Scolding poets

Modern day poets are often characterised as introverted, quiet sorts of people who eke out their existence in garrets and libraries writing deep and meaningful poetry. But once upon a time poetry was the most important form of entertainment and the bards ruled supreme. Poets were powerful and their words feared by all men—to be abused by them has given us the word scold.

The Old Icelandic poets publicly recited the Eddas telling the stories of the Scandinavian myths and gods. They also told the great prose sagas that recounted the history and the great voyages of the Germanic peoples. But more important to the people of the time was Skaldic poetry which was composed by their most popular poets, known as the Skalds.

The Skalds’ poems had strict syllabic metre and used ornamental language such as heiti and kennings. Heiti are poetic and fanciful nouns that replace everyday words, for instance, brand for sword and steed for horse. Kennings are metaphorical descriptions such as sword liquid for blood.

The skaldic verse were written in praise of kings and nobles, they contained epitaphs and genealogies and often commemorated or satirised events of the times. There were also other less formal forms of skaldic verse which included dream songs, magic curses and flytings.

Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults as a form of entertainment. The word comes from the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel, and originally from the Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation. The exchanges would be eloquent but abusive involving accusations of cowardice, sexual perversion, illegitimacy, cuckoldry, sexual impotence, and mock any attribute of the opponent including their appearance, demeanour, clothing, family or nationality. The language was ribald and vulgar but the verse was sophisticated.

Flyting has been recorded in Norse, Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature. It is known to have been popular in Anglo-Saxon England. The winner would be decided by the audience and would drink a toast in celebration of their victory. The toast was shared with the loser.

The word skald moved into middle English not for poets or someone proficient in flyting, but for someone who was abusive. Eventually a scold became someone (more commonly a woman) who was continuously nagging and grumbling. It is now seldom used.

We are left, however, with the verb form to scold which means to find fault with angrily; to chide; to reprimand. This is a small echo of the great poets of Northern Europe who with a huge command of their languages would entertain and enthral the audiences of their day.