Wise Men of Gotham
Wise Men of Gotham is the early name given to the people of the village of Gotham, Nottinghamshire, in allusion to their reputed simplicity. If tradition is to be believed, the people of Gotham were not so very simple.
The story goes that King John intended to travel through the neighbourhood. At that time in England, any road the king travelled on had to be made a public highway and the people of Gotham did not want a public highway through their village. The villagers feigned imbecility when the royal messengers arrived (or did they?). Wherever the messengers went, they saw the rustics engaged in some absurd task. John, on this report, determined to have his hunting lodge elsewhere, and the wise men boasted, "we ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it".
According to the 1874 edition of Blount's Tenures of Land, King John's messengers "found some of the inhabitants engaged in endeavouring to drown an eel in a pool of water; some were employed in dragging carts upon a large barn, to shade the wood from the sun; others were tumbling their cheeses down a hill, that they might find their way to Nottingham for sale; and some were employed in hedging in a cuckoo which had perched upon an old bush which stood where the present one now stands; in short, they were all employed in some foolish way or other which convinced the king's servants that it was a village of fools, whence arose the old adage, "The wise men," or "The fools of Gotham."
The Towneley Mysteries mentioned the "foles of Gotham" as early as the fifteenth century, and a collection of their jests was published in the sixteenth century under the title Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham, gathered together by A.B. of Phisicke Doctour. The "A.B." was supposed to represent Andrew Borde or Boorde (1490?-1549), famous among other things for his wit, but he probably had nothing to do with the compilation.
The localizing of fools is common to most countries, and there are many other reputed imbecile centres in England besides Gotham. Thus there are the people of Coggeshall, Essex, the "carles" of Austwick, Yorkshire, the "gowks" of Gordon, Berwickshire, and for many centuries the charge of folly has been made against silly Suffolk and Norfolk (Descriptio Norfolciensium about twelfth century, printed in Wright's Early Mysteries and other Latin Poems).
In Germany there are the "Schildbürger", from the town of "Schilda"; in the Netherlands, the people of Kampen; in Bohemia, the people of Kocourkov; and in Moravia the people of Šimperk. There are also the Swedish Täljetokar from Södertälje and Kälkborgare from Kälkestad, and the Danish tell tales of the foolish inhabitants of the Molboland. Among the ancient Greeks Boeotia was the home of fools; among the Thracians, Abdera; among the ancient Jews, Nazareth; among modern Jews, Chełm; among the ancient Asiatics, Phrygia.
Three wise men of Gotham,
They went to sea in a bowl,
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song had been longer.
The rhyme was first recorded in Mother Goose's Melody published around 1765, and from then appeared in many collections.
The rhyme has led to Gotham becoming a nickname for New York City. The name first emerged after, reminded of the foolish ingenuity of Gotham's residents, Washington Irving gave the name "Gotham" to New York in his Salmagundi Papers (1807). The most notable use of the name came in Bob Kane's pastiche New Jersey home of Batman, Gotham City. The existence of Gotham, Nottinghamshire in the DC Universe was recently acknowledged in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #206 (and again in 52 #27), although the connection between two names within the DCU has not been fully explained. In a story titled 'Cityscape' in Batman Chronicles #6 it is revealed that Gotham was initially built for the purpose of housing the criminally insane "I even have a name for it. We could call it 'Gotham' after a village in England - where, according to common belief, all are bereft of their wits."
In DC Comics' "The Batman of Arkham" the Joker recites this rhyme specifically.
- English folklore
- Feigned madness
- Gotham City, comic book city of Batman
- Molbo story
- Ship of fools
- Simpleton (folklore)
- The Praise of Folly
- Noodles, Nitwits and Numbskulls by Kurt Werth, Dell Pub Co, 1979.
- G. Seal, Encyclopedia of folk heroes (ABC-CLIO, 2001), pp. 272-3
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), p. 193.
- Tenures of Land, by Thomas Blount and edited by W. Carew Hazlitt, p. 133. London, 1874. The Wise Fools of Gotham
- Thomas Blount, Tenures of land & customs of manors
- Gerard T. Koeppel Water for Gotham: a History (Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 103.
- Alfred Stapleton, All about the Merry Tales of Gotham (Kessinger Publishing, 2005), p. 10.
- Gillian Elias, The Tales Of THE WISE MEN Of GOTHAM (Nottinghamshire County Council 1991), ISBN 0-900943-33-5, p. 42, .
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