If you are looking for ways to hurl insults at your enemies, then the medieval world has some interesting examples for you. Taken from chronicles, literature and court cases, they show inventive ways to offer slights and invectives.
The words here are sometimes poetic and clever and sometimes just vulgar and mean, so reader discretion is advised.
In the early thirteenth century the chronicler Jacques de Vintry wrote about the lives of university students at Paris. Explaining how students came from all over Europe to study in the French city, Jacques noted that each nationality was insulting the other groups. He writes:
They affirmed that the English were drunkards and had tails; the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women. They said that the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts; the Normans, vain and boastful; the Poitevins, traitors and always adventurers. The Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid. The Bretons were reputed to be fickle and changeable, and were often reproached for the death of Arthur. The Lombards were called avaricious, vicious and cowardly; the Romans, seditious, turbulent and slanderous; the Sicilians, tyrannical and cruel; the inhabitants of Brabant, men of blood, incendiaries, brigands and ravishers; the Flemish, fickle, prodigal, gluttonous, yielding as butter, and slothful. After such insults from words they often came to blows.
The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis found that insults were a frequent thing between the warring parties of England, Normandy and France. And just as frequently they would lead to more fights and more wars. Some were even hurled in the midst of battle. When the English king William Rufus was besieging the castle of Mayet in 1099 he was faced with determined defenders who also had an edgy sense of humour:
…someone flung a stone at him from a high tower, which by God’s will missed him and struck the head of the knight standing beside him so violently that the merciless blow smashed bone into brain. As the man fell at the king’s feet, miserably slain, long roars of laughter and strident shouts came from the tower, ‘See, now the king has fresh meat! Take it to the kitchen, to be served for him at dinner!
Anthony Kaldellis’ book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities includes a section on insults. Even Byzantine emperors were not sparred, as many of them got unflattering nicknames. Constantine I was called ‘Thick Neck’ while Anastasius I was referred to as ‘Mismatched Eyes’ because he had eyes of a different colour. Emperors named Michael were not treated kindly – their nicknames included ‘The Drunkard’ (Michael III), ‘The Geezer’ (Michael VI) and ‘The Penny-Pincher’ (Michael VII). The most insulting nickname goes to 8th-century ruler Constantine V, who according to a popular story defecated in a baptismal font as a baby. When he became emperor, they called him ‘Shit- Name’.
There were other ways the Byzantine people could be cruel to their rulers. There was this poem that mocked Emperor Maurice (582-602) and his wife Empress Konstantina:
He found her, the heifer, tender, and like a young cock
he mounted her, and made children like wood-chips.
And no one dares to speak out, because he’s muzzled everyone.
My holy Lord, you are terrible and mighty, smack him upside the head!
Street level insults
Local court records from medieval towns and cities have given historians a lot of material when it comes to insults. Men and women were ready to hurl demeaning words at each other despite the threat of fines or other punishments. Frequently these insults were sexual in nature. For example, Trevor Dean found this example of name-calling from one married woman to another in Bologna:
‘You’re the greatest whore in Bologna, and my father took you many times in the stables and was your pimp.’
Meanwhile in Todi we have Simoncellus Burgarellis accusing his brother Ranalductus of being a liar. But he used more colourful language saying “that he had ass shit in his mouth.”
In just one year, the courts of Savona prosecuted 48 cases of insults. Some of the most creative were:
- Filthy worm-head.
- You’re a devil and a piece of filth.
- Rotten dog whore.
- Rotten donkey, ribald.
- Mad boy.
A study of insults in the late medieval Low Countries reveals that government officials were frequent targets of abuse. Political overtones frequently played a part in these cases, such as in Bruges in 1521, when a draper named Jacob de Scrapere was condemned for insulting the official who inspected woven cloth. According to the court records, Jacob said:
‘You are a donkey! You do not understand it! One stabs a man for twelve pence in a court. You do us more wrong.’
In Heinrich Bebel’s early 16th-century work Facetiae, he has this story of an abbot who insults his fellow monks, only to have it turned back on him:
An abbot, when his cellarer went missing, said to his fellow monks: “Whom should I choose from such a foolish lot?” One of those gathered there replied: “Didn’t we manage before to find an abbot from such a foolish lot?”
