The concept of the Rap battle has existed since the 5th century, where poets would engage in “flyting,” a spoken word event where poets would insult one another in verse. The Norse god Loki is noted as having insulted other gods in verse.
Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. The root is the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel (from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation). Examples of flyting are found throughout Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature involving both historical and mythological figures. The exchanges would become extremely provocative, often involving accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion.
Norse literature contains stories of the gods flyting. For example in Lokasenna the god Loki insults the other gods in the hall of Ægir and the poem Hárbarðsljóð in which Hárbarðr (generally considered to be Odin in disguise) engages in flyting with Thor.
In the confrontation of Beowulf and Unferð in the poem Beowulf, flytings were used as either a prelude to battle or as a form of combat in their own right.
In Anglo-Saxon England, flyting would take place in a feasting hall. The winner would be decided by the reactions of those watching the exchange. The winner would drink a large cup of beer or mead in victory, then invite the loser to drink as well.
The 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules contain elements of flyting.
Flyting became public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries where makars would engage in verbal contests of provocative, often sexual and scatological but highly poetic abuse. Flyting was permitted despite the fact that the penalty for profanities in public was a fine of 20 shillings (over £300 in 2014 prices) for a lord or a whipping for servant. James IV and James V encouraged “court flyting” between poets for their entertainment and occasionally engaged with them. The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie records a contest between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy in front of James IV, which includes the earliest recorded use of the word shit as a personal insult. In 1536 the poet Sir David Lyndsay composed a ribald 60 line flyte to James V after the King demanded a response to a flyte.
Flytings appear in several of William Shakespeare’s plays. Margaret Galway analysed 13 comic flytings and several other ritual exchanges in the tragedies. Flytings also appear in the Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister and John Still’ Gammer Gurton’s Needle from the same era.