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Dunbar the Makar$

Priscilla Bawcutt

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780198129639

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198129639.001.0001

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(p.220) 6 Flyting
Dunbar the Makar

Priscilla Bawcutt

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses one of the medieval poetic traditions in which Dunbar excels: flyting. In the sixteenth century, flyting was a contest of wits wherein poets assailed each other alternately with tirades of abusive verses. In this chapter, the poems of Dunbar that criticize the manners and morals of society are carefully studied, particularly those that are inclined towards retaliatory, lampoon, invective and satirical poetry. Most of his poems tirade the follies of the common man, but the greed of the common churchmen makes, however, no mention of the abuses in the contemporary Scottish Church. Although Dunbar sardonically displays tirades and criticisms in his poems, most of his satiric stances are conservative, conventional and devoid of one particular subject upon which he is morally outraged.

Keywords:   flyting, tirades, satirical poetry, criticisms, Dunbar

DUNBAR often criticizes the manners and morals of his society, and demonstrates an easy familiarity with the multifarious traditions of medieval satire. In his poetry we meet favourite topics of ‘estates’ satire—the incompetent physician (K 54), dishonest craftsmen (K 56), and a crowd of idle and parasitical courtiers. The Church does not escape censure either: he repeatedly mentions the greed of pluralistic churchmen, who are more concerned with collecting benefices than the welfare of their parishioners (K 40, K 42, K45, and K51); he refers to the unchastity of monks (K 74), and the duplicity of friars (K 34, K 38, K 74), particularly the Franciscans (K 55). Occasionally there is acute observation of the local Scottish scene, as in the poem addressed to Edinburgh merchants (K75), or this condemnation of landlords for extortionate increases in rents (mailis) and initial down-payments (gersomes):

  • Barronis takis fra the tennentis peure
  • All fruct that growis on the feure
  • In mailis and gersomes rasit ouir hie,
  • And garris thame beg fra dure to dure. (K 80. 11–14)1
But Dunbar makes no mention of the most flagrant abuses in the contemporary Scottish Church, such as the appointment of laymen to lucrative offices, as ‘commendators’ of abbeys and monasteries.2 What is most striking about his satiric stance is its conservatism and comparative conventionality. The wide dispersal of targets suggests that there was no one subject about which Dunbar felt particularly strongly. Often indeed the satiric element forms but one strand in a complex poem; sometimes it overlaps with ‘complaint’—overtly moral denunciation of the vanity of ‘this warld’—or with personal petitions on the poet's behalf. The tone varies widely, yet rarely reveals the strong sense of moral outrage that characterizes Henryson's Fables or (p.221) Lindsay's attacks on the Scottish Church, a generation later; mockery and light amusement are more common in Dunbar than saeva indignatio.

According to some medieval theorists, the best satire was impersonal and impartial: it was directed against vice in general, not individuals. John of Garland said of a work that he termed a ‘new satire’:

  • Nullus dente mali lacerabitur in speciali,
  • Immo metro tali ludet stilus in generali. (3–4)

[No one specifically will be injured by the biting words of a spiteful man, rather in such a style my pen will sport in general terms.]3

The same opposition was made by an English poet, who declared:
  • Synglure persone I doo none name,
  • But alle the world in generalle.4
Dunbar too alludes to this distinction, at the beginning of The Flyting. In a somewhat cryptic passage he speaks of a work—‘ane thing’— written by his antagonist, Kennedy, apparently in collaboration with another poet, Quintin. Unfortunately we do not know the precise nature of this lost work, although it clearly angered Dunbar. If these poets wrote ‘In generale’ (2), it seems that he would tolerate their remarks; but if they write ‘In speciall’ (5) they will provoke him to fury and a terrible response in kind. Dunbar indeed displays most zest and originality precisely when he himself writes ‘in speciall’. Many poems name ‘synglure’ persons, and constitute attacks on specific individuals. Their motivation is not particularly moral. Often it is retaliatory; as Dunbar says in Schir, 3e have mony servitouris (K 44. 82), ‘with my pen I man me wreik’. These poems voice anger and aggression, but they also reveal delight in the creation of vivid, if caricatured, portraits. This is the branch of satire in which Dunbar most excels, that of lampoon, invective, and flyting.

The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie makes a considerable impact on most readers; like it or loathe it, few remain indifferent. From the eighteenth century onwards there has been disquiet at its ‘unexampled’ scurrility; and one modern critic called it ‘the most repellent poem known to me in any language’.5 Yet other readers have been more appreciative: Auden included two extracts from The Flyting in (p.222) his ill-fated Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938), and Eliot, in his essay on Byron, quoted a stanza with evident enjoyment.6 We have, unfortunately, no sixteenth-century comment on the work, apart from Bannatyne's rubric: ‘Jocound and mirrie’ But other evidence suggests that The Flyting was as popular as The Goldyn Targe, and possibly more influential. It was among the first Scottish poems to be printed; copies also exist in the Bannatyne, Maitland, and Reidpeth manuscripts, and Asloan contained a version, which no longer survives. What is more, Dunbar and Kennedy's Flyting seems to have been responsible for the later Scottish vogue of this kind of writing. It was succeeded by Stewart's Flyting betuix the Soutar and the Tail3eour, by Lindsay's Answer to the King's Flyting, and by The Flyting of Montgomerie and Polwart (c. 15 80).7 This latter work, which shows the stylistic influence of Dunbar and Kennedy, had a remarkably long-lived popularity. There were at least five editions and reprints in the seventeenth century, and it was included in James Watson's famous Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems (1706–11). Flyting is thus one of the few poetic traditions that survived, unbroken, from the time of Dunbar to that of Allan Ramsay.

Flyting is a useful but slippery term. OED admirably defined reciprocal flyting as ‘a kind of contest practised by the Scottish poets of the sixteenth century, in which two persons assailed each other alternately with tirades of abusive verse’. Today the term is chiefly employed by scholars and critics: sometimes in this restricted sense, of a literary genre, peculiarly Scottish and chronologically limited; sometimes in a vaguer sense, of fictional encounters as different in style and far apart in time as the quarrel between Unferth and Beowulf and the sophisticated wit-combats of Beatrice and Benedick.8 Yet it is important to remember how comparatively recent are these literary-critical senses of the word. Throughout the medieval period, in England as well as in Scotland, the words flyte flyting, and flyter were most common in non-literary uses and contexts. In Old English flītan meant ‘to dispute or quarrel’. In later centuries flyting signified noisy quarrels and arguments, carried on chiefly by the lower orders, and— so it was insinuated—by women. A flyter was roughly synonymous (p.223) with a scold (Scots scald).9 The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie is the best-known of all poetic flytings, and may well have introduced the term into the vocabulary of literary criticism. (James VI, who equates flyting with invective, seems the first to speak of it unambiguously as a literary kind.10) But Dunbar was keenly aware of the word's everyday significance; he, like his contemporaries, coupled flyting with other forms of ‘bad language’, such as cursing and swearing, and he associated it with fishwives and ‘carlingis’ on the streets of Edinburgh (K56. 76; K75. 10–11).

Such noisy and public quarrels were then very common. The Scottish records, both of the Church courts and the burghs, contain numerous references to ‘flytand on the Hie Gait’ (Peebles, 1570) or ‘publict flytting … on the calsay’ (Elgin, 1596). At Stirling in 1524 Jean and John Murray were fined for flyting and keeping their neighbours awake all night. At St Andrews in 1570 a baker's wife compounded the offence by flyting during ‘the tyme of sermon on Sunday’.11 Churchmen, it should be noted, could be equally culpable. In 1506 John Elphinstoun of Glasgow complained that a priest, Thomas Forsyth, had spoken injuriously of him in lingua vernacula— ‘Iohne Elphinstoun is a defamit persone… ane verray erratik and a low’.12 In 1510 Master Andrew Birkmyre taunted another cleric: ‘3e dow nocht to fessyn [fasten?] a scheip heid… I sett nocht by 3ou a fert of 3our ers’.13 In one case the king himself intervened. A letter of James IV defended Master Robert Forman from the charge that he had criticized ‘the unchaste behaviour of Danish matrons’; the unnamed calumniator had either to defend his words, ‘in person or at law’, or make a public withdrawal.14 Defamation was taken very seriously indeed: ‘A person who had been calumniated might hire a notary public to register a deed of protest and bring a charge before the court of the bishop or before the bailies’.15 Andrew Birkmyre was thus compelled to ask pardon, kneeling on the floor of the court, and (p.224) instructed to revocare verba injuriosa et contemptibilia. Some of the potential punishments for flyting were horrifying. They included confinement in the goif, or pillory; wearing the jougis, a kind of iron collar that locked around the culprit's neck; and being placed in the cuckstool, and there pelted with eggs, dung, and mud.16 These phenomena, it must be stressed, are not peculiar to Scotland; all are abundantly documented in the English records.17

It is important to be aware of the real-life context of literary flyting. Poets drew some of their verba injuriosa from what they heard around them, perhaps to a greater extent than we now realize; only occasionally do the court records cite peculiarly offensive phrases—‘blay ribald missaell Upper huir’, for instance, or ‘cucold lowne, face to a pudden!’18 Other motifs of poetic flyting are not fictional, but have contemporary parallels. Kennedy, for instance, admonishes Dunbar:

  • Cum to the croce on kneis and mak a crya;
  • Confesse thy crime, hald Kenydy the king,
  • And wyth ane hauthorne scurge thy self and dyng. (325–7)
Such public penance was regularly ordained by the courts. In 1523 a parishioner of St Giles, Edinburgh, who had committed slander, was commanded to appear in church before the altar at the time of high mass, and there beg forgiveness of the injured party on her knees.19 Kennedy later vows,
  • Cursit croapand craw, I sail ger crop thy tong
  • And thou sail cry cor mundum on thy kneis;
  • . . . . . . . .
  • And thou sal lik thy lippis and suere thou leis. (393 ff.)
Penitential doctrine stressed the importance of punishing the offending part of the body, in this case the tongue; even if the tongue was not mutilated, the offender was commonly instructed to pronounce in public some version of the phrase, ‘Fals tung, thow leid’.20 Kennedy's words, ‘cry cor mundum’ are also a much-used penitential formula. They are a shorthand reference to the verse, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51: 10), and thus evoke one of the most contrite of the penitential psalms.21

(p.225) The Flyting poses many questions to which one can give only tentative answers. We cannot, with any confidence, treat it as a repository of biographical facts; yet we should not relegate it wholly to the realm of fiction. The truth, as so often, is more complicated: comic fantasy is built upon a substratum of fact (see above, pp. 7–8). It has been suggested that we should view The Flyting as the work solely of Dunbar: ‘the product of a single writer creating two voices’.22 But I see no reason to doubt Kennedy's authorship of those sections attributed to him; indeed Kennedy's contribution seems, stylistically, very different from Dunbar's. We do not know the date of The Flyting either, even though it is packed with allusions to contemporary persons and events. Suggestions have ranged widely, from the early 1490s to a much later period, 1500–5.23 The print (c.1508) testifies only to the date of publication, not composition; but an allusion to the poet Stobo (d. 1505) seems to provide a more reliable terminus ad quem. What is most significant is that poets mentioned as dead or close to death in I that in heill wes are in this work very much alive—notably Kennedy himself, Stobo, and Sir John the Ross. We thus have not an absolute but a relative date for The Flyting; it certainly sounds the work of men who, even if they are not in extreme youth, are young and in high spirits. The warmth with which Dunbar speaks of Kennedy in I that in heill wes also suggests that by this time their quarrel, whatever its nature, was long past and forgotten.

