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"Good King Wenceslas" is a classic Christmas song, but its melody was taken from an older song: "Tempus Adest Floridum", from the Finnish carol book Piae Cantiones ("Pious Songs").

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The first few lines of that song go:

Tempus adest floridum,
surgunt namque flores
Vernales in omnibus,
imitantur mores

The translation seems straightforward, for the most part:

The flowering time is here,
and the flowers are sprouting
Springtime customs now
imitate into everything(??)

But I'm very confused by the last line. How do the customs "imitate into everything"? Or does the verb imitor mean something else when connected to in?

  • Notably, another manuscript (from the Carmina Burana) has immutantur instead. – Draconis Dec 21 '18 at 5:59
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    The punctuation seems to show that 'in omnibus' goes with the 'surgunt' clause, not the 'imitantur' clause. – cnread Dec 21 '18 at 6:18
  • @cnread Perhaps, but then what does "imitantur mores" mean on its own? I took this from Wikipedia, and now see I didn't have the capitalization quite right—I'll edit that. – Draconis Dec 21 '18 at 6:20
  • Presumably, flores vernales is still the subject and, if I had to guess, I'd say this is a way of saying that they do the same thing that they do every year – that is, they imitate their custom. – cnread Dec 21 '18 at 6:26
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First, note that in omnibus can't mean "into everything" but only "in everything, in all things".

I would take Vernales as beginning a new sentence that goes on to mores, with those two words together meaning "springtime customs". The reason I think Vernales does not actually go with flores, as it would seem to at first sight, is that Medieval Latin poetry shows little in the way of enjambment: each line tends to correspond to a clause or sentence. See for examples the poems of the Archpoet, like this one in the same meter. And this line-to-clause correspondence seems to hold in the rest of this same poem.

So we have a sentence Vernales in omnibus imitantur mores. The comma after omnibus is difficult, and my best guess is that it's there to show a break in the melody rather than in the syntax. Without it the sentence means "They imitate springtime customs in all things". Admittedly this is still a bit mysterious -- who's "they"? The flowers? People generally? An alternative, as Joonas suggests, is to take imitor as a true passive, "Springtime customs are imitated in all things", but this would be decidedly un-Classical.

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    Good point about the lack of enjambment in Medieval Latin poetry. You've convinced me to give up on the hypothesis that Vernales modifies flores. Another piece of evidence: the melody has a cadence on flores that strongly suggests that the thought has completed. – Ben Kovitz Dec 24 '18 at 0:06
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I agree with cnread that capitalization seems to follow the verses, not implying a hidden punctuation. I also think that mores is the object of imitantur, the subject being flores.

This, IMO, has two readings:

  1. Flores imitantur mores [suos], as cnread says, they imitate their custom.
  2. Flores imitantur mores [bonos], they flourish, just as virtues do. I admit that this may sound a little far-fetched, but I can't help making sense of it this way in the context of Ecclesiastical Latin. Mores also mean manners, morals, character; in a good or bad sense .

FWIW there is an instance of mores being the object of imitari in Cicero in this specific sense:

imitari, Castor, potius avi mores disciplinamque debebas quam optimo et clarissimo viro fugitivi ore male dicere (Cic. Deiot. 10.28) / You ought, O Castor, rather to imitate the manner and principles of your grandfather, than calumniate a most virtuous and most illustrious man with the language of a runaway slave (Yonge, 1891)

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Here is an option worth considering: Perhaps imitare is meant as a non-deponent verb, making imitantur passive. Thus imitantur mores would be read as something like "the traditions are followed".

Then the stanza would consist of three independent statements separated by commas:

  • Tempus adest floridum
  • surgunt namque flores vernales in omnibus
  • imitantur mores

I'm not sure how to read in omnibus, though. Perhaps "everywhere"? That would make a lot of sense in context, but I'm not familiar with such use.

  • Flowers rise in/from all things? – Rafael Dec 21 '18 at 15:03
  • @Rafael That's a possibility, too. I doesn't seem to make much of a semantic difference here, but your idea sounds more grammatical to me. – Joonas Ilmavirta Dec 21 '18 at 15:48
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Here's an uneducated guess, based on an evening's googling.

Iam mutantur

An earlier version of the poem appears in the Carmina Burana, §105 in this book but usually counted §142:

Tempus adest floridum,
Surgunt namque flores,
Vernales mox in omnibus
Iam mutantur mores.

You have to fudge Vernales to fit the melody, which seems strange, but another source supports this. It seems OK if you make Ver- an upbeat.

Translating both literally and metrically:

Now has come the florid time,
For flowers are arising;
Soon the ways in everything
Will be changed to Springtime.

The following four lines continue the idea of evidence that Winter is now in the process of changing to Spring:

Hoc quod frigus læserat,
Reparant calores,
Cernimus hoc fieri
Per multos colores.

What is injured by the cold,
Heats are now restoring;
We can tell it's happening
By the many colors.

Immutantur

The Biblioteca Augustana's version is probably more authoritative:

Tempus adest floridum,    surgunt namque flores
vernales; mox in omnibus    immutantur mores.
hoc, quod frigus leserat,    reparant calores;
cernimus hoc fieri    per multos colores.

The word immutantur agrees better than iam mutantur with the idea of "being changed into" and the transitive use of muto.

