One Of The Earliest Known Uses Of The F-Word Found In Manuscript Written During The Plague


Madison Dapcevich

Staff Writer

clockApr 20 2020, 20:58 UTC

Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed the plague, which devastated medieval Europe. The painting was created in 1562, just six years before the manuscript was compiled. Public Domain

A medieval “rap battle” written during the 16th-century plague contains one of the earliest known uses of the F-word.

Known collectively as the Bannatyne Manuscript, the anthology was collected and written in the last three months of 1568 when Scottish merchant and student George Bannatyne was in lockdown in Edinburgh, Scotland, following an outbreak of the plague. Hidden away in his country retreat, five centuries later Bannatyne would be celebrated for his “anthology of poetry” that today contains one of the oldest known recorded uses of the F-bomb.


A documentary aired by BBC Scotland features the F-word. In the documentary, Dr Joanna Kopaczyk, a historical linguistics expert from Glasgow University, calls it “some very juicy language,” reports The Scotsman.

The manuscript also contains the work from around 40 featured authors. Many of the pieces are found in other manuscripts or earlier printed sources, but the “collection as a whole is of unique importance,” notes the archives. In addition to the F-bomb, the manuscript also contains some of the best work from the country’s most important poets and, in some cases, remains the only record of some poems, fables, and religious verses.

“The Bannatyne Manuscript is a collection of some 400 poems compiled by the young Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne in the last months of 1568 when an outbreak of plague in Edinburgh compelled him to stay indoors. It is one of the most important surviving sources of Older Scots poetry. The manuscript remained in his descendants’ possession until they gifted it to the Advocates Library – the National Library’s predecessor – in 1772,” a spokesperson from the National Library of Scotland (NLS) told IFLScience in an email.

Though it's not the oldest recorded use of the F-word – that credit goes to a man by the name of Roger Fuckebythenavele who dropped the F-bomb in a 1310 courtroom, according to The Independent. Around two centuries later, the expletive makes its appearance in William Dunbar’s epic poem, "The Flytings Dunbar and Kennedie" – the medieval equivalent of a modern-day rap battle.


“It has long been known that the manuscript contains some strong swearwords that are now common in everyday language, although at the time, they were very much used in good-natured jest. In particular, the 'Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie,' a great slanging match between the poets William Dunbar and Walter Kennedie, has been infamous for giving us [one of] the earliest known examples of these terms in written form,” said the spokesperson.

Europe saw several waves of the plague between the 6th and 17th centuries, and Scotland was no different. Quarantine measures put in place resemble some of those seen today, including self-isolation and 40-day quarantines on goods imported from places where the plague was known to persist, according to the NLS. Many Europeans believed that the plague was a punishment from God until the 19th century when it was discovered that a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis carried by rodent fleas was responsible.   

The Bannatyne Manuscript contains a collection of poetry from more than 40 authors, one of which records one of the earliest written uses of the f-word. NLS

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