The tone of The Flyting is difficult to assess. Although the two poets shower each other with abuse, few readers seem to have taken the anger seriously. Bannatyne's comment—’jocound and mirrie’—finds a counterpart, centuries later, in Auden's reference to flyting as ‘sheer high-spirited fun’.24 Most critics have concurred with Lord Hailes in believing that there ‘was no real quarrel between the antagonists’.25 A Preface attached to the 1621 print of Montgomerie and Polwart's Flyting explicitly says that these later poets were stirred by ‘generous emulation’ rather than ‘malice’.26 Dunbar and Kennedy are closer in tone to Montgomerie and Polwart than to the anonymous authors of the late-sixteenth-century invectives collected in Cranstoun's Satirical Poems of the Reformation. These are highly polemical, and inspired by political and religious fervour. Dunbar and Kennedy's Flyting, however, produces the impression of a ritualized, literary game, a contest in verbal and metrical ingenuity; Bannatyne twice asks the reader to (p.226) judge ‘quha gat the war’—who got the worst of it. Yet games rouse powerful feelings, and some are both violent and dangerous. The beauties of football, according to the Scottish epigram, are ‘brissit brawnis and brokin banis’.27 The Flyting may be, in part, a collaborative game between two poets, but it also voices strong animosities, cultural and personal.

The tournament is a good contemporary example of such aggressive play. Both Dunbar and Kennedy often speak as if they are engaged in battle. Both picture themselves rather like champions engaged in single combat. Kennedy proclaims, ‘I sall dyng the’ (395), and at the end calls upon Dunbar to surrender his ‘spere of were’ and flee from the field (545–7). Dunbar angrily accepts the challenge to fight (65), but he rejects chivalric weapons and the notion of a contest between equals:

  • With ane doig leich I schepe to gar the schowt,
  • And nowther to the tak knyfe, swerd nor aix. (71–2)
More commonly the combat is envisaged as part of a judicial process, in which the contestants put their own veracity and their opponents' lies to the test of battle. Dunbar exclaims:
  • Thow leis, tratour; quhilk I sall on the preif.
  • Suppois thy heid war armit tymis ten
  • Thow sall recryat, or thy croun sall cleif. (86–8)
Dunbar boasts that he will force Kennedy to become a recreant, and thus own himself both perjured and a coward. To another accusation Kennedy later replies:
  • Quhare thou puttis poysoun to me, I appelle
  • The in that part, preve it, pelour, wyth thy persone. (405–6)
This terminology—preif on, recryat, puttis, appelle, preve…. wyth thy persone—derives from the ‘law of armes’; it is simultaneously legal and chivalric.28

It is increasingly common to term The Flyting a verbal duel, in which Dunbar and Kennedy, the principals, are accompanied by other poets, who are their ‘seconds’; but this latter notion is anachronistic.29 Quintin is certainly called Kennedy's ‘commissar’ (34, 44, 131, 329); (p.227) but this term was applied to a deputy for another person, and chiefly to the deputy appointed by an ecclesiastical dignitary to act for him in judicial matters. In the Official's Court, for instance, a commissar's duties would include pronouncing sentence on those convicted of slander and defamation.30 Quintin seems to play this off-stage judicial role in The Flyting—Kennedy thus orders Dunbar,

  • Pas to my commissare and be confest,
  • Cour before him on kneis, and cum in will [be submissive].
  • (329–30)
It is even more misleading to call Sir John the Ross Dunbar's ‘second’, or ‘commissar’—this imposes a non-existent symmetry upon the work. Sir John the Ross is mentioned twice in The Flyting. in the first line Dunbar addresses him as a friend and confidant, and Kennedy later speaks of him as Dunbar's ally and fellow-poet (39–40). But at neither point is he called a commissar. What The Flyting vividly evokes is the existence of a coterie, a small group of friends, who know each other well but are—perhaps temporarily—split into opposing camps.

The Flyting is a quarrel, not a reasoned argument. It lacks the symmetry that characterizes many debate-poems, including Dunbar's own Merle and the Nychtingall. Yet its main outlines, at least in the form preserved by Bannatyne, are easy to perceive.31 It has a four-part structure: two short, introductory passages, in which each poet challenges the other, are followed by the main invectives—Kennedy's being considerably longer than Dunbar's. The Flyting has often been accused of lacking ‘logical coherence’, or called ‘merely a piling up of heterogeneous abuse.’32 But this does the work an injustice. The undoubted obscurity of a few passages springs chiefly from their topicality and verbal audacity. The two poets do not call each other names in a wholly random fashion. Words and insults seem to tumble out, helter-skelter, but the disorder is simulated and the spontaneity calculated. There is remarkably little overlapping of abuse. Although each accuses the other of treachery, for instance, the charges have a different slant: Kennedy is disloyal to his lord, but Dunbar is too sympathetic to the English. The Flyting has a pattern less of argument than of accusation and rebuttal. Kennedy, in particular, retorts to Dunbar's charges in a highly characteristic manner:

  • (p.228) Quhare thou writis Densmen dryit apon the rattis (355)
  • Quhare as thou said that I stall hennis and lammys. (361)
(For Dunbar's accusations, see Flyting, 51 ff., 149 ff, and 78 ff.) Real issues are at stake. At one level Dunbar and Kennedy speak as representatives of social groups, voicing the antagonisms of Lowlander and Highlander. At a more personal level they criticize each other's verbal artistry:—their battle-cries are ‘rethory’ and ‘eloquence’ (97, 107, and 339). This is a poetic contest, and they vie in an obtrusive display of rhetorical skills. The metrical form of The Flyting is far from simple. Both poets employ an eight-line stanza, heavily enriched with alliteration. Dunbar disposes this in one pattern (ababbccb) for the first section of his Flyting and in another (ababbcbc) for the main invective. He concludes, as does Kennedy, with a remarkable volley of internal rhymes (233–48). As a device for providing a poem with a flamboyant finale, this was popular with other Scottish poets, not only those engaged in flyting.33

The ‘coherence’ of The Flyting is essentially imaginative. The taunts and insults that the two poets hurl at each other build up into contrasted portraits, or personae. Dunbar, the Lowlander, depicts Kennedy, the Highlander, as an ‘Ersche katherene [thief]’ (145), who cannot speak ‘Inglis’ correctly (110–12); Kennedy retorts that Erse was once ‘the gud langage of this land’ and should still be ‘all trew Scottis mennis lede’ (345–8). Dunbar presents a picture of Kennedy as a provincial, poverty-stricken, country-dweller:

  • Thow bringis the Carrik clay to Edinburgh cors. (211)
This is the tone not just of the Lowlander but of the city sophisticate, patronizing a rustic outsider. (The portrait seems a comical travesty of Kennedy's real social status, as property-owner, and churchman.34) Kennedy's picture of Dunbar has been discussed earlier (see pp. 7–8); but what should be noted here is how different is his approach. He concentrates on Dunbar's spiritual and intellectual shortcomings, and presents him as forever on the move—in England, Denmark, France, and on the road to Rome. For Kennedy Dunbar is an outsider of a different sort—a vagabond cleric, a rootless wanderer. Dunbar repeatedly calls Kennedy a ‘baird’ (49, 63, 96, 120, and passim)—a pejorative term in Scots usage for an idle entertainer. Kennedy likewise degrades Dunbar to a ‘scald’ (322), and even a minstrel—
  • Tak the a fidill or a floyte, and geste. (507)

(p.229) Dunbar is far more visual than Kennedy, who says little of Dunbar's physical appearance, except to imply his small stature—he calls him a dwarf (33, 395, 408) and threatens to serve him up, baked like ‘a pullit hen’ (516). But Dunbar lavishes his considerable descriptive powers on Kennedy's ‘frawart phisnomy’ (81), which—as some treatises on physiognomy maintained—betrayed his inner malice.35 Dunbar sometimes concentrates on Kennedy's ‘perrellus face’ (150), viewing it in close-up and singling out different features for attention, such as the ‘fowll front’ (126) or the nose, which is variously termed ‘snowt’, ‘grun3e’ and ‘gruntill’ (52, 123, 127), as if Kennedy were a pig. But Dunbar also brings other parts of the body before us: first displaying the ‘skolderit’ (tanned, sunburnt) skin (122, 171), and then removing it. He mercilessly dissects Kennedy, bone by bone, from the cheekbone, ‘choip’ and ‘choll’ (165–6), down through the ‘larbar linkis’ of his scraggy neck (169), to shoulders, hips, and other parts of the skeleton:

  • Thy rigbane rattillis and thy ribbis on raw;
  • Thy hanchis hirklis with hukebanis harth and haw,
  • Thy laithly lymis ar lene as ony treis. (180–2)
The diction has the precision of an anatomist—linkis refers to the cervical vertebrae, and in Middle English translates spondilia—or even of a butcher. The word hukebanis (huckbones, hucklebones) elsewhere occurs chiefly in household accounts—‘For a heuck bone of beif’36 The overall effect is painfully gaunt: the ribs and spine are so uncushioned with flesh that they rattle; Kennedy's bones are said later to protrude through his skin (186).

Anatomists and butchers deal with dead bodies; again and again in The Flyting Kennedy is depicted as a corpse, ‘carioun’ (139), ‘tramort’ (161), or a Lazarus returned from the grave (above, p. 194). What is more, the corpse is often of a particularly shameful kind, that of a malefactor, a Danish criminal upon ‘the rattis’, or wheel (51), or a ‘hangit man’ (187). The Flyting is full of references to the gallows— some very brief, others more elaborate:

  • Ay loungand lyk ane loikman on ane ledder;
  • With hingit luik ay wallowand upone wry
  • Lyk to ane stark theif glowrand in ane tedder. (174–6)
There is here a double image of Kennedy—both as loikman, a term for the hangman, originating in fifteenth-century Edinburgh, and also (p.230) as the ‘hingit’ man, in a grotesque posture on the gallows. The hangman was himself likely to be a criminal; according to A.J. Aitken, the post was unpopular, and ‘one method of recruitment was to offer the post to the next person due to be hanged’.37

Dunbar vividly establishes the poverty-stricken and essentially rural milieu to which Kennedy is said to belong. There are references to a host of small, everyday things—peasant food, such as ‘ane haggeis’ (128); clothing ‘nocht worth ane pair of auld gray sox’ (144); crops, such as peas, wheat, barley, oats; swine, oxen, and poultry; the mill at which Kennedy is said to beg for meal and husks of corn (147), or his ‘luge’ in a distant glen, once lived in by lepers (153–4). The imagery intermeshes with this world effectively: Kennedy is ‘hippit as ane harrow’ (179), his limbs are lean as ‘ony treis’ (182), and his complexion is sallow as ‘ane leik’ (102). He is addressed as ‘tyke’ or ‘tykis face’ (235, 238), or ‘ugly averill (an old horse); and his strange gait, ‘hirpland’ and ‘hobland’, resembles that of a ‘hurcheoun’, or hedgehog (179, 212). Elsewhere Kennedy is envisaged as a bird of prey—raven, ‘raggit ruke’ (57), and hungry gled, or kite (128, 237):

  • Thow and thy quene, as gredy gleddis 3e gang,
  • With polkis to mylne and beggis baith meill and schilling.
  • Thair is bot lys and lang nailis 3ow amang.
  • Fowll heggirbald, for henis thus will 3e hang;
  • Thow hes ane perrellus face to play with lambis;
  • Ane thowsand kiddis, wer thay in faldis full Strang,
  • Thy lymmerfull luke wald fle thame and thair damis. (146–52)
Latent in the last four lines is the image of another predator, the fox, which reinforces that of the kites in line 146. (The same ironical application of the verb play to a fox's treatment of lambs occurs in This hindir nycht in Dumfermeling, 4.)