The punctuation indicates that the curator thought that vernales modified flores. Leo Tepper posted the same conclusion in his blog. But don't jump on that bandwagon just yet. There's more evidence below.

Imitantur

Wikipedia reports that a "sanitized version" of Tempus Adest Floridum was published in the Piæ Cantiones. No source is given for that characterization, but the next two verses of the Carmina Burana version are about virgines cum clericis finding love in the meadows—probably not very pious by the standards of the Swedish Reformation. The version in the Piæ Cantiones still describes meadows, but now it's only about plant life.

So, Tempus Adest Floridum got an edit, which fixed both the meter and the naughtiness. (The meter is still flawed, since the unstressed syllable Ver- is now on a strong beat, but this minor flaw seems common in Medieval Latin poetry.) The idea still seems to be that we are now witnessing the change to Spring. Per multos colores, in line 8, was revised to per multos labores, reinforcing the idea that something is causing everything to change.

Inmutantur

Now, consider the medieval script in which immutantur would have been written. The letters -immu- would likely be a series of vertical strokes. If written inmutantur, the editor of the Piæ Cantiones could easily have mistaken the eight consecutive minims as the start of immitantur and then "corrected" the double m. (Perhaps iam mutantur is another transcription error introduced due to the same ambiguity.)

So that's my hypothesis: imitantur is a transcription error. The actual verb is inmutantur or immutantur, its subject is mores, and its object, properly an adjective, is vernales.

Commentary on p. 253 of this edition, from 1910, reports another likely transcription error in the Piæ Cantiones, in the second verse.

I welcome debunking from others more knowledgeable (or less). Some bases for doubt: palæography, transitive inmuto, and the erudition of Jacobus Finno and the other editors of the Piæ Cantiones, who presumably knew what they were doing.


After some more googling I found the relevant passage at the bottom of folio 58v in the Carmina Burana:

Carmina Burana 58v

It clearly reads iam mutantur, so now I wonder where the Biblioteca Augustana got immutantur. If that's a period after omnibus, then vernales modifies flores as in Joonas's hypothesis, yielding this literal translation: "…for the Spring flowers are arising soon in everything; already the ways are being changed."


After still more googling, I didn't find mutari used in the transitive way required for this hypothesis, but I did discover the impersonal passive, explained in this answer. The impersonal passive makes sense of both the mutantur and imitatur versions, without needing vernales to (jarringly) modify flores, so I'm judging the transcription-error hypothesis an error.

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Here's a second uneducated guess, based on yet more googling.

Imitantur is being used impersonally, referring to things in general, with the object mores vernales.

In omnibus here means "in all respects".


Impersonal passive

Quoting note 149 of this guide to De Bello Civili:

The impersonal passive is often, very effectively, used in Latin to give the impression of an aggregation of separate but similar actions or movements, and so to convey an impression of vagueness or immensity…

Imitari is deponent, so the meaning is active, but perhaps it can still be used impersonally, especially in a poetic context such as this one. I gather that the impersonal passive carries a meaning similar to English "There was (a lot of) _____ing"; e.g. Pugnatum est, "There was (a lot of) fighting."

A basis for doubt: I haven't found another instance of a plural impersonal passive.

Imitari mores

Imitari mores + a modifier for mores appears to be a classical Latin idiom, meaning "take after" or "behave like". Most often the mores are those of parents, as in this passage from a Bible commentary:

Proprium liberorum est imitari mores & exempla parentum; hoc est à natura.

Lucretius uses it in this passage:

Saepe itaque ex uno tondentes gramina campo
lanigerae pecudes et equorum duellica proles
buceriaeque greges eodem sub tegmine caeli
ex unoque sitim sedantes flumine aquai
dissimili vivont specie, retinentque parentum
naturam et mores generatim quaeque imitantur.

Often wool-bearing cattle, truculent offspring of horses, and hornéd herds eating up the grass from one field under the same sky, and slaking their thirst from the water of one river, live each in a visibly different way, and retain their parents' nature, and follow the ways of their kind. [That is, even though the material they're made from is the same food, they remain different kinds of animals.]

Even though imitari can mean "faking, putting on a sham display", the meaning in these passages is that of behaving outwardly according to innate disposition—which might require a little external prodding or support to develop.


So, lines 3 and 4 of the song point poetically to varied and ubiquitous new behavior, happening in omnibus, all following the ways of Spring.


More research

I did some more googling, and turned up very little to suggest that a plural impersonal verb can mean "things in general" as proposed above. "The Latin Impersonal Passive" by Harm Pinkster, p. 173, cites a few instances of it from Classical Latin, all where the implicit subject is a vague sense of "people" or "everybody" (and the verb is active). For example, invenient hominem, "the man will be discovered", literally "[people] will find the man"; plerumque frumento utuntur importato, "[people] mostly use imported corn." More common is dicunt with no subject to mean "many people are saying…" Arthur Sloman's A Grammar of Classical Latin, §325.2 gives impersonal ferunt and tradunt also in this sense.

So…I'm not sure. On the one hand, impersonal imitantur (and immutantur) seems to be a logical as well as poetic use of the grammar, with a meaning perfectly suited to the rest of the verse. On the other hand, I found little commentary or precedent for it. I hope someone more knowledgeable can tell us if the trained Medieval Latin ear would search for another word here as an explicit subject or be satisfied with no subject.

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