A 7th century Rap Battle between Bishops

The correspondence of Frodebert and Importun as a Merovingian verbal duel


 Since the information age has permeated all aspects of Western society and everyone of us may be startled anytime by a text message arriving on our mobile phones,  it may be hard for us, 21st century scholars, to imagine a world where the written word was solely used as a complement to the spoken word. Despite recent scholarship focusing mainly on the traces of literacy the Merovingian Age has left us, no one shall contest that the Early Middle Ages were a place where the spoken word held prominence and society was predominantly illiterate.

Government in Merovingian Gaul depended on Frankish warlords ruling ruthless war bands who dominated a  countryside littered with late antique latifundiae and towns. In the towns the Merovingian church upheld the ruined vestiges of Roman bureaucracy, a bureaucracy the warlords gladly used to affirm their power. While the Roman Empire had perished these warlords still minted Roman-style coins and levied Roman taxes. The model of government these Early Medieval princes aspired to was a conflation of the ideal of Germanic martial nobility with models of authority indebted to Late Antiquity. Nevertheless, the true heir of Classical Rome was the Roman Church who inherited the administrative infrastructure and literacy of the Late Principate. Since the use of the written word was the prerogative and the profession of the clergy most of the documents that have reached us from the Merovingian age are deeply religious in wording and outlook. This may be why Bruno Krusch (1905), the famous editor of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, called the curious correspondence between the bishops Frodebertus and Importunus “das wahrste Denkmal der ganzen Merowingerzeit”.

The text

Surviving in an early ninth-century manuscript (BN lat. 4627) together with multiple Merovingian formulae (epistolary models) the correspondence is one of the more peculiar monuments of Merovingian literacy. The antagonists are Frodebert (Old Frankish personal name *Hrōþiberχt) who was bishop of Tours from 653 to 674 CE and bishop Importun who was bishop of Paris from 664 to 666 CE. Judging on the episcopacies of the two bishops the correspondence can be dated to the period between 664 CE to 666 CE. The most conspicuous feature of the correspondence is its ludicrous content. What initially may be taken as a serious written complaint from one bishop to another about a faulty grain delivery quickly escalates into a fierce polemic where vulgarities aren’t shunned. Alternately the two bishops make accusations to eachother and denounce the accusations of the other party. In this regard we should note that the text has come down to us in an orthography that is significantly influenced by Romance vernacular features and uses an idiom which draws amply from colloquial registers. Modern editions were drafted by Zeumer (1886) and Walstra (1962) but recently Danuta Shanzer (2010) reedited the text in her article “The tale of Frodebert’s tail” (2010).

The content

For convenience purposes I will use Walstra´s numbering of the fragments and Shanzer´s allotment of authors to the fragments. Shanzer summarizes the contents of which I wil give an abridged version.

1 Frod. Frodebert complains about the quality of a grain shipment that Importun send to a convent of nuns that fall under the jurisdiction of Tours. No good bread can be made from it and Importun is invited to try it. Sarcasm abounds in the first letter.
2 Import. Importun repudiates the accusation and starts accusing Frodebert of abducting and seducing the wife of Grimoald, the Neustrian maiordomus. There they did not read scripture but…(lacuna). Frodebert was born in a monastery.
3 Import. Importun asserts that Frodebert is unworthy of his rang as bishop and does the devil’s work. Furthermore he accuses Frodebert of being unjustly manumitted,                fornication with all kinds of women and extortion of his nuns. By his long tail (penis), -is it long enough?-, Frodebert is encouraged to castrate himself.
4 Frod. Old Testament allusion to Proverbs by repeating Solomon that no one should be                 foolish enough to respond to a fool. Frodebert calls Importun a falsator, a susurro and a murro. Importun forgets that Frodebert helped and raised him. Frodebert swears that Importun is a liar and a bracco (Old Frankish *brakkō “dog”) in the manger, unbefitting of a baro (Old Frankish *barō “free man, warrior”).
5 Import. This part adresses domnae sanctae (nuns?) who are urged not to believe the lies. Liars resemble fures, murones and susurrones. The fox is more cowardly than a dog since he shows his tails, but hides his face, unable to face a dog. He grabs the hoopoe but not the swallow. He eats excrement and lies like an irishman. The domnae should not believe Frodebert.

