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What Was the Medieval Equivalent of a Rap Battle?

In medieval times, troubadours and bards engaged in poetic duels called "flytings," where they exchanged witty insults and boasts, much like today's rap battles. These lyrical contests showcased their creativity and command of language, often performed before an audience. Intrigued? Discover how these verbal jousts influenced modern lyrical showdowns in our full article.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

You’re likely to be familiar with the concept of a rap battle (especially if you've seen Eminem's 8 Mile) – a live performance in which rappers go head to head using insults, rhyme, and wordplay to bring down their opponent. But did you know that the rap battle has a historical predecessor? Time to get acquainted with the medieval battle of words known as "flyting."

Practiced in England and Scotland during the Middle Ages, flyting was a verbal "battle" in which rivals insulted each other in verse form. The term comes from the Old English and Old Norse words for "quarrel" and "provocation." Similar to the modern-day rap battle, flyting involved publicly crushing your opponent using quick wit, humor, and harsh attacks on their character and appearance.

“Flyting” was a stylized battle of insults and wits practiced in the Middle Ages in England and Scotland.
“Flyting” was a stylized battle of insults and wits practiced in the Middle Ages in England and Scotland.

Flyting was utilized to gain attention at court, with the goal of influencing public opinion and raising the competitors' profiles. One of the most famous examples is The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, which was performed for King James IV of Scotland by William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy in the early 1500s. (This particular performance is also notable as one of the earliest uses of bathroom humor as a personal insult.)

Dr. Elizabeth Elliot, senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Aberdeen notes how "there was less differentiation between the King and other nobles" at the Scottish court. This meant that dishing out insults, even towards the monarch, was considered entertainment rather than an act of treason.

Flyting fell out of fashion during the Protestant Reformation, but examples can be seen in many literary works, including the epic poem "Beowulf" and Shakespeare’s King Lear. There are also examples of flyting in other cultures and languages, such as the Japanese haikai, the Arabic naqa’id, and the Nigerian game Ikocha Nkocha. Flyting can also be found in the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, where players take part to gain prestige and awards. Opponents insult each other and praise themselves, resulting in a quick game of rebuttal using verse, rhyme, and wit. The lively public act of flyting can therefore be said to have firmly stood the test of time.

From flyting to rapping:

  • Flyting was allowed in Scotland even though the penalty for public profanity was a hefty 20 shillings for a lord or a painful whipping for a servant.

  • Rap began as a musical genre in New York City in the early 1970s.

  • Nicki Minaj is the world’s wealthiest female rapper, she has a net worth of roughly 80 million dollars.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • “Flyting” was a stylized battle of insults and wits practiced in the Middle Ages in England and Scotland.
      By: Nejron Photo
      “Flyting” was a stylized battle of insults and wits practiced in the Middle Ages in England and Scotland.