Flytes of Fancy: Boasting and Boasters from Beowulf to Gangsta Rap

Flytes of Fancy: Boasting and Boasters from Beowulf to Gangsta Rap

Halama, Alta Cools

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 13 (1996)


Man appears to have a deep psychological and social need to boast and to use boasting as a method of separating himself from the Other. Indeed, one can imagine that ur-man’s first words might have been the equivalent of “My fire is bigger than your fire.” One has only to listen to boys posturing and boasting on a playground or to athletes issuing trash-talking taunts on the playing field to discover the prevalence of what sociologists, linguists, and critics see as a mainly although not exclusively male activity. Critics note that this phenomenon of flyting, the issuing of boast-words often insulting in tone, appears in cultures and literature ranging from the old Greek of Homer to the writings in Old French, Irish, and Norse; from the Middle English of Chaucer to the Scottish flyting poetry of Dunbar and Kennedie to the Renaissance poetry of Skelton to the quatrain saws of seventeenth-century England; and from Middle Eastern literature to that of seventeenth-century Japan. Flyting appears in our adversarial law system, where opening and closing arguments by opposing counsel, with the attempts to demonize the other side, sometimes seem as much flyting as argumentation. High-level flyting operates in presidential election years. Some talk shows seem to exist solely as platforms for flyting. Occasionally academic literary criticism, where it is often not enough to prove that one’s approach is valid but that it is also necessary to prove all other approaches come from the out-of-touch, tolerates flyting. I suggest that we also see flyting in some forms of black discourse, specifically in “sounding,” the rhymed insult couplets common in black, inner-city areas; in “toasting,” longer rhymed black street narratives; and in gangsta rap.

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