Jaroslav Lev of Rožmitál, a Czech nobleman who travelled around Western Europe between 1465 and 1467, was not impressed by his time in England. He writes:
The English are, in my opinion, perfidious and cunning, plotting the destruction of the lives of foreigners, so that even if they humbly bend the knee, they cannot be trusted.
The Book of Monasteries included a story of how Muḥammad ibn Ḥāzim was making fun of another man so ferociously that the other one sent over 1,000 dinars and a set of clothes to get Muhammad to stop. However, Muhammad refused the offer and sent back this poem:
I’ll not ever wear the clothes of a man
whom I’ve clothed in shame for eternity.
The radical Christian preacher Girolamo Savonarola held power in Florence from 1495 to 1498. He also got his share of critics, including a former follower named Marsilio Ficino. In a letter he wrote after Savonarola’s execution, he unleashed many insults against the preacher. Among them was this line: ‘He is a fruit quite worthy of his diabolical seed.’
Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 to 1519, seems not to have had a good impression of Scandinavians. He once remarked, “There are three fine old kingdoms, over which the King of Denmark is Lord, although their subjects are all rough and uncouth.”
A practice found in the British Isles and Nordic lands during the Middle Ages was flyting – a game where two people would exchange insults against each other in front of an audience. It has been coined the medieval version of a rap battle. A famous example is The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, recorded in Scotland around the year 1500. Here are the opening lines of what Kennedie said about Dunbar:
Dirty Dunbar, on whom do you blow your boast?
Pretending to write such slanderous screeds,
Raw-mouthed rebel, you fall down at the joust.
My laureate letters I loose at your deeds;
Mandrake, manikin, master only of mead,
Thrice-shelled trickster with a threadbare gown,
Say Deo mercy, or I’ll cry you down;
Leave your rhyming, rebel, with your wit’s weeds.
The medieval Arabic literary world is also filled with insults, some of which are set to poetry. A classic battle of words took place in 12th-century Granada. Seemingly taking place at a gathering at the Vizier’s home, it involved the famous blind satirist Abu Bakr al-Makhzumi and the female courtesan Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulaiʽiya. Nazhun was listening to al-Makhzumi speak, but soon they started hurling insults at each other. She accused him of having been raised by farm animals; he responded by saying this was the “crooning of a red hot strumpet whose thing emits odours that can be smelled at a parasang.” Soon after, they recited poems against each other, with al-Makhzumi beginning:
On Nazhun’s face there is a slight veneer
Of beauty, but underneath there is a hidden shame
Those courting her had given up on other women
He who comes to the sea finds little canals small!
Nazhun offers this reply:
Tell the vile one a word
To be recited until he meets his maker
In Almodovar you were reared
And shit than that place smells sweeter
There the Bedouin have begun
To swing and sway in their walk
Therefore you became
Besotted with everything round
You were created blind
But you get lost in every one-eyed [road]
I have responded to a poem in kind
So pray tell, who is more poetic?
By creation, I may be female
But my poetry is male
Why don’t you ask Nazhun
Why she gathers her tails so proudly
If she spots a friendly face
She lifts up her shirt as she has done so often for me.
At this point the vizier steps in and gets the two to reconcile, but commentators say that Nazhun won this battle. With poetry, the insults can be subtle and hidden.
A Eulogy to Remember
The Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229), which took place in southern France, was known for its brutality and the hatred between the combatants. The crusade leader Simon de Montfort was both praised and scorned in writings of the time, even when he was killed at the Siege of Toulouse in 1218. One anonymous writer leaves a scathing eulogy for Simon after he learned that he had been buried at Carcassonne’s cathedral:
The epitaph says, for those who can read it, that he is a saint and martyr who shall breathe again and shall in wondrous joy inherit and flourish, shall wear a crown and be seated in the kingdom. And I have heard it said that this must be so – if by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths, by trusting evil counsels, by setting fires, destroying men, dishonouring paratge, seizing lands and encouraging pride, by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above.
Top Image: Speak No Evil? Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 174, f. 3r – https://ift.tt/hHdzR6Q
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