Genre and function of the text

Shanzer subjects the text, its contents and its background to a thorough investigation highlighting the carnivalesque nature of the argumentation and the rhyme. She concludes her article by speculating that the correspondence might have been part of a public perfomance conducted at “some seventh-century Feast of Fools” (Shanzer 2010: 395). To my mind she hits the nail on the head and the dialogue should be intepreted as constituting a verbal duel meant for public display in the urbanity of some Merovingian town. In this regard comparison with similar verbal duels in other cultures might illucidate the dynamic of the dialogue. Shanzer herself remarks in a footnote (2010: 393, ftn. 63) that a connection to the Germanic flyting might be considered, but deems it to speculative. Instead she looks for ties with the Patristic writings of Jerome which are just as speculative but connect better to her field of research as a Latinist.

The Germanic flyting

The flyting is a Germanic verbal duel that was part of the interaction between warriors in the mead hall. This practice is reflected in Old Germanic literature, most notably in the Old Icelandic saga’s and the Old English Beowulf poem which was shown by Clover in her article “the Unferþ episode” (Clover 1980). A flyting consists of boast and insults in wich threats, curses and vows can also be used. Favourite insults pertained to acts of cowardice, dishonouring relatives and sexual irregularities, the latter catergory constituting a field of sexual defamation called níðr in Old Icelandic. These contests of wit can be seen as the verbal equivalent of a martial duel and are also characterized as such (Old Icelandic bregdask með orðum) but are not to be understood as a prelude to actual violence. Rather they constitute a battlefield on their own. We might see these verbal duels as form of performative anger or cathartic expressions of agression that strengthens and protects the community by containing and redirecting anger, fear and conflict (Brown 2002: 166).

The dynamic of a flyting consists of a claim from the one part, a concession from the accused party and a subsequent counterclaim. Interesting here is that the facts are not discussed since they are presumed to be known to the audience. Rather the interpretation of the facts is subject of discussion. The outcome was expected to be peacefull with the victorious party accruing honour and reknown from the occasion and the losing party defamed and supposedly holding his or her tongue. That this was not always the case is clear from the Old Icelandic saga material in which the losing party may seek immediate redress for the defeat and resort to actual violence. Unfortunately the role of the audience during the verbal duel is unknown to us from the Old Germanic material, eventhough at times it may have been crucial to the dynamic of the flyting and a verbal duel cannot be properly evaluated without it.

The parallels with the correspondence between Frodebert and Importun are clear. Sexual defamation and cowardice are central themes in the repertory of insults and serious accusations are made to either party. Interesting is that the accusations aren’t conceded as in the Germanic flyting but rather the credibility of the accusing party is called in question by adducing further defamatory anecdotes. There are further deviations from the Germanic flyting model, namely the use of formal (ecclesiastical) epithets and formula’s, the allusion to scripture and the invocation of God, which may be attributed to the urban christian culture of the Gallo-Frankish towns. On the other hand, cursing with the devil and eternal damnation is also to be found in the Old Icelandic saga material.  Furthermore, the audience seems to hold an important place in the verbal duel between Frodebert and Importun since they are adressed directly in Import. 5, where in the Old Icelandic saga’s they are largely left out of the debate. Although this Gallo-Frankish verbal duel may originally be indebted to native Frankish flyting practice, it is clear that it evolved into a more christianized form adapted to the urban culture of its public. We should also note that the content of the Gallo-Frankish verbal duel is less serious than its Germanic counterpart. We know that the insulsts used are punishable by law and the sarcasm points to a mocking battle of wits rather than to a dead serious verbal equivalent of actual sword play.

Verbal duels in general

The rhyming prose in which the fragments are written point to oral poetic delivery comparable to the modern Afro-American “dozen” or even a “rap-battle”. This is also corroborated by the text itself in which Frodebert accuses Importun to “sing” (psallat) like a fox in a snare (trappa < Old Frankish *trappō). Verbal duels are to be found all over the globe. We may cite Valentina Pagliai’s definition of a verbal duel in her 2009 article on the subject: “[verbal duels are] a genre of argumentative language that entails exchanges between two persons, parties or chracters that challenge each other to a perfomative display of verbal skillfulness in front of an audience. […] In verbal dueling there is a stress on the performance, the display and the search for a public witnessing. At the same time, in verbal duels there is also a heightening of the poetic dimension.” (Pagliai 2009: 63). In her article she cites parallels from modern societies, i.e. modern day Tuscany, Ghana, Yemen, Nigeria, Guyana, Indonesia and Turkey. It is very well conceibable that Merovingian society also knew a form the “verbal duel”, to be performed at public occasions, an example of which by chance has made its way into written form. We may wonder whether the antagonists of the dialogue are also the performers of the verbal duel. The Merovingian episcopacy was a religo-political office with great religious and military authority and the exchange of such severe insults in an ordinary context would generally have been reason for feud and open warfare. Nevertheless, since the Old Icelandic evidence shows us that also kings could engage in flytings we should hold the possibility open that the in royal aula such a performative duel could be condoned and was actually part of court life. This would better explain why the verbal duel was written down in epistolary form than assuming it was part of satirical reenactment by commoners at a Merovingian carnival. It would explain the strange admixture of colloquial phrasings and learned formulas. To my mind scholars of Merovingian society focus too much on the christian context and thereby do not escape the tone of the discourse used by the writers of the sources.

