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The Wise Men of Gotham

Frank E. Earp

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, I must neds laughe in my selfe,
The wise men of Gotum are risen againe.

‘Misogonus’ 1560

Indeed, the Wise Men of Gotham are risen again. The ‘Gotham Tales’ are a cycle of stories about feign madness. They first became associated with the village of Gotham (pron. ‘goat ham’) in Nottinghamshire around 1540. At this date a selected twenty of the tales first appeared in print. However, the true origin and antiquity of the whole cycle is something else. This article discusses two of the many mysteries that surround the topic - the location of the village of mad men (I prefer Fools) and the authorship of the first chap book, The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham. Let us begin with the printed text and work backwards.

In the reign of Henry VIII around the year 1540 an amusing collection of stories was published under the title of The merry tales of the mad men of Gotham by the mysterious ‘A.B. of Phisicke Doctor’. With subsequent editions, the word ‘mad’ was changed for ‘wise’ and the myth of the Wise Men of Gotham was born. The pseudonym A.B. was a clever ploy by the publisher of this time to make people believe (successfully it seems) that the author was none other than Andrew Borde. Borde never denied or accepted involvement in the publication. He was a popular humorist and writer at this time.

The question arises as to why the work needed a pseudonym. One answer may lie in the textual content of the stories. Whatever Borde’s involvement (if any), and the identity behind A.B., one thing is certain - the author of the stories and that of the book were never one and the same. ‘The Wise Men of Gotham’ is a collection of stories compiled into a single work. It can be demonstrated clearly that many of the stories, perhaps all, were not original and existed before 1540. At least one of the twenty published tales makes an appearance in an earlier MS. This was a work entitled Description Norfolciensium written by a monk of Peterborough some time in the twelfth century. In this story it is the folk of Norfolk that are accused of ‘madness’. Even a cursory glance at the tales indicates that they are pre-Reformation in origin. Included in the stories are references to: the Mass, crossing oneself in protection from the Devil, and other clearly catholic practices. This may be the reason behind Borde’s reluctance to the appearance of his full name on the title page. However, bearing in mind the almost instant success of the work among the nobility, the Church and royalty, any fear on Borde’s part would have been quickly dispelled. His direct involvement must be strongly questioned.

Such was the popularity of the work it continued to be re-published almost unchanged to the end of the nineteenth century. The tales were even exported to America by Washington Irvine who then spawned the title of ‘Gotham City’ (a city of fools) on his native New York. This in turn developed into the Gotham City of Batman.

Popular appeal

What was the popular appeal of these twenty short stories such that they successfully spanned the centuries and even continents? Were they really written to make people laugh? It is clear that the tales are not the work of a single author. Their style varies and we have seen that at least one is 400 years older than the first printed collection. Clearly humour changes, or does it? Are we looking at just a popular ‘joke book’? Can a twelfth century joke be equally as funny in the sixteenth century and still be making people laugh at the end of the last century? When we read the stories today the humour is very basic and barely raises a smile. Stapleton writing about the ‘twenty tales’ found it equally difficult to comprehend their value as jokes. Many of the stories have a perverse logic that seems to appeal to the human mind. For example, the tale of the man who carried his sacks of grain around his own neck while still riding his horse - the idea being to relieve the animal of the extra burden of the weight of the sacks.

Urban myths of their time

The tales possess something deeper than humour, a mythical timeless quality. This is precisely what I believe them to be - they are perhaps the ‘urban myths’ of their day. Tales that we know cannot be true but which we like to believe happened. It seems strange that modern folklore magazines such as Fortean Times and Folklore Frontiers publish modern urban myths collected by well-known writers such as Paul Screeton. What has led to the popular appeal of these modern tales among today’s readers?