This passage illustrates the equivalence that Dunbar establishes in The Flyting between actual animals, such as hens, lambs, and even lice, and the metaphorical ones to which Kennedy is insultingly compared. Kennedy is often presented as thief, predator, parasite; but at times the tables are turned—he is, as here, a prey to lice, or his nose looks as if it has been devoured by kites (52), or he flees in terror, like a mobbed owl, ‘ane howlat chest with crawis’ (219). Kennedy, in another remarkable passage, is associated with the persecutors of saints:

  • For he that rostit Lawarance had thy grun3e,
  • And he that hid sanct Johnis ene with ane wimple,
  • And he that dang sanct Augustyne with ane rumple,
  • (p.231) Thy fowll front had, and he that Bartilmo flaid;
  • The gallowis gaipis eftir thy graceles gruntill
  • As thow wald for ane haggeis, hungry gled. (123–8)
Ostensibly the chief point of comparison is the ugly appearance of the persecutors, who were often depicted with long, hooked noses, and heavily lined foreheads. But words like ‘rostit’ and ‘flaid’ evoke the specific nature of St Lawrence and St Bartholomew's martyrdom, and the cruelty with which humans treat one another. In the last two lines Kennedy is grotesquely paralleled both with the gallows and a kite: all three are equally ravenous, gaping for food, a human nose, or ‘gruntill’, being of no more account than a haggis. Dunbar, in The Flyting, presents the natural world in a harsh, unattractive, and in some ways realistic, light—a cycle of eating and being eaten, a process of pursuit and flight. But human society is shown as similarly greedy and savage.

Kennedy is far more obtrusively a ‘clerk’ (in its double sense of scholar and churchman) than Dunbar. His Flyting is strewn with allusions to figures from the Bible or from ancient and recent history. He alludes to his authorities—‘the writ makis me war’ (258) or ‘as the carnicle [chronicle] schawis’ (272)—in the way that Douglas refers to Virgil or Boccaccio. He occasionally uses snatches of Latin—‘Criant caritas at duris amore Dei’ (383)—whereas Dunbar here confines himself to the vernacular. Kennedy speaks more obviously as a churchman, using the language of religious censure, and admonishing Dunbar, ‘dree thy penaunce’ (328). Dunbar calls Kennedy a heretic once (247), chiefly, it seems, because it furnishes a useful rhyme. But Kennedy, in a vivid passage, harps upon Dunbar's heresy, telling him to ‘birn thy bill’ (332), the phrase often used when commanding heretics to recant. He threatens Dunbar with the heretic's death:

  • thou salbe brynt,
  • Wyth pik, fire, ter, gun puldre or lynt
  • On Arthuris Sete or on ane hyar hyll. (334–6)
Dunbar is accused of Lollardry (524, 548), something for which there is no evidence in his poetry, and but scanty traces in contemporary Scotland. None the less the Scottish Church and Crown regarded Lollardry as ‘a radical and politically dangerous sect’.38 Kennedy's smear is consonant with the line he takes towards Lollards elsewhere in his poetry.39

One striking feature of Kennedy's Flyting is his obsession with (p.232) kinship. It is studded with references to kin, the clan and the surname, ancestry and all kinds of family relationships—‘fader’, ‘dame’, ‘erne’, and ‘nephew’. Such a preoccupation was by no means peculiar to the Highlander. In Scotland the Lowland ‘surname’ was as important as the Highland clan in engendering intense feelings of loyalty or hostility. Discussing the phenomenon, Jenny Wormald comments: ‘It has long been axiomatic that Scottish society and politics were regularly dominated or bedevilled by considerations of kin even more than of rank and status, and certainly of principle.’40 Kennedy's Flyting is informed by this sense of the importance of kin. When he wishes to boast, he speaks of his royal connections—‘I am the kingis blude’ (417)—or his family's loyalty to the Crown: ‘My linage and forebearis war ay lele’ (402). His attack on Dunbar is largely directed at his surname, and has two dimensions, historical and fantastic. He blackens Dunbar's name by alluding to the evil deeds of his alleged ancestors and ‘elderis’ (257, 311, 315); and he repeatedly mentions one notorious name, that of ‘Corspatrik’, Patrick Dunbar, first earl of March, who supported Edward I in the War of Independence. His story had recently been told in Hary's Wallace, a work to which Kennedy seems to allude (284 ff.). Simultaneously he dissociates the poet from the virtuous branches of the Dunbar family:

  • The erl of Murray bure that surname ryght
  • . . . . . . . .
  • That successione is hardy, wyse and wycht. (386 ff.)
Dunbar cannot win: his ‘curst kyn’ (324) load him with infamy, but he himself brings shame upon his virtuous relatives:
  • Thy kin that leivis may wary the and ban. (312)

But Kennedy also seeks to destroy Dunbar's good name by more fantastic means. He deforms his surname into Dewlbeir, devising a strained etymology and a monstrous origin for his branch of the Dunbar family—a conjunction of a devil (dewl or deill) and a she-bear (beir) (259–60). Such a jocular use of etymology and genealogy was not new;41 and Dunbar himself calls Kennedy ‘feyindis gett’ (244). But Kennedy develops the topic in remarkable detail, inventing for Dunbar a bizarre and much-extended family of devils, pagans, persecutors of saints, and tormentors of Christ. Pluto himself is his ‘hede of kyn’ (535), and a chamber is awaiting him in hell (392). With such diabolic kin, how can Dunbar himself be other than a fiend? (p.233) This leads logically to Kennedy's taunt, tu es dyabolus (544), and the final consignment of Dunbar to hell:

  • Spynk, sink with stynk ad Tertara termagorum. (552)
This is more forceful than Dunbar's last line:
  • Rottin crok, dirtin dok—cry cok, or I sail quell the. (248)

One intriguing question posed by Dunbar and Kennedy's Flyting is whether it was ever ‘performed’, as if it were a dramatic spectacle. Scholars commonly speak of flyting as a ‘court entertainment’;42 and a live audience would certainly enhance the pride of victory and the shame of defeat. But the evidence for some kind of public performance is scanty, and hardly conclusive. It chiefly concerns The Flyting of Montgomerie and Polwart, but might be interpreted as casting retrospective light on that between Dunbar and Kennedy. Allusions in the poems of Montgomerie, Polwart, and James VI suggest that verse flyting was carried on in public, on winter nights, in the presence of one's opponent and the king. Polwart jeers that he humiliated Montgomerie,

  • As the last nicht did weill appeir,
  • Quhill thow stuid ridging at the fyre…43
Montgomerie and Polwart repeatedly refer in this way to the royal fireplace or chimney nook—as a place of special privilege, something to contend for or be banished from:
  • Hellis ruik, with thy buik, leif the nuik,
  • I command the!44
Dunbar speaks of Kennedy's woebegone plight, ‘now in winter’ (118); and Kennedy interrupts his flyting with a direct appeal to James IV:
  • Hye souverane lorde, lat nevir this synfull sot
  • Do schame fra hame unto your nacioun. (481–2)
There is English evidence that associates mockery with feasting;45 and the bard in Holland's Howlat threatens to ‘ryme’ those present at the feast unless they reward him (807).

Yet extant verse flytings are clearly too intricate to have been (p.234) improvised. The poets, what is more, often call attention to their written nature: Lindsay, when addressing James V, says ‘3our ragment I haif red’, and Kennedy both refers to Dunbar's ‘skaldit skrowis [scrolls, writings]’ (26) and speaks of sending him ‘this cedull’, or formal letter (48). When Kennedy wishes to refute a point, he sounds as if he were perusing a written document:

  • Quhare thou writis Densemen dryit apon the rattis… (355)
Invectives presumably first circulated by passing from hand to hand. But the usual method of getting publicity for written documents of any kind was to fix them in a place where they would be seen by many passers-by. Most commonly this was the door of a church, but in 1418 verses abusing the mayor of Cambridge were attached to his own gate; they too were characterized, in the terms employed by Kennedy, as a ‘schedule’ and a ‘scrowe’.46 In Scotland, in June 1452, a letter attacking the king and his privy council, describing the latter as traitors, was placed on the door of Parliament House.47 The university debates, known as ‘Quodlibet disputations’, were sometimes a vehicle for personal antagonisms, and on one occasion a ‘contumacious’ scholar fixed a defamatory libel to the door of the new school at St Andrews. Life at this time was very communal; and, even though literacy was increasing, there were still many unable to read. Most important announcements would be both written and declaimed aloud: excommunications and cursings were read in church; denunciations, banishments, and proclamations of various kinds were made at the Market Cross—Buchanan thus speaks of a ‘cartell’ being both ‘putt one the Mercat Croce of Edinburgh’ and read aloud there.48

The Flyting between Dunbar and Kennedy is likely to have originated as separate invectives that circulated in manuscript among a small group of their intimates but undoubtedly reached a wider audience by some of the means just mentioned. Perhaps it may also, ‘at least in its final form, have been recited before the king as a stylized duel in verse’;49 if so, it would be akin to the ‘Quodlibet disputation’ included in the entertainments for a royal visit to St Andrews in December 1508.50 Yet the fact that The Flyting reached print in Dunbar's lifetime suggests that its appeal was not confined to courtiers or clerics.

(p.235) Whether or not The Flyting was performed, it is certainly quasi-dramatic. Imaginatively, it captures the effect of street-flyting or angry talk. This is particularly true of Dunbar's section of the work. It abounds in references to his own speech—‘I cry the doun’ (31)—and that of his interlocutor—‘Thou speiris, dastard, gif I dar with the fecht’ (65). He issues insulting commands, ‘cry mercy’ (184), ‘cry grace’ (235), and the last ‘cry cok’ (248). He fills The Flyting with the strident voices of other people, such as ‘karlingis’ (136) and fishwives (231), and incorporates snatches of what they say—

  • All Karrik cryis, God gif this dowsy be drownd! (158)
It is full of noise of many kinds: from the ‘clynk’ of the town's warning bell (16) to the cry of a goose (159), the ‘3oule’ of an owl (236), and the mocking ‘bae and bleit’ (204) of Kennedy's pursuers. This rises to a climax in the scene in which Kennedy is ejected from Edinburgh, dogs barking and citizens hurling abuse:
  • Than carlingis cryis, Keip curches in the merk—
  • Our gallowis gaipis—lo! quhair ane greceles gais!
  • Ane uthir sayis, I se him want ane sark—
  • I reid 3ow, cummer, tak in 3our lynning clais.
  • Than rynis thow doun the gait with gild of boyis
  • And all the toun tykis hingand in thy heilis;
  • Of laidis and lownis thair rysis sic ane noyis
  • Quhill runsyis rynis away with cairt and quheilis,
  • And caiger aviris castis baith coillis and creilis
  • For rerd of the and rattling of thy butis;
  • Fische wyvis cryis, Fy! and castis doun skillis and skeilis,
  • Sum claschis the, sum cloddis the on the cutis. (221–32)
The scene is one of near-anarchy, but above all of ‘noyis’ and ‘gild’ (clamour); dogs, fishwives, and even inanimate objects, like Kennedy's ‘rattling’ boots and the falling fish baskets and tubs (231), all contribute to the ‘rough music’. In this effect Dunbar's alliteration plays a part, with the reiteration of the voiceless plosive /k/ in ‘coillis and creilis’, ‘skillis and skeilis’, and ‘claschis… cloddis… cutis’. The incident constitutes a kind of charivari, a vivid expression of communal scorn and rejection. Dunbar enlists the community in his private quarrel—at one point switching significantly from the singular to the plural pronoun:
  • We sail gar scale our sculis all the to scorne
  • And stane the up the calsay quhair thow gais. (215–16)
The scene is uncomfortably close to a mob lynching.

