The Real Gotham

Atlas Obscura

The sleepy medieval village of Gotham, or “Goat’s Town,” near Nottingham, England, has by some accounts been painted as town of fools. But other stories claim just the opposite: that the villagers were an exceptionally shrewd bunch who only pretended to be fools to trick the powers that be. It’s this folklore that led the name Gotham, albeit pronounced “goat-um” by the locals, to go down in history.

As the story goes, in the 13th century, King John of England announced his intentions to build a hunting lodge near the village. Such royal patronage may have inspired joyful celebrations from many loyal subjects, but not so with the people of Gotham. Any road used by the king automatically became a King’s Road, and as such, attracted a hefty tax burden for the locals who also used it. This extra tax could be ill-afforded in a poor rural backwater such as Gotham. Determined to do anything they could to prevent King John from ever setting foot in the place, the so-called “Wise Men of Gotham” hatched an ingenious plan.

At the time, madness was thought to be infectious, so, legend has it the entire village pretended to be insane by staging surreal acts of folly whenever a king’s representative was present. The villagers tried to build a hedge around a bush which contained a migratory Cuckoo, a symbol of summer, to prevent the onset of winter. They tried to drown an eel. They sheltered wood from the sun and rolled cheese down a hill, expecting it to go to market in Nottingham of it’s own accord.

The ruse worked. The King supposedly never set foot in Gotham and the village became a byword for madness, slipping quickly into folk legend. Tales and nursery rhymes have been published since the 15th century about the antics of the villagers.

Image: By User Asterion on en.wikipedia (User Asterion) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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