Insults Hurt: Verbal Injury in Late Medieval Frisia
By Rolf H. Bremmer Jr
Approaches to Old Frisian Philology, ed. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Thomas S.B. Johnston and Oebele Vries (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 1998)
Introduction: When we take a look around in the medieval literature of the Germanic peoples, it is not hard to find striking examples of how a man or woman was adept in hurting somebody else by means of a subtle or blunt word. In the Icelandic sagas, especially, we encounter instances of insulting in word and gesture, an act known as nið. Ritualized forms of exchanging insults, almost amounting to a competition, have also found their way to parchment and paper. From the Edda, a collection of Icelandic mythological poems, we have for example the Hárbardzljóð (‘Song of Greybeard’), in which the god Thorr engages in an exhausting insulting match with a ferryman, called Greybeard (who afterwards appears to be the god Oðinn). In the late Middle Ages abusive poetry became very popular in Scotland, a literary genre known as ‘flyting’, which term by extension is now also applied to such written manifestations outside Scotland.
As it is, there is a difference between such flyting poems as the Song of Greybeard on the one hand, and nið on the other. The former serves to impose, to show that you can master your opponent with words; the insults are ritualized and should not be taken as true offenses. The latter category is intended to defame the other, to challenge a man to physical action, usually by questioning his manliness, especially by alluding to what was then considered as perverted sexual inclinations, or, if the victim is a woman, to question her sexual behaviour.
When it comes to medieval Frisia, such literary witnesses are wanting, although we need not doubt that the Frisians of past centuries engaged in verbal abuse and insult. However, in the major legal sources we hardly find any indications that insulting and other verbal crimes were punishable. And even in those cases where insulting is mentioned, we can only guess at the choice of expletives and the situation in which they were uttered. Curiously, the subject of insulting as a crime has hardly been investigated for medieval Frisia.