Kennedy's Flyting is less noisy, but equally harsh. He speaks of Dunbar's noise as deafening—‘thou devis the Devill thyne eme wyth (p.236) dyn’ (360). His stated objective is to ‘put silence to’ Dunbar (41, 254); this is not a peculiarly ‘Gaelic idiom’,51 but a Scriptural one—Christ put the Sadducees to silence (Matthew 22: 34). He not only orders Dunbar to hold his tongue (359), but envisages its physical mutilation—either cropped (393) or devoured by ravens (374). Dunbar pictures the eviction of Kennedy from the urban community, but Kennedy goes much further. He expels Dunbar from Christendom— hell is the one place where he belongs, as ‘induellar’ (551), or rightful resident. Even if the overall effect of Kennedy's Flyting is somewhat long-winded, he none the less has the last word, and apparently reduces Dunbar to silence.

The literary antecedents of The Flyting have been much debated. Scholars have noted many analogues in earlier literature: the insulting verses and contests in abuse in Icelandic sagas, the Edda and Saxo Grammaticus; the Provençal sirventes and tenso; even ‘Arabic slanging-matches on parallel themes’.52 But these, though interesting, are extremely remote; it is unlikely that they were known to Dunbar and Kennedy. Far closer to hand, it is said, was the Gaelic poetic tradition. Kennedy came from Carrick, then a Gaelic-speaking area; and Dunbar repeatedly calls him a bard, mockingly associating flyting with ‘Sic eloquence as thay in Erschry use’ (107). Kinsley voices a common belief, when he says: ‘the poetic mode of satire exemplified in the Flyting probably came into the Scottish court from Gaelic tradition before the time of Dunbar’.53 Yet this view is remarkably difficult to substantiate. The power of early Irish poets to kill, maim, and blister the faces of their enemies was legendary—it was known to Shakespeare and many other sixteenth-century writers. But it is a legend that is curiously lacking in documentation. R. C. Elliott noted how few specimens of early Irish satire survive, and that most are ‘incomprehensible’.54 The evidence from medieval Scotland is even scantier. According to W. Gillies, although the Scottish filidh had a reputation for satire—the ‘baird’ in Holland's Howlat is a small testimony to this—none the less ‘we do not possess many actual satires’. He also points out that, although there existed in Scottish Gaelic literature the notion of poetic combats, ‘This did not become institutionalised as a literary genre in the way that flyting did in the Scots tradition’.55

The obsession with finding Gaelic antecedents for what is a striking (p.237) phenomenon of Lowland Scots literature is often coupled with a failure even to mention the tradition of English invective and flyting, from the fourteenth century onwards: the poems of Lawrence Minot, for instance, and various anonymous pieces attacking the French, the Flemings, and also the Scots; attacks not only on groups but on hated individuals, such as the mayor of Cambridge, mentioned earlier, or the Duke of Suffolk (murdered in 1450)—‘Now is the fox drevin to hole!’56 Contemporary with Dunbar are the scurrilous lampoons on Henry VII's tax-gatherers, Empson and Dudley, preserved in The Great Chronicle of London.57 Slightly later in time are the numerous invectives of Skelton, several of which are directed against the Scots. It is said that one of these works, Against Garnesche (c.1515), was modelled specifically on Scottish flytings; but the resemblances seem essentially generic.58

Dunbar and Kennedy received an education conducted largely in Latin. Kennedy's mother-tongue may have been Gaelic, but his extant verse is entirely in Scots, and mostly belongs to a learned, Latin tradition. In The Flyting he alludes to the Eclogue of Theodulus, a Latin poem then used as a school-text, which narrates the debate between Alithia, who represents the truth of Christianity, and Pseustis, who represents the falsehood of the pagans: Dunbar, damagingly, is said to be heir to ‘false Eustase’ (321–2).59 Both poets would be familiar not only with such didactic debates but with a more popular tradition of Latin writing, that of invective. The notorious dispute between the Italian humanists, Poggio and Lorenzo Valla, was certainly known in Scotland, since it figures in The Palice of Honour.

  • And Poggius stude with mony girne and grone
  • On Laurence Valla spittand and cryand fy! (1232–3)
Dunbar and Kennedy were as likely as Douglas to have known and relished this scurrilous quarrel. Even closer to them, in time and location, was the Anglo-French dispute (1489–90), conducted in Latin, between Robert Gaguin, the envoy of Charles VIII, and poets in the service of Henry VII—Bernard André, Giovanni Gigli, Pietro Carmeliano, and possibly Skelton.60

(p.238) Abusive verse of all types was remarkably prevalent in the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but in most European vernaculars. The literary range was wide, spanning sophisticated invective, at one extreme, and songs, oral jingles, and popular snatches of verse, at the other. Ethnic and cultural rivalries formed a persistent theme. Some of the earliest English and Scottish examples, which are mostly preserved by chroniclers, such as Langtoft, Fabyan, and Wyntoun, are associated with the War of Independence. At the siege of Berwick (1296) the Scots were reported to have sung a song taunting Edward I ‘with his longe shankes’; and after victory at Bannockburn they jeered, ‘Maydenes of Engelande sare may ye morne’.61 Most of the English responses are equally anonymous, apart from Minot's mockery of a Scotsman after the English victory at Halidon Hill (1333):

  • Rughfute riveling, now kindels thi care!62
The same taunts and insults continued in use for centuries: references to the well-known legend of the anglicus caudatus, or tailed Englishman, were regularly countered by the notion of the ‘rough-footed’ Scot, with his primitive riveling, or shoe of hairy, untanned leather.63 Both were familiar to Skelton, who engaged in a flyting with a Scot called Dundas: ‘Dundas / This Scottish as / He rymes and railes / That Englishmen have tailes’.64 Both are employed in a short Scottish poem, which is possibly contemporary with Dunbar and Kennedy's Flyting: in it the Englishman's gibe, ‘Rocht-futtit Scot, quhat sayis thow?’, is answered by the Scot's threat, ‘Talyt tyk, haue at the now!’65 Dunbar and Kennedy certainly drew upon this widely diffused tradition for some of their taunts. Dunbar mocks Kennedy's Gaelic manner of dress—‘with thy polk breik and rilling’ (145), and later, exactly like Minot, metaphorically reduces him to the ‘rilling’ itself (243). Kennedy insults Dunbar by associating him with the infamous cause of‘Edward Langschankis’ (270) and the ‘Inglise rumplis’ (351), or tailed Englishmen. But the cultural divide in The Flyting, interestingly, is not between English and Scots, but between the Lowlander, with his English sympathies, and the Highlander, who claims to be the true Scot.

Dunbar and Kennedy were surely acquainted not with one single tradition of flyting but with many: quarrels between individuals as well (p.239) as national groups; conducted in Scots and English, and possibly Latin and Gaelic; and encountered not only in polished verse but upon the lips of clerics and fishwives in the ‘Hie Gait’ of Edinburgh.

Other poems of Dunbar have an affinity with The Flyting, even though, strictly speaking, some—such as The wardraipper of Venus boure (K 29) and O gracius princes (K 30)—are better classed as petitions. Many are attacks on specific individuals, which are conducted in the third person, not, as in The Flyting, face to face. They are full of comic anger, yet their tone ranges considerably—from the jocular to the savage and ferocious. They demonstrate, on a smaller scale, the skills evident in the portrait of Kennedy. Dunbar is interested in people, though not in the manner of Chaucer and Henryson. He is concerned neither with fairness nor with complex, three-dimensional characterization. His art is that of the caricaturist—he draws vivid, biased, and grotesque sketches. In The Flyting and elsewhere Dunbar repeatedly draws attention to physical imperfections—that which is ‘mismaid’ (Flyting, 53) and ‘misfassonit’ (K 52C. 25). He has a keen eye for deformity, disease, mutilation, and small bodily blemishes, such as corns and chilblains—‘wyrok, Knowll tais… mowlis’ (K52C. 18–19). His choice of imagery often dehumanizes people; they are compared to objects that have unpleasant associations or are used for menial tasks—overflowing ‘gutaris’ (K 14. 99), a ‘saffrone bag’ (K 23. 171), or a ‘jurdane’ (chamber-pot) (K 27. 38). The animal imagery in these poems is no less reductive: people are compared to animals low in social esteem, the tyke, the mastiff, and the ‘aver’, or cart-horse; what is more, these animals are often, as in The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, clumsy, diseased, or in some way humiliated, a baited bull (K 26. 27) or a hobbled horse, ‘hopschackellt… aboin the kne’ (K28. 11–12).

Dunbar ridicules people's physical appearance; and sometimes, as in The Flyting, places them in a particularly undignified position, farting, vomiting, and defecating. The scatological element in his poetry requires a brief digression, since many readers have found it offensive. How should we view ‘this coarse comedy, to which’—it is said—‘Dunbar seems to have been addicted’?66 We should, firstly, not exaggerate its quantity; ‘addicted’ implies that references to excretion form the staple of Dunbar's comic writing. In fact they occur in eight of his poems, and are prominent only in two, The Flyting and The Turnament of the Sowtar and the Tail3our. We should also recognize that Dunbar was by no means alone in finding the body's excretory functions comic: countless parallels exist in medieval drama, the jest (p.240) books, facetiae, fabliaux, and Chaucer's ‘cherles tales’. Yet dirty jokes are hardly peculiar to the Middle Ages. Fluctuations in taste through the centuries have at times confined them to the oral medium and all-male company, but in the permissive climate of the late twentieth century we are hardly entitled to congratulate ourselves (as did some nineteenth-century editors) on higher moral standards or greater delicacy of expression. What seems most important is the manner and purpose of such excretory allusions. The jest books rapidly produce an effect of mindless and monotonous crudity; few would say this of The Miller's Tale.

One scholar, discussing the grotesque marginal drawings in some medieval manuscripts, suggests that they have a moral purpose: ‘they concretize commonplace Christian views about sin and the Devil’.67 Others have argued likewise that medieval writers ‘did not hesitate to use what we should call “obscenity” to illustrate a moral point’.68 This seems true of one only of Dunbar's poems, The Dance (K 52A). Here the ugly appearance and activities of the Seven Deadly Sins undoubtedly correspond to their ‘fowll’ significance (14). The Dance, however, is immediately followed by The Turnament, one of the ‘dirtiest’ of Dunbar's poems, and one in which moral significance is minimal. For Dunbar the chief purpose of scatology is to debase and to degrade. Complex human beings are reduced to their lowest bodily functions. In Sir Jhon Sinclair begowthe to dance, hips, legs, and feet all betray their owners when they try to dance; in Dunbar's poems hips often behave inappropriately, crying, talking and coughing (see K 23. no and 200; K 28. 18 and 38). What is a small ingredient in some poems, however, is very prominent indeed in The Flyting, as much in Kennedy's contribution as in Dunbar's. References to loose bowels join other taunts about lice and fleas; all are manifestations of dirt, disease, and poverty. Kennedy's first words are ‘Dirtin Dunbar’; and Dunbar's last line reduces Kennedy to a ‘dirtin dok’. The adjective dirtin referred not just to ‘dirt’, in its modern general sense, but to excrement. The tone is not ‘festive’ (in the Bakhtinian sense), but derisive; such words are as insulting as the later phrase, ‘dirt in your teeth!’69

Dunbar's wittiest and most inventive use of scatology occurs in The Abbot of Tungland (K 54). Here the flying abbot, attacked by birds, defecates:

  • (p.241) For feir uncunnandly he cawkit
  • Quhill all his pennis war drownd and drawkit;
  • He maid a hundreth nolt all hawkit
  • Beneth him with a spowt. (101–4)
There are elements here of psychological truth and, in context, poetic justice; also a Rabelaisian exaggeration: ‘a hundreth… with a [one] spowt’. But there seems a further joke, not usually noticed, in the selection of the word hawkit, used by Scottish farmers to describe cattle whose coat is ‘covered with white spots and streaks’.70 Dunbar has devised a small aetiological myth, of a type found in many cultures, to explain how cattle came to look like this. He is writing in the same comic spirit as the unknown Scottish poet who described how a giantess ‘spittit Loch Lomond with hir lippis’ and ‘pischit the mekle watter of Forth’.71

