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 its 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.
Fast forward to 1807, nearly 600 years after King John’s death, and public awareness of the tales of the Wise Men of Gotham was as strong as ever in the English-speaking world. Washington Irving described the seemingly out of control, crime-ridden New York City as a “modern-day Gotham” in his satirical publication Salmagundi. Over a century later still, the name of Gotham as a synonym for New York was assured to continue when DC Comics writer Bill Finger, inspired by Irving, chose the name Gotham for the fictional-yet-familiar city his crime-fighting superhero Batman was to inhabit.
It is perhaps appropriate therefore that the legend has now come full circle and returned home. Wollaton Hall in nearby Nottingham became the filming location of Batman’s house, Wayne Manor, in the 2011 film Dark Knight Rises. Numerous mentions of the village in Nottinghamshire have been made in the famous movie and comic book franchise.
Today, the sign welcoming visitors to Gotham has become a popular selfie spot for comic book fans. Souvenir hunters have stolen it numerous times. In the village tourists still visit Cuckoo Bush Mound, the bush where the cuckoo was thought to have been fenced in (though in reality, it’s actually the site of a Neolithic burial mound). They can also have a drink at the Cuckoo Bush Inn and view the recently installed wind vane that commemorates the tale of the Wise Men of Gotham. To complete the legend and bring it in to the 21st century, the weather vane even has a small Batman figure ascending it.