A question of origin

The twenty tales have been localised to Gotham in Nottinghamshire. However, there is another Gotham, in Sussex, that lays claim to the tales, as in discussed by Mr Stevens in his article. The deep fascination of the stories has been with the complexities of both the stories and their history and origin. One of the complexities is this ‘other’ Gotham. While it is true that the supposed compiler of the tales, Andrew Borde, was born in Sussex not from the other Gotham, it is equally certain that the tales are written about Gotham in Nottinghamshire if we are to believe the Rev E. Cobham Brewer (1810-97). In his work The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable under the heading Gotham he says the twenty tales were written by Andrew Borde ’. . . a native of Gotham in Nottinghamshire’ and were ‘founded on a commission signed by Henry VIII to the magistrates of that town to prevent poaching’. However, no other early author on the subject mentions Brewer’s comments. So we must look again for a clear answer as to which Gotham. Firstly, the tales are all clearly about a village called Gotham. The Sussex Gotham was never a village or even a hamlet. It was only a manor in the parish of Hailsham. Any local writer would have known this and we would be looking at the ‘Mad men of Hailsham’ and not Gotham. Early editions of the printed tales mention Nottingham market and also that the village was on a direct route to York. One of the stories states that the Gothamites paid rent to the lordships of Leicester and Chester. This is a historical fact of the Nottinghamshire village.

Other villages of fools

As previously stated, Gotham only became the ‘best known’ village of fools because of the published tales. There are at least 45 other villages in England and one in Wales that claim as their own one or more of the Gotham cycle of tales. The tales were once very wide spread. Gotham is unique in that it not only preserves a complete collection of tales (plus many more in oral tradition) but also preserves many of the locations of the stories.

Woodcut from the title page of the 1630 edition of The Merry Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham, depicting the third of the twenty tales, the hedging of the cuckoo. The illustration at the start of this page is from a later edition.

The Cuckoo Bush Tale

The central story in the Gotham cycle and perhaps the best-known is the ‘Cuckoo Bush Tale’. This is one of the best examples of an overtly pagan interpretation. Briefly, the tale tells how the men of Gotham heard a cuckoo calling from a bush. In an effort to preserve springtime eternally they set about to build a hedge or fence around the bush to keep the bird in place. Their efforts were thwarted when the cuckoo flew away. The punch line to the joke of the story comes when the Gothamites are made to say ‘If only we had made the hedge higher, she would not have escaped.’

This same myth is located in at least half of the other villages where the tales of foolery are told. Gotham has the site of the Cuckoo Bush preserved in the shape of an ancient mound on a hill above the village. There are a number of villages that preserve the site of a ‘Cuckoo Pen’ without any attendant legend of its use. At Wing in Leicestershire, renowned for its ancient turf maze, there is a tumulus where the villages are said to have penned a cuckoo; the cuckoo still gives its name to a village pub.

Popular belief preserved in myth tells us that before the knowledge of migration the cuckoo was believed to spend the winter in a fairy mound or tumulus. The birds’ role as a herald of spring and its association with the Otherworld are widely accepted. Could it be that mounds like that at Gotham were built as a winter home for the cuckoo? Interestingly, the Teutonic word gauch meant ‘fool’ and has given rise to the dialect word ‘gawk’ meaning both ‘fool’ and ‘cuckoo’.

Feigned madness

Why did the Gothamites act like ‘mad men’ or ‘fools’? With at least twenty tales of foolery to their credit, there must have been a good reason for their behaviour. The published tales do not give us a reason for their action. However one existed and was known about from the time of the earliest reference to the ‘fools of Gotham’, much earlier than the first printed tales. There are two popular versions of the same excuses for foolery that have accompanied the tales through their travels through time. basically, both versions are the same tale with the same results.

King John, we are told, was making his way towards Nottingham. His route would have taken him directly through land owned by the village of Gotham. At this time it was believed that wherever the King made his way would become a public highway. The Gothamites did not want to pay for the upkeep of the new King’s Highway. Madness was said to be contagious and, when the King’s herald arrived in the village, he found the inhabitants engaged in various acts of apparent insanity. When news reached the ears of the King, John quickly changed direction to avoid the village of ‘mad men’.

The second version of the story states that King John was about to build a hunting lodge (or some say castle) near Gotham. The story continues in the same manner as the first, with the result that the King changes his plans.

However, there is a third version of the ‘King John origin’ which is less-known but more interesting.

Where the Sun King was stopped

This version was collected from several villagers by Stapleton on his research visits to Gotham about 1899. The story begins as previously, with King John and his followers making their way towards the village. Then the story changes drastically. We are told that he reached a spot on the outskirts of the village somewhere on Gotham Moor (for this to be true, John would have to be on his way from Nottingham and not to it). Stapleton’s Gothamite informant insisted that the King was in his chariot - not the vehicle of a twelfth century monarch. Three farmers of Gotham physically stopped the King’s progress by seizing hold of the lead horses. They then chained the chariot wheels to a post which they had previously fixed into the ground. Thus John was prevented from going further. Here the story ends, without mention off further acts of madness. The final passage in this version tells how the men of Gotham raised a mound round the post to commemorate their feat.