Many of these poems, like The Flyting, openly name names—Norny, Mure, Dog, Donald Owyr. But others produce a similar impression of attacking specific individuals, even though no names occur. Complane I wald wist I quhome till (K 45) at first seems a general complaint on the injustices of court life. It opens with a pell-mell catalogue of rogues; these prosper at the expense of nobles and men of learning, on whose behalf the poet claims to speak. But the most memorable passage occurs later, and is a portrait of one man. The focus narrows from the crowd of ‘churllis, cuming of cart fillaris’ (25) to a prelate, who is equally lowborn. The point of view also shifts, from that of ‘nobillis’ and ‘men off vertew and cuning’ (10–11), in the plural, to that of ‘the lerit sone off erll or lord’ (41), presumably an impoverished younger son. It is through his eyes that we see the ‘odius ignorance’ of this upstart:

  • Sa far above him set at tabell
  • That wont was for to muk the stabell—
  • Ane pykthank in a prelottis clais
  • With his wavill feit and wirrok tais,
  • With hoppir hippis and henches narrow
  • And bausy handis to beir a barrow;
  • With lut schulderis and luttard bak
  • Quhilk natur maid to beir a pak;
  • With gredy mynd and glaschane gane,
  • Mell-hedit lyk ane mortar stane. (51–60)
This is rancorous, but vivid. The prelate is as ugly and physically deformed as the ‘mismad’ mandrakes (21) mentioned earlier—he has bowed shoulders and bunioned toes. He is out of place in the (p.242) aristocratic world, an impostor, ‘Fen3eing the feris [manners] off ane lord’ (61). His physique reveals the class to which he belongs, and in which Nature placed him. Images from the farmyard—like the hopper to which his protuberant hips are compared—reinforce the notion of a man fit only for such low tasks as mucking out a stable or carrying a hand-barrow. In later dialect mell-hedit is applied to stupid people, like ‘blockhead’ today; Dunbar implies the cleric's stupidity as well as his large, oddly shaped head, resembling the hollowed stone used as a mortar for grinding herbs or barley. The figure may be imaginary, a type of the social climber for whom disdain was often voiced. Dunbar's language finds an interesting parallel in a comment, recorded by Pitscottie on James Ill's unworthy counsellors: they were better fitted ‘to haue haldin the pleugh… or mokit cloissittis’.72 Yet at the poem's end Dunbar avows personal knowledge of the cleric's iniquity—‘I stand ford [guarantee it]’ (62)—just as he identifies himself very closely with the ‘auld servandis’ (69), for whom he implores the king's favour.

Schir I complane of injuris (K 26) is an attack on a poet, apparently called Mure and otherwise unknown; his crimes include plagiarism and the addition to Dunbar's own ‘indyting’ of inferior ‘versis of his awin hand wryting’ (16). One phrase—‘sen he ples with me to pleid’ (5)—suggests that Mure himself engaged in flyting with Dunbar, but if so no trace of it survives. This poem testifies to Dunbar's pride in his own art (above, p. 34), but its form has received little discussion. Addressed to the king, it is a special kind of petition—a bill of complaint, itemizing grievances for which the refrain asks redress in a highly formulaic way:

  • 3our grace beseik I of remeid.
It was common for those in authority to receive such supplications. In 1483, for instance, the Hammermen made a complaint to the Edinburgh council, beseeching ‘remeid of the greit injuris and skaythis done to thame’.73 Dunbar contemptuously terms the other poet ‘A refing sonne of rakyng Muris’ (2), which might be rendered ‘One of vagabond Mure's plundering sons’. He here speaks of Mure rather as if he were a Border reiver—a splendid vernacular excommunication, dated 1525, gives some idea of contemporary attitudes to the ‘traitouris reyffaris theyffis murderizaris and men slayaris duelland within the sowth partis of this reaulme’.74 Dunbar charges Mure not only with (p.243) ‘refing’ but with metaphorical murder, and with actual slander and treason. ‘Lesing-making’, or the utterance of calumnious sayings about the king or his ‘lords, barons and other lieges’, was the subject of repeated legislation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; it was a crime that could be punished with the loss of life and goods.75 Dunbar indeed envisages death as a possible punishment (12), and also speaks of public denunciation—‘I sall him knawin mak hyne to Calis [Calais]’ (6). But he finally urges the king to give Mure the dress and insignia of a fool:
  • That ladis may bait him lyk a buill:
  • For that to me war sum remeid. (27–8)

The language is extremely forceful. Dunbar claims that Mure has ‘magellit’ his own poetry (3), and later says:

  • That fulle dismemberit hes my meter
  • And poysonid it with Strang salpeter,
  • With rycht defamows speiche off lordis
  • Quhilk with my collouris all discordis. (8–11)
Maggill was a verb with brutal senses: ‘to hack, maim, mutilate’. It described corpses on a battlefield, or victims being tortured: ‘Everie hour… thay gaif him thre crewall straikis with ane dirk… and maggillit him with threttie straikis’.76 Dismemberit and poysonid were also most common in literal senses, and used of offences against the person. The vague notion of poison is intensified by the mention of salpeter, which does more than furnish a comic rhyme for meter. Saltpetre, or potassium nitrate, does not figure here because it was a preservative or ‘was used medicinally’.77 In Scotland at this time its chief uses were in alchemy and the making of gunpowder. It has an unpleasant taste, and in the Bible is a type of bitterness (Proverbs 25: 20). An English moralist, contemporary with Dunbar, used it similarly as a figure for malicious speech, and coupled it with arsenic as deadly poison—‘Speke of salpeter arsnek or ony poyson mortall’.78 Mure's speech ‘discordis’ with Dunbar's own ‘collouris’: saltpetre is certainly discordant with the notion of fine writing voiced in The Goldyn Targe (69, 263, 265)—sweet, ‘suggurit’, and ‘mellifluate’.

The violence of Dunbar's language suggests wrath and indignation, and it has often been said that his tone ‘is not that of one who jests’.79 Yet the mood of this poem is difficult to gauge, particularly as we do (p.244) not know either its precise cause or its consequences. It seems unlikely that Dunbar is literally asking the king to make Mure one of his fools. The poem itself is the punishment: it is what achieves the public humiliation of the other poet, making him ‘knawin’ (and known as a rogue and fool) not as far as Calais (the furthest extremity of England), but more cruelly and effectively, among his intimates, within the king's own ‘palis’. Such public humiliation was Dunbar's declared aim in The Flyting also; there too, with similar comic hyperbole, he vowed to bring shame upon Kennedy and his allies,

  • And throw all cuntreis and kinrikis thame proclame. (24)
This poem seems to mix jest and earnest in the manner of The Flyting.

There is far less ambiguity about the tone of The wardraipper of Venus boure (K 29). Addressed to the queen, whom ‘Venus’ lightly compliments, it is a humorous complaint about the reluctance of her ‘wardraipper’, or officer of the wardrobe, ‘To giff a doublett’ to the poet. His name was James Dog, and this provided Dunbar not only with an irresistible pun but with the structure of his poem. It consists of a series of comic vignettes, in which Dog, when addressed, does not speak but ‘barkis’ (6) and ‘girnis’ (snarls) (10). One stanza pictures him ‘wirriand ane hog’ (7), or young sheep, another compares him to a tyke chasing cattle through a bog, and a third, climactically, identifies him with a mastiff:

  • He is ane mastive, mekle of mycht,
  • To keip 3our wardroippe over nycht
  • Fra the grytt Sowdane Gog ma Gog:
  • Madam, 3e heff a dangerous dog! (17–20)
Because of its great size and ferocity the mastiff was considered a useful guard dog, but was not otherwise highly esteemed. Abraham Fleming, in his translation of John Caius' treatise on dogs, called it ‘vaste, huge, stubborne, ougly and eager, of a heuy and burthensome body—terrible and frightfull to beholde’.80 The mastiff was also known as a ‘band-dog’, from the chain or fetter used to restrain it; earlier in the poem Dunbar suggested that Dog needed ‘ane havy clog’ (11). A Dog of this size was a match not only for a courtier-poet (himself comically diminished to a ‘hog’) but for the ‘Sowdane Gog ma Gog’; if so, he was perhaps indeed gigantic. Gogmagog (or Goemagot) was the name of a legendary British giant; but the term ‘Sowdane’ (a doublet of Sultan) suggests that Dunbar had in mind the (p.245) Saracen giants who often figure in medieval romance—one such, called ‘Magog’, is found in Rauf Coilyear81

The poem is elegantly constructed. Stanzas two to four each open with a temporal clause, ‘Quhen that I schawe… ’, ‘Quhen that I speik’; and each presents a scene in which the poet tries to ingratiate himself with a ‘dangerous’ Dog. Dangerous here has, in addition to its usual modern meaning, such senses as ‘disobliging, unfriendly’. The syntactic pattern alters in the last two stanzas; each begins, ‘He is…’, and the tone is one of confident assertion.

  • He is ower mekle to be 3our messan;
  • Madam, I red 3ou get a less ane;
  • His gang garris all 3our chalmeris schog:
  • Madam, 3e heff a dangerous dog! (21–4)
The canine imagery is sustained to the end: a messan was a small lapdog, and, contextually, a favourite. Dunbar implies that Dog is out of place in the feminine world of ‘boure’ and ‘chalmeris’, and too clumsy and bad-tempered to hold a position of privilege close to the queen. Dunbar's mastery of comic rhyme is particularly evident here: the name of his victim occurs in stressed final position at the end of each stanza, and each time it chimes with a different and usually damaging word, clog, bog, Gog ma Gog.

The wardraipper is immediately followed (in Maitland and Reidpeth) by O gracious princes, guid and fair (K 30). The link between the two poems has always been recognized: Maitland says of the first, ‘Quod Dunbar of James Dog Kepair of the Quenis wardrop’, and of the second, ‘Quod Dunbar of the said James quhen he had plesett him’. But critics have paid little attention to O gracious princes, although it illustrates Dunbar's artistry in small things. It is less a sequel to The wardraipper than a comic palinode—a recantation, or ‘singing again’. Dunbar once more addresses the queen, but retracts his previous criticism, adopting an ostensibly friendly tone towards Dog:

  • In malice spack I nevir ane woord. (6)
This second poem closely mirrors the form of the first; it has exactly the same number of lines, arranged in stanzas of the same pattern, and has a refrain that simultaneously alludes to the earlier one and contradicts it.
  • Madam, 3e heff ane dangerous dog
is replaced by
The close relationship between the poems is evident also in the occasional echoing of phrases, such as ‘to keip 3our wardrope’ (10). But O gracious princes reverses the logical structure of The wardraipper, starting where the former poem ended—with advice to the queen—and ending where it began—with Dog's behaviour towards the poet. Both have altered:
  • He hes sa weill doin me obey
  • In till all thing, thairfoir I pray
  • That nevir dolour mak him dram:
  • He is na dog; he is a lam. (21–4)

The refrain is important; here, as in The wardraipper, an animal-image unifies the poem. Dunbar's technique is different, however—instead of richly embroidering the image, he allows its ironic implications to emerge without comment or amplification. It is just possible that ‘he is a lam’ makes a topical allusion, now lost to us. ‘Lam’, like ‘Dog’, was a common surname; indeed a ‘James Lam’ was a contemporary of Dunbar and Dog in the royal household, but his role—‘of the pantry’—was lower in status, and comparison was perhaps insulting.82 But this is not the primary point of the refrain. No reader could fail to be aware of the lamb's rich but multivalent significance—in religious iconography, fables, and proverb lore. At the poem's beginning the contrast with the large, ‘dangerous’ dog is all to the advantage of the lamb—a type of innocence, and proverbially meek and mild, ‘tretable and benigne’.83 But the lamb commonly symbolized not only Christ's innocence but his sacrifice; and in fables it was repeatedly a victim, unable to defend itself from more powerful animals. This implication becomes unmistakable in the latter half of the poem, in which Dog is depicted as feeble and in need of protection from his virago of a wife:

  • The wyff that he had in his innis,
  • That with the taingis wald braek his schinnis,
  • I wald scho drownet war in a dam… (13–15)
The image of the lamb thus proves as damning as that of the dog. In this poem Dunbar's victim shrinks and dwindles, whereas in The wardraipper, although grotesque, he was an impressive and aggressive figure. His habitat likewise seems less colourful. In The wardraipper exotic figures like ‘Venus’ and the ‘Sowdane’ were comically juxtaposed (p.247) with the midden and the bog. Here the milieu is domestic and rural, with a mill-dam, in which a shrew might well be ducked. Dunbar's poem is clearly an ironic compliment. But when he speaks of being Dog's friendly ‘bruder’ (3), the remark has some truth. The tone is that of brotherly ‘ribbing’ or joking among friends.

