Skelton & Flyting

Skelton & Flyting

While rap battles or roasts might seem inventions of the hip hop culture and television producers, they are in fact age-old traditions. Most ancient cultures, from Ancient Greek and Romans, to Arabs and cultures from the East all have a history of verbal battles. The existence of such contests is recorded in literature, for instance in the Old Norse Edda, in which trickster-god Loki was notorious for his flyting skills. A heroic warrior like Beowulf needed a tongue as sharp as his sword in order to win a battle from Unferð (Bawcutt 222). These verbal contests are called flyting, a term derived from Old Norse, which is nowadays applied to the premodern literary genre of writing poetry as an invective against a real or fictional opponent.

In the later Middle Ages, Italian and French courts invited their poet laureates to engage in flyting contests for entertainment (Scattergood 424). Yet the Scottish court was particularly fond of the game. Therefore, the term flyting has now become inextricably linked to the Middle Scots tradition of verbal contests. Two famous flyting poems from the Scottish tradition are the debates between the makars Montgomerie and Polwart and The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. The aforementioned William Dunbar was a court poet just like Skelton, whose poetry is particularly rude and offensive at times, causing some modern readers to discarded Dunbar’s literary relevance. Nevertheless, William Dunbar clearly had a marked influence on John Skelton, whose most successful satires are shaped after Dunbar’s example.

Three of Skelton’s flyting poems are directed against the Scots, whose king James IV had threatened to invade English territory while Henry VIII was in France (Scattergood 420). Despite his less than amicable relationship with the Scots, Skelton clearly took an interest in the Scottish literary culture. It is not a coincidence that his invectives Agenst Garnesche and Agaynst the Scottes use the same insults and imagery as Dunbar; moreover, the Scottish makar was not the only Scottish authority that Skelton read. Earlier Scottish flytings must have been familiar to him, as Priscilla Bawcutt has pointed out that Skelton borrowed insults from earlier Scottish flytings: “references to the well-known legend of the anglicus caudatus, or tailed Englishman, were regularly countered by the notion of the ‘rough-footed’ Scot, with his primitive riveling, or shoe of hairy, untanned leather. (238)” Both appear in the flyting Against Dundas:

           This Dundas
           This Scottishe as
           He rymes and railes
           That Englishmen have tailes (ll.7-10)

There are other insults that Skelton most likely borrowed from Dunbar, such as the comparison to the ghost of Syr Gy of Gaunt, who appears in Against Dundas (l.56) Agenst Garnesche (l. 70) and Collyn Clout (l.1155).

It might thus seem like a paradox that Skelton wrote a poem called Against Venemous Tongues, yet this poem is directed at back-biters, a group distinct from innocent flyters. Nevertheless, the following lines show that however harmless, words can be weapons too:

          Malicious tunges, though they have no bones,
          Are sharper then swords, studier then stones.
          Sharper hen raysors, that shave and cut throtes,
          More stinging then scorpions that stand Pharaotis
          More venomous and much morevirulent
          Then any poisoned tode, or any serpent (Against Venemous Tongues ll. 49-56).