you are" is counterfactual, it just means that the sentence is mostly about what I know, and only secondarily about who you are. "Scio qui es" would mean something quite different, something almost nonsensical, "I know you, who are".
    – Figulus
    Mar 19, 2020 at 16:03

The subjunctive emphasizes what is going on in someone's mind, whether true or not. It does not by itself imply counterfactual propositions (even though counterfactuals obviously exist only in someone's mind). For instance the sentence, "Scio qui sis" (I know who you are) does not imply that "who you are" is counterfactual, it just means that the sentence is mostly about what I know, and only secondarily about who you are. "Scio qui es" would mean something quite different, something almost nonsensical, "I know you, who are".

So memento quod sumpseris is more about God remembering what he did, and not so much about what exactly it was that he did (quod sumpsisti). "Keep this in mind", rather than "Remember that thing you did?"

Addendum (24 May 2020):

Tony asked below whether this has anything to do with indirect speech. The answer is, arguably, yes, it very well may. That is, if you view attributed causes as an implicit case of indirect speech. Woodcock in #240 gives the examples aufugit quod timebat (he ran away because, I say, he was afraid) and aufugit quod timeret (he ran away because, he says, he was afraid). Here the switch to subjunctive indicates, as always, someone's mental state, and it indicates a switch to a point of view other than the speaker's. In the case of our hymn, memento quod sumpseris could be interpreted to mean, "remember, you say, that you took up", where as memento quod sumpsisti would mean, "remember, I say, that you took up".

This is obviously not a case of explicit indirect speech. The words "you say" do not appear explicitly, but they may be present implicitly, as implied by the subjunctive.

  • 1
    Why would ""what is going on in someone's mind" demand the perfect subjunctive, as opposed to the more diffuse, indefinite imperfect subjunctive? In Q: latin.stackexchange.com/q/13729/1982 the thinking was, finally, that "memento quod + perfect subj. was an evolved form of indirect speech; possibly, unique to the Latin Vulgate. Your thoughts, please.
    – tony
    May 23, 2020 at 12:53
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    @tony What is going on in someone's mind would not of itself demand a perfect subjunctive, but if the action being contemplated is complete, that completion would demand a perfect rather than an imperfect tense. Note that it's not the momento that is perfect, but the sumpseris.
    – Figulus
    May 23, 2020 at 13:33
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    Understood. Therefore, "memento quod + perfect subjunctive" is nothing to do with indirect speech?
    – tony
    May 23, 2020 at 14:00
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    @tony What an excellent question! (Now I have to update my answer.) The simple answer, I believe, is in general no, but in any particular case maybe. In this particular case, the answer may very well be yes, but it's not easy for me to tell.
    – Figulus
    May 24, 2020 at 18:55
  • In three of the Vulgate examples there are two perfect subjunctives (PS), in each sentence. It could be argued that each PS must be fulfilling the same role. The speaker asks the second person to remember (memento quod...) a completed action/s in his memory/ mind/ thoughts. If correct, this must obviate the need to express the action of the third party (God), in indirect speech. The grammatical priority goes, not to the third party, but the recollection from the memory (of the second person). Have you considered the asking of a new Q? If you do not wish to, would you mind if I did?
    – tony
    May 25, 2020 at 8:04

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