Sir jhon Sinclair begowthe to dance (K 28) might be regarded as a group flyting. It makes fun of real persons, many of whom are named. There is no hint, however, that the poem was addressed to the queen, or—despite Maitland's colophon, ‘Quod Dunbar of a dance in the quen[is] chalmer’—that she was present at the dance. The poem consists of a series of brief, malicious sketches of clumsy dancers, ludicrously lacking control of their limbs. The viewpoint, for the most part, is that of an amused onlooker; as the refrain comments,

  • A mirrear dance mycht na man see.
We are reminded that this is a performance which has an audience by small asides, such as ‘men tellis me’ (26) and ‘sum saed’ (48); the fool too passes uncomplimentary remarks about a dignified official, ‘the maister almaser’ (19–20), and an unnamed bystander says, ‘Tak up the Quenis knycht!’ (6), when he has presumably fallen down. Yet we should not make too sharp a distinction between the dance and its audience. This is a court dance, in which the courtiers were presumably both participants and spectators.

This double vision, from the viewpoint of dancer as well as onlooker, is most strikingly evident in the poet himself. He appears in the third person, and then in the first:

  • Than cam in Dunbar the mackar;
  • On all the flure thair was nane frackar,
  • . . . . . . . .
  • Than cam in Maesteres Musgraeffe;
  • Scho mycht heff lernit all the laeffe;
  • Quhen I schau hir sa trimlye dance,
  • Hir guid convoy and contenance,
  • Than for hir saek I wissitt to be
  • The grytast erle or duk in France… (22 ff.)
The device of including the poet himself in a sequence of comic portraits is not without precedent. There are parallels to Dunbar's self-mockery in the troubadours; a poem by Peire d'Alvernhe ridiculed poet after poet, and then said his own voice was like ‘a frog singing in a well’.84 What is striking here, however, is the syntactic discontinuity, which calls attention to this passage. Dunbar himself occupies the centre of the poem. He is agile—‘nane frackar’—yet distinctly (p.248) ludicrous, when he loses his slipper through over-energetic dancing. Mistress Musgrave embodies the ideal that the other dancers travesty: one of them had pretensions to teach the others (9), but only she ‘mycht heff lernit all the laeffe’. The poem contains a clear compliment to this lady. Dunbar's half-jesting, half-romantic wish to be a French lord recalls the poem's opening, in which France itself is viewed, with a tinge of irony, as the source of all things new and fashionable.

The dancers may be ungainly, but the poem is put together ingeniously. It opens abruptly—‘Sir Jhon Sinclair begowthe to dance’—yet begowthe implies that it is a beginning, of the dance as well as the poem. Stanza by stanza, each new performer is introduced by the same formal phrase, ‘Than cam in’. Although presented as a series of individual turns, the dance is a group activity. Six dancers are mentioned—a point emphasized by ‘fyve or sax’ (43). Four are men, two women; but there is insufficient detail to indicate whether Dunbar is describing a specific dance, such as the morris or the base dance. In the seventh stanza the syntax alters:

  • Quhen thair was cum in fyve or sax
  • The Quenis Dog begowthe to rax,
  • And of his band he maid a bred… (43–5)
This last figure brings dance and poem to an ignominious end. He seems to interrupt the dance rather than to join it. He begins not to dance but to rax, or stretch himself after sleep. He is not the queen's knight, but her ‘dog’—James Dog. Earlier dancers were compared to large, clumsy animals—a hobbled horse (12), or ‘a stirk stackarand in the ry’ (17)—but he is a dog, attempting to break away from his fetter, and moving like a mastiff (47). The word-play links this with the other poems on Dog, and suggests that all three were possibly composed at much the same time.

Dunbar may have found a model for Sir Jhon Sinclair in the burlesque dances that occur in other Scottish poems, notably Colkelbie Sow (309–467), Peblis to the Play, and Christis Kirk on the Grene.85 The dances they describe are rustic, associated with village ‘play’ and festivity, and take place out of doors. The dancing is boisterous and unseemly, and there is much horseplay. In Christis Kirk one girl ‘scornit Iok and scrippit at him / And morgeound him with mokkis’ (21–2), and another high-leaping dancer ‘hostit [coughed] at bayth the endis’ (47). The diction is homely and alliterative, and popular (p.249) similes, often from the animal world, are used, to suggest the liveliness of the dancing:

  • Ane 3oung man stert in to that steid
  • Als cant as ony colt. (Peblis to the Play, 51–2)
The viewpoint is not that of the participants but of ‘an amused and superior onlooker’.86 Peasants are trying vainly to imitate their social superiors or prestigious foreign models. In Colkelbie Sow, for instance, there is ridicule of the dancers' ignorance—they ‘falit in futing’ and later ‘thay hard speik of men gud / And small thairof undirstud’ (460–1); and in Christis Kirk the lute-player ‘counterfutit France’ (56). Dunbar's style resembles that of these poems, though his animal imagery is more original and more reductive. His tone is similarly derisive, but in this case it is courtiers, not peasants, who are viewed with amusement. In all these poems the dancers are ludicrous but not morally reprehensible. It has been suggested that Dunbar is here making a serious point, ‘that sexual frenzy can reduce man to his baser self’;87 but I find no trace in the poem of such didacticism.

It is a pity that part of Maitland's colophon to another poem now regularly furnishes its title—Ane Blak Moir (K 33). Such advance information about the poem's theme largely destroys the ambiguities of its opening:

  • Lang heff I maed of ladyes quhytt;
  • Nou of ane blak I will indytt
  • That landet furth of the last schippis;
  • Quhou fain wald I descryve perfytt
  • My ladye with the mekle lippis. (1–5)
The first two lines contain sharp antitheses: between Dunbar's practice in the past (Lang…) and his present purpose (Nou); between ladies in the plural and ane in particular; and, most pointedly, between quhytt and blak. Today we assume, from the start, that this contrast is one of race, and the assumption is, of course, borne out by the rest of the poem. But it should be remembered that this racial sense of white and its application chiefly to those of European stock was not common in Dunbar's time; OED's first unambiguous use is dated 1604. In medieval English poetry white was a stock epithet for women, to be translated sometimes as ‘fair-skinned’—‘A wayle whyt as whalles (p.250) bone’88—sometimes more vaguely as ‘beautiful’. When Henryson writes, in The Thre Deid Pollis, of ‘ladeis quhyt, in claithis coruscant’ (25), it is not to their race that he refers but their fragile beauty. (Dunbar's usage is similar in The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, 25, 28, 426, 499.) If white thus represented an ideal of fair-skinned beauty, black was applied to those who failed to fit the stereotype, those of any race, who were dark of skin and hair. The interesting medieval lyric that begins, ‘Sum men sayon that y am blak’, is not a poem about an African but a defence of brunettes.89 The famous Agnes, Countess of March, was popularly known as ‘blak Annas be ressone scho was blak skynnit’.90 Dunbar's opening is blandly equivocal. His first readers may have been briefly uncertain whether he was about to describe a grand lady like ‘blak Annas’ or a ‘blak moir’. Such uncertainties begin to be resolved in the third line, and by the fifth there is no doubt also as to the mockery.

Poems about ladies, even ‘quhytt’ ones, were not invariably complimentary. There existed a long tradition of describing ugly women, real or imaginary, some young but most old. Notorious Latin examples are found in Horace's coarse epodes VIII and XII and George Buchanan's cycle of poems about the prostitute Leonora. But a more appropriate context for Dunbar's poem is provided by medieval English verse: the ugly description of Dame Ragnell, or shorter pieces, such as Hoccleve's ‘Of my lady wel me reiose I may’, the anonymous ‘O fresche floure, most plesant of pryse’, and the verses once attributed to Chaucer, ‘O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke’.91 These offer hideous catalogues of staring eyes, flat nose, wide mouth, yellow teeth, and figures shaped ‘like a barelle’ or a wine tun. Dunbar's piece, like several of these, has been termed a parody of the conventional eulogy of one's mistress.92 But grotesque descriptions, even when they invite comparison (as Dunbar does) with the usual norms of beauty, are not necessarily parodic. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is a carefully composed passage (943–69) in which the ugliness of Morgan le Fay is contrasted with the beauty of the castle's mistress—‘vnlyke on to loke tho ladyes were’ the poet, perhaps superfluously, tells us. Critics do not usually regard this as parody; (p.251) medieval rhetoricians would probably have classed it as descriptio ad vituperium. This is the mode to which Dunbar's poem belongs.

Dunbar's originality lies in choosing to describe a real black woman and in his attentive observation of her. The sketch is not flattering, but it is recognizable. The short English pieces mentioned earlier are feeble, metrically and descriptively; their portraits contain a random list of features, accompanied by a jumble of ugly but unrelated images. But Dunbar lavished care on this poem. Its five stanzas are neatly organized, largely in terms of repetitio, first on Quhou, which links the first and second stanzas; then on Quhen in the third, and on Quhai in the fourth and fifth. In the description there is similar art. Dunbar follows tradition in focusing chiefly on the face:

  • Quhou schou is tute mowitt lyk ane aep
  • And lyk a gangarell onto graep,
  • And quhou hir schort catt nois up skippis,
  • And quhou schou schynes lyk ony saep,
  • My ladye with the mekle lippis. (6–10)
The images are homely, sensuous, and visually precise. They interact effectively, reinforcing each other—the skin that gleams like oily black soap is later ‘brycht as ane tar barrell’ (12). The latter image is chosen primarily for its colour, yet hints also at the lady's ample figure. There is similar economy in the phrase ‘schort catt nois’; it is instructive to contrast this with an earlier writer's clumsy attempt to ridicule not a female but a ‘manly visage’—
  • Youre forehed, mouth and nose so flatte,
  • In short conclusyon, best lykened to an hare
  • Of alle lyvyng thynges, saue only a catte.93
The purpose of Dunbar's three animal images—ape, toad (gangarell), and cat—is primarily descriptive, though we should recall that their symbolism is usually pejorative.