Literary background

Shanzer’s fixation on the literary background is, to my mind, way off target when we are approaching a text reflecting oral perfomance. Interestingly enough she does acknowledge the colloquiality of the text when considering the specific insults that are used, since they are to be found in the Pactus Legis Salicae in the chapter that stipulates the compensation tariffs for dishonouring insults (de convitiis). When it comes to the animal metaphors however she does favour parallels in Patristic writings. Although her presumed models for these animal metaphors may be vaguely discerned in Jerome’s homelitic works the whole point of using animal metaphors is that they are based on the physical and behavioural traits of the animals in question and are therefore necessarily universal. The fragment in question is numbered “5 indiculus” and likenes Frodebert to a fox and its characteristics; he barks, moves by way of frivolous jumps, is shy, runs away from humans, and eats hoopoes instead of swallows. Shanzer argues that there is a Patristic model for the use of the hoopoe in the text since the Classical traditions that surround the hoopoe depict it as a unclean and dirty bird. She specifically points to Jerome’s work Adversus Iovinianum where the bird refers to unchaste nuns. This, according to Shanzer, would connect to the allegations of promiscuity uttered earlier in the text. However, arguing for such a connection may just as well be overanalysis. The hoopoe is also associated with excrement and filthiness (cp. ModDu. (dial.) schijtlijster) in northern European folk tradition and the use of the animal in the metaphor depicts the hoopoe as the prey of the fox while the swallow remains out of reach. Since the hoopoe forages on the ground while the swallow is air bound the metaphor may just refer to the fox opportunistic hunting habits and therefore lack of strength and bravery.

Romance features

Furthermore Shanzer fails to appreciate the orality of the text itself, namely the vernacular traits of the text that she attributes to the manuscript tradition. Haadsma and Nuchelmans (1963) in their “précis de latin vulgaire” show that the orthography, idiom and syntax are severely “romanized”. The Romance features include lenition of medial stops, loss of distinctive vowel length, reorganization of the verbal system, confusion of unstressed vowels, confusion of cases and adoption of Frankish lexic into Romance colloquial registers. To illustrate the rhyme, the tone of the duel and the Romance syntax I will cite several parts.


Latin Translation
1. frodebert (4-5)  
estimasti nos iam vicina You thought that we, while near
morte de fame perire was death, would die from hunger
quando talem annona such grain
voluisti largire[1] you wanted to offer from largesse
nec ad pretium Nor at a price
nec ad donum Nor as a gift
non cupimus tale anona Do we want such grain
3. Importun (1-2)  
Domno meo frodeberto To my lord Frodebert
Sine deo nec sancto Without god, neither holy
Nec episcopo nec seculare clerico Nor a bishop, nor a secular cleric
Ubi regnat antiquus hominum inimicus Who is possessed by the devil
4. Frodebert (26-29)  
non simulas tuo patre You don’t resemble your father
vere nec tua matre Nor your mother
non gaudeas de dentes Don’t rejoice in your teeth
deformas tuos parentes you dishonour your parents
ad tua falsatura Such falsehood
talis decet corona Befits such a crown

For a glimpse of how Romanized the grammar and phonology is I refer to Haadsma and Nuchelmans who have annotated a fair part of the text (Haadsma and Nuchelmans 1963: 118-122).


In short, what we have reflected in the atrabilious correspondence between the bishops Frodebert and Importun was in all likelihood a verbal duel between two bishops, premeditated and stylized in epistolary form, meant for oral perfomance at a mid 7th c. Merovingian monastery with a female convent as public. Such a poetic verbal duel does not only has parallels in the Old Germanic flyting but also in contemporary verbal duels in cultures accros the globe. ɔ


Clover, Carol J.

1980            “The Germanic Context of the Unferþ episode” Speculum 55. 444-468.

Shanzer, Danuta

2010        “The tale of Frodebert’s tail” in: Coloquial and Literary Latin, Eleanor Dickey et Anna Chahoud eds. 376-405.

Paliai, Valentina

2009      “The art of dueling with words: toward a new understanding of verbal duels across the world” Oral Tradition 24/1. 61-88.

[1] Largire instead of largiri

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