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I have a question about use of the subjunctive in past tense narratives.

The quoted passage is from Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, a sort of cultural history of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The excerpt regards an obscure zealot, William Hacket, but I’m quoting it for its last sentence, a subjunctive statement:

Hacket had already been roughly treated in various English provincial towns, and his prominence in 1591 sprang from his association with two Puritan gentlemen, Edmund Copinger and Henry Arthington .... [to the former of whom] Hacket ... was both King of Europe and the Angel who would come before the Last Judgement to separate the sheep from the goats; if he were imprisoned, the bolts would magically fall off.

So of course this is a “were” conditional. Its reference is to undefined time, or more precisely not to time at all but to the hypothetical. But if Thomas had written the sentence in past time, something like

If he was imprisoned, the bolts magically fell off

Or

If he was imprisoned, the bolts would magically fall off

should our understanding of it be changed? And would it be preferable to cast it in a subjunctive mood, or in a past, indicative one concerned with past eventualities?

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  • Who told you that English has a subjunctive mood? Whoever it was was wrong. The "were" that you are referring to is a mood form, but it is the irrealis mood, not the ill-named past subjunctive. There is not one single verb in English that is inflected for mood. – BillJ Jun 8 '20 at 17:00
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To maintain the subjunctive and use the past tense in this case (while keeping the same wording of were), you have to add several verbs in the first part of the sentence, as well as changing the tense in the second part of the sentence.

Present-tense subjective:

If he were imprisoned, the bolts would magically fall off.

Past-tense subjunctive:

If he were to have been imprisoned, the bolts would have magically fallen off.

Since it's now the past tense rather than the present tense, it does indeed change the meaning of the sentence. As for whether the indicative is better than the subjunctive, that's just a matter of opinion.

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So of course this is a “were” conditional. Its reference is to undefined time, or more precisely not to time at all but to the hypothetical.

I like this: it is accurate.

There are two, distinct, uses of “if” (1) as the introduction to an uncertain condition to be fulfilled (2) to indicate repeating circumstances - in this case, it is equivalent to "whenever".

Thus you should understand

If he was imprisoned, the bolts magically fell off.

as “Whenever he was imprisoned, (on each of those occasions) the bolts magically fell off.” Or “On each occasion that he was imprisoned, the bolts magically fell off.”

In

If he was imprisoned, the bolts would magically fall off.

“Would” is used to indicate a repeating action in the past, e.g. “When I was younger, I would run 5 miles."

This differs from

“When I was younger, I ran 5 miles.", which gives no idea as to frequency and may mean that I did it once.

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"Had he been imprisoned, the bolts would have magically fallen off."

or, if you like if,

"If he had been imprisoned, the bolts [etc.]."

Would these be a past conditional form? (This used to be called the pluperfect tense.)

One thing I'm confused about: is this conditional based on a belief, implied but not stated, by Copinger? That is, did Copinger believe that Hacket has some "magical" ability to free himself from merely human shackles? (something that, of course, the King of Europe who is also an Archangel could easily do)

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