The first part of this poem contains a vignette that is unkind, but is neither coarse nor obscene. The tone changes in the last two stanzas, however, where the poem widens its scope, and ridicules those taking part in the Tournament of the Black Lady (see above, p. 54). Whoever wins, ‘Sall kis and withe hir go in grippis’ (18); but whoever is dishonoured in combat

  • And tynis thair his knychtlie naem
  • Sall cum behind and kis hir hippis. (22–3)
This is derisive prediction—fantasy rather than fact. Dunbar is ridiculing the king himself (who jousted under the name of the Black (p.252) Knight) and his knights, and the conception of this tournament. But the insult to the black lady does not consist primarily in the coarseness of what is euphemistically termed ‘the Misdirected Kiss’. In most instances of this theme, whether as a vulgar gibe—‘Thy commissar Quintyne biddis the cum kis his ers’ (Flyting, 131)—or as a folk-tale motif,94 it is those who confer the kiss who are humiliated. In The Miller's Tale the joke is not at the expense of the beautiful and desirable Alison but of Absolon; indeed at its close Alison alone emerges unscathed. In one of the analogues to The Millers Tale, a French fabliau, the misdirected kiss is the means by which a wellborn lady punishes her ‘vilain’ husband, not just for his trickery but also for his cowardice. She jeers at him:
  • Jʼai non Berengier au lone cul
  • Qui à toz les coarz fait honte. (258–9)95
In Dunbar's poem the knights who will suffer the same indignity are likewise not simply defeated in battle, but disgraced—those who have received ‘schaem’ (21), the equivalent of honte, and lost their ‘knychtlie naem’. What is far more offensive to the black woman, I think, is Dunbar's implication that to embrace her in a more orthodox fashion would be equally degrading to a knight.

The most polemical of Dunbar's flytings is In vice most vicius he excellis (K 34). It is closely involved with some of the most contentious issues of James IV's reign, the Lordship of the Isles and the uneasy relationship between the Lowlands and the Highlands. The gallows that in The Flyting furnished both poets with atmospheric similes here functions as literal reality (23). Alexander Myln, in an anecdote about Bishop Brown of Dunkeld, spoke casually of a Highlander ‘dangling with beard unkempt on the gallows’; and after the 1494 rebellion many Highlanders were hanged in Edinburgh.96 Dunbar's poem appears highly topical—‘As in the ilis / Is now a preiff (17–18)—yet it is not easy to ascertain the incident to which it alludes. The ‘Donald Owyr’ who is mentioned in line 19 is usually identified with Donald Dubh, bastard son of Angus Og. Angus's father John, fourth Lord of the Isles, had been forfeited in 1493; but between 1503 and 1506 there was a widespread rebellion, linked with an attempt to revive the (p.253) Lordship on Donald's behalf. According to modern historians, the revolt was crushed by October 1506; Donald was captured but not executed, and lived until 1545. The traditional identification of Dunbar's ‘Donald Owyr’ with Donald Dubh has not, however, been accepted by all scholars.97 As the more candid historians admit, it is very difficult ‘to put together a straight narrative’ of events in the Highlands at this time, particularly those that concern the Lords of the Isles.98 None the less, although other Highland risings occured during James IV's reign, the events of 1503–6 seem to have been the most serious challenge to his royal authority. What is more, Dunbar's acerbity towards ‘The fell strong tratour Donald Owyr’ implies that he was concerned not with some lesser Donald of the Isles (of whom there were several) but with the very focus of the revolt: ‘Donald bastard and unlauchtfull sonne of umquhile Angus of the Ylis’, for whose treasonable help and maintenance many Highland lords, such as Lauchlan Maclean and Torquil Macleod, were summoned to stand trial in Edinburgh.99 The traditional identification, though not without problems, still seems the most plausible.

Dunbar's poem is far from being devoted solely to vilification of ‘Donald Owyr’, whose name occurs once, though in a central position, as a ‘preiff’ of his argument. The poem works at a high level of generality, opening with a sententia and concluding with a proverb. Like Maitland's Trason is the maist schamefull thing, it is an attack on treason, or rather the figure of the traitor.100 Where Dunbar differs from Maitland is in the sheer energy of his language. The diction of the first stanza is redolent of the lawcourts, learned and somewhat tautologous; but the metrical pattern squeezes the abstract nouns together, so that the sibilants hiss with contempt:

  • In vice most vicius he excellis
  • That with the vice of tressone mellis;
  • Thocht he remissioun
  • Haif for prodissioun,
  • Schame and susspissioun
  • Ay with him dwellis. (1–6)
(p.254) The phrasing is often proverbial: ‘Quha is a tratour or ane theif / Upoun himselff turnis the mischeif’ (13–14).101 The tone is one of intense moral indignation:
  • God schawis the richt
  • With soir vengence. (29–30)
When Henryson's Coppok similarly exclaimed, ‘3one wes ane verray vengeance from the heuin’, she was compared to ‘ane curate’ (Fables, 530–1). Dunbar here speaks like a preacher or an Old Testament prophet.

There is no ridicule of Donald's physical appearance. The traitor is ‘odious as ane owle’ (7) and has a fox's ‘kynd’ (32), or nature, but both images are chosen for their adverse moral significance. The owl was regarded as avis turpissima, not only because it was ugly but because it shunned the light. According to a story in the fourteenth-century Dialogus Creaturarum Moralizatus, it was a type of the traitor. The owl conspired with other night birds to have lordship over all ‘wild fowls’, but was captured and brought before their true king, who—as in The Thrissill and the Rois—was the eagle:

he gaue this dredeful sentence agayne the traytowris, that euen forthwithe they shulde be drawyn through the cite and to be hangyd, and also that the owle and all her kynrede shulde haue perpetuall persecucyon, and be takyn for enymyes to all other byrdes, and to be banysshed from ther companye for euer.102

Dunbar does not develop this image, although there may be a subdued allusion to it in lines 27–8. The analogy between the traitor and the fox, however, dominates the last three stanzas, where affairs of state and the farmyard are juxtaposed in the manner of a beast fable. The fox's ‘kynd’, according to Henryson, is ‘fen3eit, craftie and cawtelous’ (Fables, 402). A traitor has the same propensity as the fox to cheat and dissemble. As long as a fox is alive, it poses a threat to hens; it is folly to grant to either fox or traitor a ‘respyt’ (33), or reprieve. The Scottish records, it should be noted, contain numerous such ‘respitts’ to Lauchlan Maclean and other Highland lords for various crimes, including their support of Donald Dubh.103 Earlier in the poem Dunbar exulted in the failure of the risings; he also clearly opposes the policy of leniency towards the rebels.

Dunbar ends with an appeal to popular wisdom:

  • (p.255) The murtherer ay murthour mais,
  • And evir quhill he be slane he slais;
  • Wyvis thus makis mokkis.
  • Spynnand on rokkis—
  • Ay rynnis the fox
  • Quhill he fute hais. (43–8)
The proverb ‘So long runs the fox as he foot has’ was later applied by John Knox to another ‘crafty fox’, the much-detested Cardinal Beaton.104 Its sense seems to be that a villain will remain a villain until he dies. Dunbar argues, in effect, that foxes and traitors constitute a perpetual threat to good order, since their ‘kynd’ is unchanging. Implicit is the advice that the only method of dealing with both is to kill them.

It should be noted that the title by which this poem is usually known, Epetaphe for Donald Oure, is in accord neither with historical fact—Donald Dubh survived until 1545—nor with the poem's argument—that ‘Donald’ is still alive, but is better dead. Yet the title's appropriateness is rarely questioned; Baxter, one of the few to recognize the problem, suggested that ‘the poet feigns that he is already writing Donald's epitaph’.105 But the form of Dunbar's poem has little in common with contemporary epitaphs or mock-epitaphs: Skelton's treatise on ‘two knaves somtyme of Dis’, or this piece on Louis de Luxembourg, executed in 1475:

  • Icy gist ce mechant et lourd
  • Louis qui fut de Luxembourg,
  • Le proditeur infame et faux…106
To call In vice most vicius an epitaph seems a misnomer. It originates in a colophon, ‘quod Dunbar for donald ovre Epetaphe’, found only in Bannatyne; the other witnesses, Maitland and Reidpeth, do not term the poem an epitaph. Here, as in other cases, Bannatyne seems to have misunderstood the poem's drift and misled later readers.107

Dunbar's tone has often been criticized. He has been accused, in a much-repeated passage, of being ‘unnecessarily malignant towards one who had known no personal freedom save for the few years he was “out” against the Government’.108 Considering how little is known of ‘Donald Owyr’, such a remark seems facile and over-romantic. In (p.256) this poem Dunbar is not so much venting personal spite as voicing the received Lowland opinion of Highlanders: treacherous, thieving, and murderous; not domesticated (like hens), but wild (like foxes). Dunbar's contemporary, John Major, also distinguished between the two types of Scots, ‘householding’ and ‘wild’. But the contrast can be traced back to the fourteenth century, to a well-known passage in Fordun, where Lowlanders are called ‘domesticated and cultured, trustworthy, patient and urbane, decent in their attire, law-abiding and peaceful’, but Highlanders are ‘a wild and untamed people, rough and unbending, given to robbery… comely in form, but unsightly in dress.109 Dunbar, in this poem, accepts the stereotype, and does not subject it to analysis. His stance is strongly partisan, and is bound to provoke a hostile response from those, in any century, who take the opposite side (and express it no less forcefully). But Dunbar voices a legitimate viewpoint, that not only of the king and central government but of many ordinary ‘householding’ Scots, who felt themselves menaced by violent forays and raids, and desired, as parliament often stated, ‘that the kingis lyeges may lif in quiete and peax’.110


(1) Similar complaints occur in Henryson's Fable of The Wolf and the Lamb; cf. S. G. E. Lythe, ‘Economic Life’, in Scottish Society in the Fifteenth Century, ed. J. Brown (1977), 68–70.

(2) See I. B. Cowan, The Scottish Reformation: Church and Society in Sixteenth-Century Scotland (1982), 22 ff.; and L. Macfarlane, ‘Was the Scottish Church Reformable by 1513?’, in Church, Politics and Society: Scotland 1408–1929, ed. N. Macdougall (Edinburgh, 1983), 23–43.

(3) I owe this quotation to P. Miller, ‘John Gower, Satiric Poet’, in Gower's Confessio Amantis: Responses and Reassessments, ed. A.J. Minnis (Woodbridge, 1983), 85.

(4) CB XV, no. 173.

(5) Lord Hailes, Ancient Scottish Poems (Edinburgh, 1770), 274; Scott, 175.

(6) On Poetry and Poets (1957), 206. For recent studies, see Bawcutt, ‘The Art of Flyting’, SLF 10, no. 2 (1983), 5–24; R. J. Lyall, ‘Complaint, Satire and Invective in Middle Scots Literature’, in Macdougall, Church, Politics and Society (above, n. 2), 44–63; and D. Gray, ‘Rough Music: Some Early Invectives and Flytings’, YES 14 (1984), 21–43.

(7) Bannatyne includes Stewart's Flyting, Montgomerie's Answer to ane Helandmannis invective, and the anonymous Answer to ane Inglis railler. Other pieces—often entided ‘Answers’—are in Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation, ed. J. Cranstoun (STS, 1891–3).

(8) See OED and Supplement, fliting, flyting, 1b.

(9) Cf. Bawcutt, ‘Flyting’, 6–7; and see the abundant evidence in OED, MED, DOST, and SND.

(10) Reulis and Cautelis… in Scottis Poesie, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford, 1904), i. 217.

(11) See DOST's citations for flyte, flytar, and flyting; Charters and Documents Relating to the Burgh of Peebles (Edinburgh, 1872), 325; Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling, ed. R. Renwick (Glasgow, 1887–9), 18; and St Andrews Kirk Session Register, ed. D. H. Fleming (SHS, 1889), 343.

(12) Liber Protocollorum M. Cuthberti Simonis (Grampian Club, 1875), 155.

(13) ibid. 345–7. Cf. J. Durkan, ‘The Early Scottish Notary’, in The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland, ed. I. B. Cowan and D. Shaw (1983), 39.

(14) The Letters of Fames the Fourth 1503–1513, calendared R. K. Hannay and R. L. Mackie (SHS, ser. 3.45,1953), no. 182.

(15) D. McKay, ‘Parish Life in Scotland’, in Essays on the Scottish Reformation 1513–1625, ed. D. McRoberts (Glasgow, 1962), 113.

(16) Cf. Early Records of the Burgh of Aberdeen 1317, 1398–1407, ed. W. C. Dickinson (SHS, ser. 3.49,1957), 21.

