Food & Culture

Flyting Was the Medieval Version of a Rap Battle

"You call your work rhetoric with your golden lips:

No, glowering, gaping fool, you are beguiled;

You are but black-kneed 'neath your gilded hips,

Which for your villainy many a lash has soiled"

This was the equivalent of a "sick burn" back in the 1500s. It's what's known as flyting, a type of verbal jousting where poets would trash-talk one another in the form of lyrical barbs. In fact, the practice of flyting was remarkably similar to a modern rap battle, just with fewer "yo mama" jokes and way more beguiling.

A Tradition as Old as Insults

In the epic roast above, the black-kneed recipient was one Walter Kennedy and the one hurling the insults was William Dunbar, both of whom were Scottish poets. The passage appeared in a famous piece of Scottish literature known as "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie."

The word "flyting" derives from the Old English word "flitan," which means "quarrel." From the fifth to the 16th century, flyting was a popular form of entertainment and a means by which skilled poets could illustrate their verbal linguistics in a friendly competition. Often performed for the entertainment of royalty, flyting was, as Atlas Obscura says, "a form of highly poetic abuse."

While there isn't a great deal written about the history and development of flyting, it's part of a long tradition of ritualized, nonviolent combat, with other examples including Japanese Haikai (a series of vulgar puns), and the Nigerian game Ikocha Nkocha, which literally translates to "making disparaging remarks." While these types of games may seem crude and immature, when compared to the actual horrors of physical violence, one could argue that it makes a pretty civilized alternative. In fact, it may be the epitome of civilized. In 1938, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote a famous book called "Homo Ludens," which studies the importance of play in a culture. In it, Huizinga made the argument that once people started to insult each other instead of trying to kill each other over slights, civilization was born.

Flyte to the Future

The modern equivalent to flyting is no doubt the rap battle. Composed of rapid-fire rhymes and insults and performed for the sake of entertainment as well as the goal of out-doing one's opponent, it's easy to see how the two are alike. Historian Ferenc Szasz even made the argument that rap battles and flyting share a common history, claiming that American slaves heard about the tradition of flyting from slave owners with Scottish ancestry. Similarly, in the book "Talking 'Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap," author and music historian Elijah Wald explains that while many roots of African culture are still carried through in rap, rhyme is not one of those elements. Instead, most history of rhyme derives from Europe and was only integrated into African American music in the 20th century.

One thing that's surprising about some of the centuries-old flyting lyrics is just how dirty they are — something else they have in common with rap battles. "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie," which is the most enduring example of a flyting, has remarkably dirty things in it and it even contains literature's first known use of a poop joke. So there you go, lowbrow humor fans: You can trace poop jokes all the way back to the 16th century. While there may be some who thumb their nose at good old-fashioned bathroom humor, just think of how much safer this world might be if all the United Nations had to contend with was whose insult was more damning. More taunts and fewer tanks, we say!

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Written by Brian VanHooker August 6, 2019

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