The Real Gotham

Kamie Berry

When someone hears of the town of Gotham, they usually associate it with the popular Batman movies and comic books. But there is actually a real village called Gotham located in England. And there is a legend associated with this village that is every bit as interesting as a superhero story.

In the 1200s, King John (a very unpopular monarch) wanted to construct a hunting lodge for himself in or near the little village of Gotham. The villagers were opposed to this project, because it would impose upon their lands and their use of the wooded areas nearby. They decided that they needed to do something to stop the king from building there, but they knew that any protest on their part would probably be useless. So, they came up with a genius plan that would persuade King John not to build his lodge in their village. They decided to pretend they were all insane.

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To convince the king’s men of their insanity, the villagers acted out their roles to perfection. One group of them attempted to execute an eel by drowning for the crime of eating the fish in the local pond. Some others tried to capture a cuckoo bird by building a fence around the bush it was sitting in. Of course it flew away. Some were rolling wheels of cheese down a hill so they could find their way to a market town for sale. A farmer who was also in on the act rode on his horse into Gotham while carrying two bushels of wheat in his arms. He explained this by saying they were too heavy for his horse.

But the most committed performance was undoubtedly by the village blacksmith. He had an infestation of wasps in his thatch roof, which he decided to exterminate by setting fire to the roof. His smithy duly burned down.

The damage to the smithy, and to the cheeses, were worth it, however. The king’s men were fooled, and they left believing that the village of Gotham was full of madmen. Since many people during the Middle Ages believed that madness could be contagious, the king was advised to find another location for his hunting lodge. He saw the wisdom in this advice and did not build there.

The village gained a reputation as being a village of fools due to this incident. For centuries, Gotham’s residents have been known as the “Wise Men of Gotham,” either as a joke or as a compliment to their cunning ruse.

The story of this act also spread and found its way into a book called The Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham, which was published in the 1500s. The American author Washington Irving read this book and began referring to Manhattan as “Gotham” in satirical articles he wrote in the 1800s that were meant to mock New Yorkers. It was because of this that New York City gained the Gotham nickname, and this is also why the Batman stories are set in Gotham. No doubt the Joker would have been at home in the original village.

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