Flyting Words: The Medieval Origins of the Insult Rap Battle

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

Flyting
Flyting served as a form of entertainment in medieval times, but it also was a way of competing for attention at court. HowStuffWorks

There are two ways that most modern humans might possibly encounter the idea of flyting, and they're very similar. The first is to take a course in medieval literature, particularly if it discusses English or Scottish works. The second is to play the video game Assassin's Creed: Valhalla. As we said, very similar.

Flyting is an exchange of insults in verse form. As Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland, says, "There's a long history of people insulting each other in poetry." It extends even to today, as scholars have made the connection between rap battles and flyting.

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The History of Flyting

Flyting has a long history. One of the earliest examples we have is in the epic poem "Beowulf," and there's an example in Shakespeare's "King Lear" about 800 years later. And Elliott has a point about the widespread practice of insulting each other via poetry. There are examples of this in languages and cultures around the globe, including Japanese haikai and Arabic naqa'id.

But the most famous example is "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie" (sometimes spelled "Kennedy"), which was composed in Scotland in the early 1500s. It was performed for King James IV of Scotland, and it is the first known instance of a poop-related insult and the F-word. So yes, it was courtly poetry, but it was also crass poetry. Best of both worlds, really.

It's difficult to find lines from "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie" to share that are, let's say, appropriate for this family friendly website. But here are a few of the less vulgar bits written by Dunbar about Kennedy, translated by Kent Leatham:

Maggoty mutton, gorged glutton, scurrilous certain heir to Hillhouse,
Rank beggar, oyster-dredger, dismal debtor on the lawn,
Lily-livered, soul-shivered, cheap as slivers in the millhouse,
Bard baiter, thief of nature, false traitor, devil's spawn.

And likewise a few choice lines from Kennedy about Dunbar:

Wild werewolf, worm, and venomous scorpion,
Damned devil's son, despicable dragon;
Lucifer's lad, with a foul fiend's infernal design,
Born from Moloch mated with Mammon.

Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries was where flyting flourished. Elliott, along with other experts, argues that this form of flyting is not as connected to earlier Old English or Norse verses, nor to later poetic insults like rap battles, as we might think. Flyting served a few purposes in this particular place and time, she says. First, it was a form of entertainment, because who doesn't find insults and poop jokes entertaining?

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Medieval Rap Battles

But flyting was also a way of competing for attention at court. The participants, who were usually male courtiers, might have gotten on well, which Elliott notes is often the case for today's rap battle participants, too. The idea behind flyting was to influence public opinion of the participants and raise both of their profiles. And each participant wanted to make himself look better than the other guy, even if they were friendly.

In addition to being circulated or possibly performed at court, Elliott says that flytings may have been posted in the public square, such as Market Cross in Edinburgh. Then people outside the court could read the witty insults and spread the reputations of the men, further raising their profile. These guys would have appreciated a good Twitter discourse.

Elliott also says that the Scottish court was different from most royal courts, especially the English court. "There was less differentiation between the king and the other nobles," she says. So flinging insults — and even trading them with the king himself — was entertaining rather than treasonous. James V flyted another noble, and James VI cited Montgomerie and Polwart's "Flyting" as a type of verse that was in fashion.

Almost anything was fair game in flyting. As one scholar noted, in "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie" William Dunbar lists all of Walter Kennedy's defects before detailing each one: "his highland origins, begging, cowardice, treachery, ugly appearance, venereal disease, jaundice and sexual activity." You might wonder about that reference to Kennedy's highland origins, but according to Elliott, "They also debated the nature of true Scottish identity" through insulting verse.

Sadly, "The Reformation pretty much puts an end to flyting," Elliott says. The schism created in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation was pronounced in Scotland and England, and insulting poetry being presented at court fell out of favor.

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Flyting of Fantasy

Flyting may have taken flight and flourished in late medieval Scotland, but there are earlier versions of it, such as the passages in "Beowulf." These Norse-influenced examples of flyting have inspired today's creators to include the trade of disparaging verses in their works.

Author Rick Riordan, who often employs mythology in his fantasy books for young readers, used flyting in his novel "The Ship of the Dead." The main character, Magnus Chase, finds himself flyting with none other than the Norse god Loki, which sounds like a terrible idea. But it seems like the only way to defeat the trickster god, so he hurls his best worst words and hopes to win.

As we mentioned earlier, flyting is also part of the video game Assassin's Creed: Valhalla. The main character can compete in "a battle of word, wit and wealth." The game simulates flyting by having the opponent insult you and praise himself, then offering three choices on the screen. The player's job is to match the opponent's verse in rhythm, rhyme and cadence, as well as the context of the words.

Just like in rap battles, you've got to mesh your performance with your opponent's or your flyting will seem foolish.

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