Those Crafty Wise Men of Gotham!


The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham

Gotham is a village in Nottinghamshire, England that has acquired remarkable reputation for the villager’s ingenuity.  The inspiration for this came from a series of short, amusing, stories called, ‘The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham’ that describe the villagers performing a number of peculiar tasks.   This was first published in a chapbook during the reign of King Henry VIII in 1540. Chapbooks were cheap publications that were written to appeal to the common people.  Rather than mad the people of Gotham became known as the Wise Men of Gotham and for good reason.  The chapbook does not give reasons for their absurd behavior but medieval legend and tradition say there are at least two versions of how this came to be.    

King John

The first says that King John wanted to build a hunting lodge, or castle and make the surrounding area subject to strict Forest Laws for hunting and its use.  The people of Gotham would probably have not welcomed this as it would have place restrictions on the use of the forest and its resources.  The second says that  King John wanted  to travel through the parish, but any road the king traveled on in those days became a Royal Highway. Its maintenance and upkeep became the responsibility of the parishes it passed through.  This was perceived as bad news by the people of Gotham who not surprisingly, really did not want to pay for the privilege of maintaining it.

Gotham madness!illus241

To dissuade the king from his plan the people of Gotham hatched a remarkable plan of their own.  In those days madness was believed to be catching so the villagers came up with a plan where they would be carrying out a series of acts of apparent madness.  When the King’s riders arrived ahead of the main party they were astonished to find a group of men hard at work building a fence around a small bush growing on top of a mound.  The conversation between the king’s men  and the villagers may have been something along the following lines:-

Fencing in the cuckoo

“Why are you doing that?” inquired the king’s man.  “To fence the cuckoo in.” said their leader.

“And why would you want to do doing that?” said the King’s man.

“Because the cuckoo brings the spring and we shall keep the spring with us forever if we fence her in.”  said the leader as the last piece of fencing was fixed in place.  With that the cuckoo flew out of the bush and away over the countryside.

“Darn!” cried the leader, “we should have made the fence higher!”   Perplexed, the king’s man rode on.

Drowning an eel and more madness

Wherever they went they found the people engaged in some absurd or hopeless task.  At a local pond they found a group of villagers trying to drown an eel.

“What ever are you doing?” asked the king’s man.

“This eel has eaten all the fish we put in the pond we kept for our own use. We are drowning it to teach it a lesson!” they told him.

Puzzled the king’s man rode on until he came upon a group of men dragging carts onto a barn roof.  “Why are you doing that?” asked the king’s man.

“To shade the barn from the sun!” they replied.

Astonished the king’s man rode on and soon came on another group of villagers rolling cheeses down a hill towards Nottingham.  Reluctantly the king’s man asked them what they were doing.illus236“We are rolling our cheeses down the hill to Nottingham that they may find their own way to market, saving us the trouble of taking them ourselves!” they replied.

The bemused king’s men rode into Gotham but wherever they went they found the people engaged in an impossible or absurd task.

The  madness of Gotham

The King’s men, as was the belief at the time,  believed madness to be a contagious disease.  From what they saw of the villagers they were convinced they had all fallen sick with it.  They returned to King John and reported that the whole population was afflicted with madness.  Not wanting to risk catching their affliction King John decided not to go to Gotham and either found a way round the village, or decided to have his hunting lodge elsewhere.

The Wise Men of Gotham

So the people of Gotham managed to avoid the consequences of a Royal Forest or  expense for the upkeep of public road. The villagers became known as the Wise Men of Gotham and the people would often be heard to  say, “we ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it”.

© 12/07/2015 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans


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