- “It may be verifyit that thy wit is thin”:Interpreting Older Scots Flyting through Hip Hop Aesthetics
Poetic invective traditions have developed across many cultures throughout history.1 This study examines Older Scots flyting, a little known instance of medieval poetic invective. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines this tradition as “a kind of contest practised by the Scottish poets of the sixteenth century, in which two persons assailed each other alternately with tirades of abusive verse.” Poetic flyting among the Scottish makars, or poets, seems to have been inspired by a broader culture of flyting in Scottish society of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Todd 2002:236). But very few formal poetic flyting texts have survived, and since the late eighteenth century scholars have been baffled by this tradition (Lord Hailes 1770:274; MacKay 1893:cxiv; Scott 1966:175). The extinct tradition of Scottish flyting bears a striking resemblance to American Hip Hop battle rap, a modern day manifestation of poetic invective that developed in the late 1970s among African-American youths in New York City.2 Adam Bradley (2009) describes this poetic phenomenon as “a verbal cutting contest that prizes wit and wordplay above all else” (177). By comparing Older Scots flyting with Hip Hop battle rap we hope to recover something of the tone and purpose of the medieval tradition, namely, that the poets who engaged in these public invectives were actually amicable rivals competing for increased court status and wealth.3
Foley (2002:61-62) observes that the act of textualizing oral poetry is intrinsically antithetical. The scholar of flyting, who depends solely on written text, must come to terms with the permanently distant and disjointed context of the flyting texts (45-50, 63-64). In order to recover some of this context, we will demonstrate the thematic and stylistic parallels shared by flyting and battle rap and use this relationship to explore further the lost flyting performances. By examining live recordings and interviews we have found that the emcees discussed here have competed in these battles for reasons at times surprising: all express respect for their opponents and attest to the fact that their battles were meant to determine linguistic and artistic supremacy. We argue that flyting shares this essentially constructive purpose with battle rap.
In a recent historical study Todd (2002) sets kirk session records of public flyting in relation to the wider context of Protestant culture in Early Modern Scotland. Flyting seems to have transcended gender and social bounds: cases are recorded from all levels of society, between those of different social ranks, and between the sexes (232-36). Todd makes the plausible assertion that flyting was not a subversive practice—rather it served as a formalized mode of initiating public involvement in the resolution of conflict (235-37). Much like the flytings composed by the Scottish makars, public flytings at the local level were highly formulaic, and insults tended to be thrown in pairs or triads, to use alliteration, to depend on expanding themes, and respondents generally mirrored insults thrown by the first participant in slightly altered language (237-41). Kirk session records of this kind only appear after the Reformation of 1560, but the existence of early sixteenth-century poetic flyting suggests that public flyting was a common practice in Scotland as early as the late fifteenth century.
Priscilla Bawcutt’s 1983 paper, “The Art of Flyting,” was the first modern study exclusively focused on the tradition of flyting.4 Prior to this, discussion of flyting was largely confined to the notes of critical editions. Flyting has not always been deemed obscure and too rude for print: the tradition remained popular until the eighteenth century. But Lord Hailes voiced deep contempt for this kind of poetry in his Ancient Scottish Poems (1770) and this seems to have set the tone thereafter, with flyting poems most often either ignored or incurring further criticism (274).5 Although early twentieth-century poets such as W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot recognized the beauty of flyting (Bawcutt 1992:221-22), their interest was purely aesthetic admiration; and in 1966 Tom Scott observed that flyting produced “the most...