Flyting

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The Norse gods Freyja and Loki flyte in an illustration (1895) by Lorenz Frølich.

Flyting or fliting is a contest consisting of the exchange of insults, often conducted in verse, between two parties.[1]

Description[edit]

I will no longer keep it secret:
it was with thy sister
thou hadst such a son
hardly worse than thyself.

Lokasenna

Like ane boisteous bull, ye rin and ryde
Royatouslie, lyke ane rude rubatour
Ay fukkand lyke ane furious fornicatour

Sir David Lyndsay, An Answer quhilk Schir David Lyndsay maid Y Kingis Flyting (The Answer Which Sir David Lyndsay made to the King's Flyting), 1536.

Ajax: Thou bitch-wolf's son, canst thou not hear? Feel then.
Thersites: The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene 1.

Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. The root is the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel (from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation). Examples of flyting are found throughout Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature involving both historical and mythological figures. The exchanges would become extremely provocative, often involving accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion.

Norse literature contains stories of the gods flyting. For example in Lokasenna the god Loki insults the other gods in the hall of Ægir and the poem Hárbarðsljóð in which Hárbarðr (generally considered to be Odin in disguise) engages in flyting with Thor.[2]

In the confrontation of Beowulf and Unferð in the poem Beowulf, flytings were used as either a prelude to battle or as a form of combat in their own right.[3]

In Anglo-Saxon England, flyting would take place in a feasting hall. The winner would be decided by the reactions of those watching the exchange. The winner would drink a large cup of beer or mead in victory, then invite the loser to drink as well.[4]

The 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules contain elements of flyting.

Flyting became public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries where makars would engage in verbal contests of provocative, often sexual and scatological but highly poetic abuse. Flyting was permitted despite the fact that the penalty for profanities in public was a fine of 20 shillings (over £300 in 2014 prices) for a lord or a whipping for servant.[5] James IV and James V encouraged "court flyting" between poets for their entertainment and occasionally engaged with them. The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie records a contest between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy in front of James IV, which includes the earliest recorded use of the word shit as a personal insult.[5] In 1536 the poet Sir David Lyndsay composed a ribald 60 line flyte to James V after the King demanded a response to a flyte.

Flytings appear in several of William Shakespeare's plays. Margaret Galway analysed 13 comic flytings and several other ritual exchanges in the tragedies.[6] Flytings also appear in the Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister and John Still' Gammer Gurton's Needle from the same era.

Similar practices[edit]

Hilary Mackie has detected in the Iliad a consistent differentiation between representations in Greek of Achaean and Trojan speech,[7] where Achaeans repeatedly engage in public, ritualized abuse: "Achaeans are proficient at blame, while Trojans perform praise poetry."[8]

Taunting songs are present in the Inuit culture, among many others. Flyting can also be found in Arabic poetry in a popular form called naqa'id, as well as the competitive verses of Japanese Haikai.

Echoes of the genre continue into modern poetry. Hugh MacDiarmid's poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, for example, has many passages of flyting in which the poet's opponent is, in effect, the rest of humanity.

Flyting is similar in both form and function to the modern practice of freestyle battles between rappers and the historic practice of the dozens.[9]

Recreation[edit]

In a May 2010 episode of the Channel 4 series Time Team, archaeologists Matt Williams and Phil Harding engage in some mock flyting in Old English written by Saxon historian Sam Newton to demonstrate the practice. For example, "Mattaeus, ic þé onsecge þæt þín scofl is nú unscearp æfter géara ungebótes" ("Matthew, I to thee say that thine shovel is now blunt after years of misuse").

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Parks, Ward. "Flyting, Sounding, Debate: Three Verbal Contest Genres", Poetics Today 7.3, Poetics of Fiction (1986:439-458) provided some variable in the verbal contest, to provide a basis for differentiating the genres of flyting, sounding, and debate.
  2. ^ Byock, Jesse (1983) [1982]. Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08259-1. 
  3. ^ Clover, Carol (1980). "The Germanic Context of the Unferth Episode", Spoeculum 55 pp. 444-468.
  4. ^ Quaestio: selected proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic Volumes 2-3, p43-44, University of Cambridge, 2001.
  5. ^ a b An encyclopedia of swearing: the social history of oaths, profanity, foul language, and ethnic slurs in the English-speaking world, Geoffrey Hughes, M.E. Sharpe, 2006, p175
  6. ^ Margaret Galway, Flyting in Shakespeare's Comedies, The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, vol. 10, 1935, pp. 183-91.
  7. ^ Mackie, Hilary Susan (1996). Talking Trojan: Speech and Community in the Iliad. Lanham MD: Rowmann & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-8254-4. , reviewed by Joshua T. Katz in Language 74.2 (1998) pp. 408-09.
  8. ^ Mackie 1996:83.
  9. ^ Johnson, Simon (2008-12-28). "Rap music originated in medieval Scottish pubs, claims American professor". telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 2008-12-30. "Professor Ferenc Szasz argued that so-called rap battles, where two or more performers trade elaborate insults, derive from the ancient Caledonian art of "flyting." According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States, where it was adopted and developed by slaves, emerging many years later as rap; see also John Dollard, "The Dozens: the dialect of insult", American Image 1 (1939), pp 3-24; Roger D. Abrahams, "Playing the dozens", Journal of American Folklore 75 (1962), pp 209-18. 

See also[edit]

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