A few days ago I realized that my characters were being woefully unimaginative with their insults – nothing more creative than “bastard” and “fool”. A shame, because Medieval insults can get a lot more creative! So for educative purposes (okay, okay, and for my own amusement too): here’s a helpful list on how to offend people in the Middle Ages.
Of course the list below is not a complete list of all existing Medieval insults – if only because the worst of them were probably rarely written down… If you want to make up your own insults, generally you can say something about:
- Virtue. Especially for women, this is very important – a noblewoman’s virtue was often the most valuable thing she possessed. If you’re trying to insult a man, you can of course always imply that his mother was a promiscuous lady.
- Birth. Tell a nobleman he’s of low birth, and you can be sure he’ll be properly offended.
- Stupidity or uselessness. Let’s face it, nobody likes to be called an idiot. Medieval people were no exception.
But of course there are many more options: for example, call a man impotent, or simply accuse someone of lacking morals or bad hygiene.
20 Medieval insults
- Bastard. This was not always an insult: it could also be used to simply state a fact. However, by the end of the Middle Ages, it was starting to get a more general pejorative meaning.
- Bedswerver. Alright, this one is a little more recent – it was invented by Shakespeare – but I just liked it too much. Quite literally, an adulterer.
- Bespawler. Someone who spits when he speaks.
- Bitch. Alrhough it sounds quite modern, this was already used as an insult for women around 1400.
- Churl. A churl was a member of the lowest social class, only just above a slave. When used to a nobleman, it was a grave insult.
- Coxcomb. The original spelling was cock’s comb, the cap worn by a professional fool. Later it just referred to a foolish or vain person in general.
- Crooked-nose knave. We have this insult attested because in 1555, a certain John Bridges sued a fellow named Warneford for calling him this in public.
- Cumberworld. Also cumberground. Someone who encumbers the world (or ground) without being useful in any way.
- Dalcop. Literally a dull-head – cop was an older word for ‘head’.
- Doxy. Originally the wife or girlfriend of a criminal; later just a promiscuous woman in general.
- Fat-kidneyed. Ah, Medieval anatomy. At some point it was believed that dumb people had fatter kidneys.
- Fool. Quite self-evident, and perhaps the earliest Medieval insult still in use.
- Fopdoodle. Just an idiot
- Hedge-born. Someone who is either illegitimate or born of very low standing.
- Levereter. Old spelling for liver-eater: someone who’ll hurt everyone else for his own benefit.
- Loggerhead. A logger was a heavy block of wood.
- Puterelle. Derived from Italian or Spanish puta, meaning ‘whore’.
- Sot. A drunk.
- Wandought. Wandoughty, literally “lacking in might / strength”, was an old word for impotence.
- Yaldson. Yald was an old word for a prostitute (apparently borrowed from Norse jalda ‘mare’…), so a yaldson was a prostitute’s son.
Alright, some more Medieval insults…
During my research I also stumbled upon the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. A flyting is basically a Medieval rap battle: in this lovely piece of writing, the two Scottish poets Dunbar and Kennedy are trying to verbally burn each other to the ground. That means a ton of creative insults – and even better, a lot of them alliterate.
Some of my personal favourites:
- Cunt-bitten coward
- Dismal-eyed and anused
- You look like the crows already ate your cheeks
- Your balls droop below your dress
- Cheap as slivers in the millhouse
- Thrice-shelled trickster with a threadbare gown
Flytings in general are quite amusing to read – ridiculously vulgar, but always highly eloquent and perfectly poetic in their form and structure. So if you need more inspiration for your Medieval insults, there is no better source!