Stapleton was taken to the spot and shown the remains of the ‘actual mound’. He describes this a looking like the ploughed-out remains of a tumulus. Actually, Stapleton was shown two such mounds within a few yards of each other. The one mentioned first was the best preserved of the two. There is a disputed reference in the Nottinghamshire volume of The Victoria History of the English Counties to the opening of a tumulus at Gotham and the finding of a bronze spear head. The report has been regarded as a mistaken reference to a tumulus in Derbyshire. This, I believe, has arisen because no modern archaeologist has ventured to accept that the mound(s) seen by Stapleton might have been prehistoric. Gotham Moor lies in close proximity to the Trent valley where aerial photography has revealed extensive prehistoric earthworks, including bronze age ring ditches a few miles from Gotham, at Clifton. The antiquity of this tale is reinforced by the use of the word ‘chariot’ to describe the King’s transport.

Pagan practices

There is ample evidence to show that the majority of the twenty tales, as well as those from the oral traditions, are myths that have sprung from actual pre-christian practices. The links between the tales and possible tumuli (on Gotham Moor and the Cuckoo Bush mound) place their origin in a remote past. Stapleton collected stories which further illustrate ancient pagan origins. For example, the story of the two brothers and their fight over a phantom celestial herd. This story is identical to an early Irish epic told of two gods. It is extremely unlikely that the old villager who told his tale to Stapleton had read or heard the obscure Irish version. Stapleton himself, a learned and well-read scholar, reported the Gotham tale as unique.

Fools and Wise Men

From first being published under the title of The merry tales of the mad men of Gotham, the word ‘mad’ was quickly dropped for ‘wise’. It is their foolishness that makes the ‘mad men’ truly ‘wise’. One of the published twenty tales makes an appearance in a MS entitled ‘The Wickirk Play’, written by an unknown hand some time between 1425 and 1450. Here the titles of ‘Fools of Gotham’ is firmly bestowed on the villagers. Nowhere in the early printed tales is the word ‘mad’ used. The Gothamites are referred to as ‘Fools’.

The folklorist Sanda Billington states that, ‘It appears that in England in the Middle Ages the word “fool” was more than the abstract term of abuse which it appears to be today . . .’ The origin of the ‘Fool’ is deeply rooted within the human mind. The Fool is an archetypal figure who, through his apparent foolishness, possesses wisdom and a state of near-divinity. The true Fool has close links with the shaman; indeed they may be considered one and the same creature. The Divine Fool was the shaman who entered the Otherworld for the benefit of the community.

'The Wearing of the Horns'. A seventeenth century woodcut from a church broadsheet warning of the dangers of infidelity and published at the time of the wars against the Dutch.
Note the goat horns depicted on the man's head. The wearing of horns was linked to the Fool and also with the cuckold husband. The word 'cuckold' is a direct reference to the cuckoo.

The Universal Village of Fools

Britain is not unique in having a village (or villages) of Fools. According to Brewer, from ancient times many countries have had their own locale of fools. For ancient Asia Minor it was Phrysia; ancient Thracians counted Abde’ra as their home of fools; to the ancient Greeks it was Boeo’tia; in Germany (at least in the last century) it was Sabia.

There is one ancient home of fools that reveals the true nature of these places. For the ancient Jews the home of Fools was Nazareth. To call someone a Nazarine was to call them a fool. The divine fool who was born at a place known as ‘The House of Bread’ in a cave sanctuary dedicated to Adonis was referred to as ‘the Nazarine’.

Main sources:

Sandra Billington, The Social History of the Fool, Harvest Press 1984
J.E. Field, The Myth of the Pent Cuckoo, Elliot Stock 1913
A. Stapleton, All about the Merry Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham, privately published 1900


Nasrudin loaded his ass with wood for the fire, and instead of sitting in its saddle, sat astride one of the logs. ‘Why don’t you sit in the saddle?’ someone asked. ‘What! and add my weight to what the poor animal has to carry? My weight is on the wood, and it is going to stay there.’

The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin
Idries Shah 1966

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.


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Created April 1996; updated November 2008