(17) Cf. J. A. Sharpe, Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England: The Church Courts at York (Borthwick Papers, 58; n.d.).

(18) See DOST, hure, loun, cucold; and Stirling Burgh Records, 43 and 83.

(19) McKay, ‘Parish Life’, 113.

(20) Cf. J. W. Spargo, Furidical Folklore in England Illustrated by the Cucking-Stool (Durham, NC, 1944), 106 ff. and Bawcutt, ‘Flyting’, 9.

(21) The phrase ‘cry cor mundum’ recurs in later flytings.

(22) Reiss, 55.

(23) For the earlier date, cf. M. P. McDiarmid, ‘The Early William Dunbar and his Poems’, SHR 59 (1980), 130–2; for the later, cf. Baxter, 74–84, and Kinsley, 285.

(24) Ode to the Medieval Poets.

(25) See above, n. 5.

(26) See Montgomerie, Poems, 57.

(27) Maitland Folio, no. lxxvii. On the ‘game’ aspect, see D. Lampe, ‘“Flyting no Reason hath”: The Inverted Rhetoric of Abuse’, in The Early Renaissance, ed. A. S. Bernardo (New York, 1979), 101–20.

(28) Cf. ‘I tak it apon me to preif it on the, body for body, as the law of armes schawis’, cited from Loutfut by DOST, preif.

(29) Ross, 186; Reis, 54. ‘Seconds’ became associated with secret duels, at a later period, to safeguard against foul play; cf. V. G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History (Oxford, 1988), 63–4.

(30) See S. Ollivant, Introd. to The Court of the Official in Pre-Reformation Scotland (Stair Soc. 34, 1982).

(31) The early print is fragmentary, and the Maitland and Reidpeth copies, although complete, are disordered. Schipper suggested a 6-part arrangement, but his arguments were rebutted by Baxter, 235–8, and Kinsley, 284.

(32) Mackenzie, 198.

(33) The most sustained example is the 64-line conclusion to Polwart's Flyting; see also Henryson, Prayer for the Pest, 65–88; Douglas, Palice of Honour, 2116–42; and Scott, Poems, no. 1.

(34) See Baxter, 62–3.

(35) Cf. Henryson's discussion in Fables, 2824 ff, which cites the proverb, Distortum vultum sequitur distortio morum. Most versions of the Secreta Secretorum contain a section on physiognomy.

(36) See Bawcutt, ‘Dunbar: New Light’, 87–8; and DOST, huke-bane, OED, huck-bone.

(37) See ROSC 3 (1987), 93–4; and DOST, lokman.

(38) L. J. Macfarlane, William Elphinstone and the Kingdom of Scotland 1431–1514 (Aberdeen, 1985), 305.

(39) In the poem sometimes called ‘The Praise of Age’; Bannatyne, fol. 52b.

(40) Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent 1442–1603 (Edinburgh, 1985), 76–7.

(41) On medieval jesting with names, see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Tradition (1953), 499–500.

(42) Reiss, 54; Lyall, ‘Complaint, Satire and Invective’, 45; G. Stevenson, in Poems of Alexander Montgomerie: Supplementary Volume (STS, 1910), xxv, calls it ‘a contribution to the court amusements’.

(43) Montgomerie, poems, ed. Stevenson, 144.

(44) ibid. 184, and see Bawcutt, ‘Flyting’, 11–12.

(45) Udall notes the custom at English feasts of having some jesting fellow ‘that maye scoff and iest vpon the geastes, as they sitten at the table’; see C. R. Baskervill, The Elizabethan Fig (Chicago, 1929), 22.

(46) See R. M. Wilson, The Lost Literature of Medieval England (1952; 2nd edn. 1970), 191–4, and 194–5 (verses on the mayor). See also D. Gray, ‘Rough Music’, 31.

(47) Cf. N. Macdougall, Fames III (Edinburgh, 1982), 25.

(48) Cited by DOST, cartell, Form An Indictment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 1568.

(49) Kinsley, 284.

(50) See Acta Facultatis Artium Sanctiandree, ed. A. I. Dunlop (SHS, ser. 3. 54–5, 1964), cxxvi, cxxxv, and 132.

(51) Scott, 173, says it betrays his mind's ‘Gaelic cast’.

(52) See Ross, 185, and J. M. Smith, French Background of Middle Scots Literature (1934), 51–7.

(53) Kinsley, 284; cf. Ross, 186.

(54) The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art (Princeton, 1960), 37.

(55) ‘Gaelic: The Classical Tradition’, in The History of Scottish Literature, I: Origins to 1660, ed. R. D. S.Jack (Aberdeen, 1988), 257.

(56) Cf. Wilson, Lost Literature, 187–208; D. Gray, ‘Rough Music’, 30 ff.

(57) Ed. A. H. Thomas and I. D. Thornley (1938), 344–7 and 352.

(58) Cf. G. Kratzmann, Anglo-Scottish Literary Relations 1430–1550 (Cambridge, 1980), 153–6.

(59) See G. L. Hamilton, ‘Theodulus: A Medieval Textbook’, MP 7 (1909–10), 169–85; and R. P. H. Green, ‘The Genesis of a Medieval Textbook… Ecloga Theoduli’, Viator, 13 (1982), 49–106.

(60) Skelton's ‘Recule ageinst Gaguyne’ (Garland of Laurel, 1187) is not extant, but other contributions to the quarrel survive; cf. H. L. R. Edwards, ‘Robert Gaguin and the English Poets 1489–90’, MLR 32 (1937), 430–4. On these writers, see P. G. Bietenholz, Contemporaries of Erasmus (Toronto, 1985–7).

(61) Many of these are collected by Wilson, Lost Literature, 200–8.

(62) Poems of Minot, ed. J. Hall (Oxford, 1914), no. 2.

(63) See further, Bawcutt, ‘Flyting’, 15–17; and G. Neilson, Caudatus Anglicus: A Medieval Slander (Edinburgh, 1896).

(64) Against Dundas, 7–10.

(65) Printed by Bawcutt, ‘A Miniature Anglo-Scottish Flyting’, N&Q 233 (1988), 441–4.

(66) Kinsley, 341.

(67) K. P. Wentersdorf, ‘The Symbolical Significance of Figurae Scatologicae in Gothic Manuscripts’, in Word, Picture and Spectacle, ed. C. Davidson (Kalamazoo, 1984), 1–19.

(68) D. W. Robertson, Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, 1962), 20.

(69) See citations in DOST, dirt.

(70) See DOST, hawkit, and OED, hawked, a.2.

(71) The Crying of ane Play, in Mackenzie, 170–4.

(72) The Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, ed. Æ. J. G. Mackay (STS, 1899), i. 181.

(73) Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh I: 1403–1528, ed. J. D. Marwick (SBRS, 1869), 47.

(74) St Andrews Formulare, ed. G. Donaldson and C. Macrae (Stair Soc. 7, 1942), no. 229.

(75) Cf. Macdougall, Fames III, 279–80; and DOST, lesing and lesing-makar.

(76) Cited by DOST, maggill.

(77) So Small, iii. 293; Mackenzie, 197; Kinsley, 300.

(78) See The Example of Euyll Tongues (n.d., STC 10608), fol. A iiir.

(79) Baxter, 128; Reiss, 32.

(80) Of English Dogges (1576); English Experience facs. no (1969), 25. J. Gilbert, Hunting and Hunting Reserves in Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 1979), 65 and 307, notes they were restrained by spiked collars and chains.

(81) On the name's varied significance, see MED, gogmagog, and Whiting, G 280.

(82) He figures in entries close to those for James Dog; see TA i. 174, 193, and 231; ii. 52 and 308.

(83) For other uses by Dunbar, cf. K 4 and K 37. For the lamb's proverbial connotations, see Whiting, L 25–50, especially L 26, L 31–2.

(84) Cf. Songs of the Troubadours, trans. A. Bonner (1973), 77–8.

(85) None can be dated precisely, but their language suggests the late 15th century. See Colkelbie Sow and the Talis of the Fyve Bestes, ed. G. Kratzmann (New York, 1983); and Maitland Folio, nos. xliii and xlix. For an English example, see the dance that concludes The Feast of Tottenham, in Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, ed. M. Furrow (New York, 1985).

(86) A. H. Maclaine, ‘The Christis Kirk Tradition: Its Evolution in Scots Poetry to Burns’, SSL 2 (1964), 10. See also G. F.Jones, ‘“Christis Kirk”, “Peblis to the Play” and the German Peasant-Brawl’, PMLA 68 (1953), 1101–25.

(87) Ross, 208.

(88) The Harley Lyrics, ed. G. L. Brook (Manchester, 1948), no. 9; cf. B. Schmolke-Hasselmann, ‘Middle English Lyrics and the French Tradition’, in The Spirit of the Court, ed. G. Burgess and R. Taylor (Cambridge, 1985), 298–320.

(89) SL, no. 33.

(90) Pitscottie, quoted by R. Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1974), 137.

(91) See Dame Ragnell, ed. L. Summer (Smith College Stud. 5, 1924); SL, no. 209; Medieval English Love Lyrics, ed T. Stemmler (Tübingen, 1970), no. 105.

(92) Utley, no. 161.

(93) SL, no. 208.

(94) Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature (Helsinki, 1955), K 1225.

(95) Printed in L. D. Benson and T. M. Anderson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux: Texts and Translations (New York, 1971), 10–25. This contains (70–1) a crude, later treatment, ‘Old Hogyn's Adventure’.

(96) Cf. R. L. Mackie, King Fames IV of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1958), 198. See N. Macdougall, Fames IV (Edinburgh, 1989), 175–95; J. Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’, in Brown, Scottish Society, 209–40; and J. Munro, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’, in The Middle Ages in the Highlands (Inverness, 1981), 33–5.

(97) See Ross, 46 and 183; Nicholson, Scotland: Later Middle Ages, 545. The point at issue is whether ‘Donald Owyr’ is correctly identified with ‘Donald Dubh’ of the Gaelic sources and the ‘Donald bastard’ of the Acts of the Parliaments of Scodand (APS). Owyr is taken to represent Gaelic odhar, with the same sense as dubh, ‘brown’. But the only references to a ‘Donald Owyr’, apart from Dunbar's, are dated 1494–7, and refer to an adult, clearly in favour with James IV; at that time the Donald of the 1503 rebellion was apparently a child (cf. Munro, ‘Lordship of the Isles’, 35).

(98) Munro, ‘Lordship of the Isles’, 23; Mackie, Fames IV, 188 ff.

(99) APS ii. 241; cited by Nicholson, Scotland: Later Middle Ages, 545.

(100) Maitland Folio, no. cxi.

(101) Whiting, T 444 (from Ps. 7: 16).

(102) The Dialogues of Creatures Moralysed, ed. G. Kratzmann and E. Gee (Leiden, 1988), 180.

(103) Register of the Privy Seal, ed. M. Livingstone (Edinburgh, 1908), i, nos. 1083, 1163, 1174, 1197, 1203, and 1208. Cf. Nicholson, Scotland: Later Middle Ages, 569–70.

(104) History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. W. C. Dickinson (1949), i. 54–5; also Henryson, Fables, 827.

(105) Baxter, 141.

(106) Quoted in P. Champion, Louis XI (Paris, 1927), ii. 172. Cf. the verse epitaphs in SL, nos. 124 and 125.

(107) The poem seems to be a ‘later addition’; see Bannatyne Facsimile, xi.

(108) Mackenzie, 211, is repeated by Scott, 262, and Kinsley, 309.

(109) Cf. Scottish Historical Documents, ed. G. Donaldson (1970), 101–2; Nicholson, Scotland: Later Middle Ages, 206.

(110) APS ii. 228, cited by Munro, ‘Lordship of the Isles’, 33.