Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl
And, if the bowl had been stronger, my song had been longer.
One fine day, twelve villagers of Gotham went to fish in a river. Some of them remained on the bank, while others waded deep into the water. Eventually, they all came out and dried themselves off and the party headed back towards the village. One of the fishermen, remarking on how adventurously they had waded, expressed the hope that none of them had been drowned.
“How many of us went out today?” asked their leader. They agreed that the number was twelve, so the leader counted his fellow fishermen but came only to eleven. Horrified that one of them was missing, the fishermen went back to the river and looked around for their drowned friend.
Just then a courtier came riding by, who asked them what they were doing. They explained to him that twelve of them had come out fishing that day but that they could only count eleven of them now, so they were looking for the one who was lost. The courtier asked them what they would give him if he found their missing friend.
“All the money that we have,” was the reply. The courtier demanded the money upfront and then punched one of the villagers, so that he rolled on the ground.
“That’s one,” the courtier said. He punched another. “Two.” He punched a third, a fourth and a fifth, all the way up to eleven, until he reached the leader of the fishing party.
“And twelve,” the courtier said, landing his fist in the man’s jaw.
“Oh, bless you, sir,” the leader replied, as he struggled to his knees and wiped the blood from his mouth. “You have found our missing friend.”
That is only one of at least twenty tales concerning the foolishness of the denizens of Gotham. The stories go back at least to the fifteenth century, when the “fools of Gotham” were mentioned as proverbial in the first Shepherds’ Play of the Wakefield cycle. In 1526, one of the tales was published for the first time, with a full collection following later that century.
Which Gotham (and the name is properly pronounced “goat-ham”) this is has been a subject of some dispute, with villages of that name in both Nottinghamshire and Sussex being nominated. The consensus has tended towards the former suggestion, though how the inhabitants of either vill managed to develop this unhappy association is unknown. One early suggestion, still fashionable among Victorian commentators, was that the tales recalled some obscure manorial services rendered by villeins in exchange for their tenure but such customs would not have been regarded as foolish as early as the fifteenth century.
An alternative suggestion was advanced in 1797 by John Throsby, who, setting the stories firmly in Nottinghamshire, cited a Stone Age burial mound in the village traditionally known as the Cuckoo Bush, along with its traditional origin story. King John (it was said) was travelling to Nottingham and his route would take him through the meadows outside Gotham. Since any road along which the King travelled automatically became a Royal Highway, with the obligation that it be maintained perpetually by the inhabitants, the villagers protested and the King was so angry that he sent servants to Gotham to demand the reason for their insolence.
When the servants arrived, they saw one group of villagers standing in a pond, struggling with something. They asked what was going on, whereupon the peasants revealed an eel, held between their hands, which they were attempting to drown. Bemused, the servants went further into the village.
They saw a group of boys and girls dragging wagons around a barn, where they leant the vehicles against its sides. The servants asked them why they were doing this, to which they received the answer that, since the sun was so hot, they were providing the wood of the barn wall with shade.
The servants went to a little hill in another part of the village. There they saw a party of farmers carrying large rounds of cheese up the side of the hill to the top. The farmers all turned in the direction of Nottingham, knelt down and let their cheeses roll down the other side. Again, the King’s servants enquired the reason for this performance. The answer was that the farmers were rolling their cheese to market.
On the brink of exasperation, the King’s servants went looking to see if anyone in the village were sane or sensible. Their hopes were disappointed by a group of men laying a circle of fencing around a bush. The King’s servants asked what they were doing, to which the workmen replied that they were hedging in a cuckoo that was perched on the top of the bush. No sooner had they finished the fence than the cuckoo simply fluttered away, leaving the villagers shaking their fists and wishing that they had made their fence higher.
King John received his servants again that evening, who informed him that the villagers of Gotham were all fools, so that it was simply not worth punishing them. This, of course, was exactly the deduction the villagers had intended, so that their apparent foolishness in fact showed deep wisdom.
All of these episodes save that of the shading of the barn had previously enjoyed a semi-independent existence as tales in the Gotham cycle, which, giving no explanation for the villagers’ foolishness, implies that they are indeed just stupid. Over time the King John variant, with its ironic twist, has become the more popular reading. Some versions add that, in the period, madness was believed to be contagious, providing King John with even more reason to avoid Gotham.
It would appear to be the case that, in or before the fifteenth century, stories about village idiots accumulated around either the Nottinghamshire or Sussex Gotham. In the former, as aforementioned, there is a mound (and nearby public house) called the Cuckoo Bush, supposedly the very bush of the story. The name is attested as early as 1677 and suggests that the villagers of the Nottinghamshire Gotham enterprisingly named one of their own landmarks after one of the tales (this sort of thing happens a lot) and so the explanatory story grew up as a secondary tradition. Since the main road to Nottingham was diverted away from Gotham in 1739, it probably developed before then.
The legend still had one more but highly significant phase of evolution to undergo. In 1807, Washington Irving, in honour of the madness of the city most famous for not being the capital of America, nicknamed New York Gotham. It was for this reason that the writers of Batman set their protagonist in a nightmarish version of New York under the same disguising nomenclature, albeit barbarically mispronounced.
The visitor to Gotham today will see the Batman, among more traditional characters, scaling the village sign. It is perhaps just a little surprising that the villagers should celebrate an association born of an urban myth that they are all stupid but the alternative would be to waste the publicity and attention that it brings them. Now that really would be foolish.