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Latin as I Please XI – April 2015

16 April, 2015 0 Comments
by David Daintree

The Improperia (or Reproaches) are, to my mind, the single most powerful and affecting element in the whole course of the liturgical year

It is Eastertide as I write, but the memory remains strong of hearing the Improperia (or Reproaches) sung so movingly in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on Good Friday.

They are, to my mind, the single most powerful and affecting element in the whole course of the liturgical year:  their profound pathos is overwhelming.  They are also extremely unusual in that they employ the device of having God speak directly to us in his own words, something that never happened in Christian hymnody before Marty Haugen and his ilk came out of nowhere.   The Improperia appear to be very early, because of their use of Greek, but they are not certainly identifiable before the Pontificale of Prudentius (Bishop of Troyes 846-861).  Thereafter they became fully incorporated into the liturgy of Good Friday.  Their setting by Palestrina in 1560 is, I believe, still used every year in the Sistine Chapel.

The Improperia are a compendium comprising verses from the prophets Micah, Jeremiah and Isaiah.  I have slightly altered the order of the version below but without simplifying the Latin.  It would be unnecessary to do so, for it is as simple as Latin can be, yet elegant and stately

1.   Popule meus, quid feci tibi? aut in quo contristavi te?
responde mihi.
Quia eduxi te de terra Aegypti:
parasti crucem salvatori tuo.

Hagios O Theos: Sanctus Deus.
Agios ischyrós: Sanctus fortis
Agios athánatos eleison imas: Sanctus immortalis, miserere nobis.

2.   Quia eduxi te per desertum quadraginta annis,
et manna cibavi te, et introduxi in terram satis optimam:
parasti crucem Salvatori tuo

2.   Quia eduxi te per desertum quadraginta annis,
et manna cibavi te, et introduxi in terram satis optimam:
parasti crucem Salvatori tuo

3.   Ego propter te flagellavi Aegyptum cum primogenitis suis:
et tu me flagellatum tradidisti.

4.   Ego te eduxi de Aegypto, demerso Pharaone in mare rubrum:
et tu me tradidisti principibus sacerdotum.

5.   Ego ante te aperui mare:
et tu aperuisti lancea latus meum.

6.   Ego ante te præivi in columna nubis:
et tu me duxisti ad prætorium Pilati.

7.   Ego te pavi manna per desertum:
et tu me cecidisti alapis et flagellis.

8.   Ego te potavi aqua salutis de petra:
et tu me potasti felle et aceto.

9.   Ego propter te Chananæorum reges percussi:
et tu percussisti arundine caput meum.

10.  Ego dedi tibi sceptrum regale:
et tu dedisti capite meo spineam coronam.

11.  Ego te exaltavi magna virtute:
et tu me suspendisti in patíbulo crucis.

COMMENTARY

1.       parasti: a syncopation of paravisti, you have prepared. This type of syncopation is common in 1st conjugation verbs.  It is, incidentally, one of the many indications that v was a vowel, not a consonant, in classical and early Latin.  Each of the three Greek phrases is followed immediately by a Latin translation; in the manuscripts Greek words are commonly transliterated into Roman characters.

2.       manna is ablative: I fed you with manna.

3.       flagellatum: past participle passive, having been flogged.  It is just possible to read this as a second supine, a semi-fossilized verbal form that indicates purpose after verbs of movement, in which case we could translate it as you handed me over to flog.  But the former is more likely.

4.       demerso.  Ablative absolute, with Pharaoh having been submerged!

5.       lancea is ablative.  Latus is neuter accusative, i.e. third declension, not second.

6.       praeivi.  From praeire.  Many compounds are formed from the common but irregular little verb eo/itus/ire.  Several come into English, usually derived from the past participle:  initial, exit, coitus, introit, circuit.

7.       alapis: with slaps.

8.       potavi:  literally I drank, but in later Latin it can mean, as here, I caused you to drink.  Potasti is another syncopated form (see 1. above) < potavisti.

As is so often the case, the best translation is an Anglican one! –

O my people, what have I done unto thee, or wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me.

V.  Because I brought thee forth from the land of Egypt: thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Saviour.

R. Hagios O Theos. Holy God. Hagios ischyros. Holy, Mighty. Hagios athanatos, eleison hymas. Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us.

V. Because I led thee through the desert forty years, and fed thee with manna, and brought thee into a land exceeding good: thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Saviour.

R. Hagios O Theos. Holy God. Hagios ischyros. Holy, Mighty. Hagios athanatos, eleison hymas. Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us.

V. What more could I have done for thee that I have not done? I indeed did plant thee, O my vineyard, with exceeding fair fruit: and thou art become very bitter unto me: for vinegar, mingled with gall, thou gavest me when thirsty: and hast pierced with a spear the side of thy Saviour.

V. I did scourge Egypt with her first-born for thy sake: and thou hast scourged me and delivered me up.

V. I led thee forth out of Egypt, drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea: and thou hast delivered me up unto the chief priests.

V. I did open the sea before thee: and thou hast opened my side with a spear.

V. I did go before thee in the pillar of cloud: and thou hast led me unto the judgment hall of Pilate.

V. I did feed thee with manna in the desert: and thou hast stricken me with blows and scourges.

V. I did give thee to drink the water of life from the rock: and thou hast given me to drink but gall and vinegar.

V. I did smite the kings of the Canaanites for thy sake: and thou hast smitten my head with a reed.

V. I did give thee a royal sceptre: and thou hast given unto my head a crown of thorns.

V. I did raise thee on high with great power: and thou hast hanged me upon the gibbet of the Cross.

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