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The Wise Men of Gotham

Three wise men of Gotham,

They went to sea in a bowl,

And if the bowl had been stronger

My song would have been longer

What could possibly link the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, a mere 20 minute drive from Breedon, and the fictional Gotham City in DC Comics Batman stories?

This is an intriguing story, interlinking fact with folklore and which has produced an extraordinary link with our cousins on the opposite side of the Atlantic, blending comic book fantasy with real life occurrences in old England.

What is certain is that Nottinghamshire’s rural village of Gotham (incidentally pronounced ‘Goatham’) was first mentioned in print in The Towneley Mysteries which 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 an A.B. of Phisicke, Doctour.

Its next mentioned in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) where Paine asserts that Edmund Burke “puts the nation as fools on one side, and places his government of wisdom, all wise men of Gotham, on the other side”.

American satirical writer Washington Irving’s periodical the Salmagundi Papers (1807) noted that "Gotham" had been a nickname for New York City which lampooned New York culture and politics. Irving took the name from the village of Gotham, Nottinghamshire, England: a place inhabited, according to folklore, by ‘fools’. (You might be tempted to think that both Westminster and Washington haven’t moved on much!)

But the most modern day link was created by Milton "Bill" Finger (1914 – 1974) who was an American comic strip, comic book, film and television writer who was the co-creator (with Bob Kane) of the DC Comics superhero character Batman. Finger placed Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alta ego/disguise, in his fictionalised Gotham City, traditionally depicted as being located in the U.S. State of New Jersey. Gotham's look and atmosphere was primarily influenced by New York at night.

Finger, on the naming of the city, said, "Originally I was going to call Gotham City 'Civic City.' Then I tried 'Capital City,' then 'Coast City.' Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name 'Gotham Jewellers' and said, 'That's it,' Gotham City.' We didn't call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.”

However Finger was also known to do rigorous research to his story backgrounds, and was probably subconsciously influenced by Irving’s allusions to NYC madness as well.

(Footnote. Finger was responsible for 50–75% of all the creativity in the Batman stories, yet Kane for decades publicly denied Finger had been anything more than a subcontractor executing Kane's ideas. As a result, and tragically, Finger died in obscurity and poverty while the Batman brand, and Kane, amassed international fame and wealth.)

The Source of the ‘Madness’

The story goes that in the time of King John (1166 - 1216) taxation* was vastly escalated to help pay for the crusading and subsequent ransom of his absent brother King Richard the Lionheart (1157 – 1199) .

( *Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI demanded that 150,000 marks (100,000 pounds of silver) be delivered to him before he would release the K. Richard, the same amount raised by the Saladin tithe only a few years earlier, and two to three times the annual income for the English Crown under Richard. Richard's mother, Eleanor, worked to raise the ransom. Both clergy and laymen were taxed for a quarter of the value of their property, the gold and silver treasures of the churches were confiscated, and money was raised from the scutage and the carucage taxes. The money to rescue the King was transferred to Germany by the Emperor's ambassadors.)

There was, however, one loophole: madmen were exempt from paying!

Therefore the canny villagers feigned imbecility when the royal tax assessors arrived. Wherever the taxmen went, they saw the rustics engaged in some absurd task.

According to the 1874 edition of Blount's Tenures of Land, King John's taxmen … ‘found some of the inhabitants engaged in endeavouring to fish the moon from 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 of Gotham" or "the fools of Gotham".

Based on this report, K. John discounted Gotham as a source of revenue, and the wise men boasted,

"We ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it."


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