Gotham (pronounced Goat-ham) is a small village in South Nottinghamshire. It contains five pubs, a butchers, a newsagent, a fish and chip shop, a church (St Lawrence’s), a public library and a handful of houses. All the ingredients for a simple life out in the sticks…
These basic amenities, however, offer little sign of the rich legacy of a tiny geographical area which has left a sizeable footprint in transatlantic culture. The village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire is the root of an international myth, the inspiration for the name of a dark underworld, adopted by the New Yorkers and ultimately the reason that legendary DC Comic character Batman hails from Gotham City.
It all began just under a thousand years ago. Stories and jokes that had circulated in England orally since the twelfth century, were eventually printed up in books, the earliest of which recorded is The Merie Tales of the mad men of Gotam from 1565 (incidentally also the year after William Shakesperare was born). The text included tales of idiocy such as the one about a man who rode to market on horseback, carrying two heavy bushels of wheat on his own shoulders, in order not to burden his horse. Another told of a tenant who was late with his rent payment and so tied his purse to a quick-footed hare, which promptly ran away.
The books soon became popular and the place became fabled as a place of madness, it’s inhabitants proverbial for their folly. Every era singles out some geographical location as a spawning ground for the less intelligent (in the modern day it has evolved into jokes about the Irish or Essex girls). Five hundred years ago, Gotham was the butt of jokes about its simpleminded citizens, perhaps not least because the goat was considered to be a foolish animal.
The most famous of all the Gotham stories is set in the early 1200’s, when King John traveled throughout England with a crew of knights and ladies. The monarch was heading to Nottingham Castle by way of Gotham and dispatched a herald to announce his arrival. Laws at the time stated that wherever the royal carriage rode would become the King’s land and a therefore a public highway. This thought obviously did not please landowners in the area.
Upon entering Gotham the herald was given an angry reception and returned to the King reporting that the townspeople had refused him entry. The monarch was livid, outraged at this lack of respect, so he sent an armed party of knights to wreak vengeance. The townsfolk, however, had a cunning plan. In the twelfth century, medicine was still relatively basic and the greatest doctors of the time believed that insanity was a contagious disease, which could be passed between people like the common cold.
The knights arrived in Gotham to find the inhabitants engaged in various forms of insane behaviour such as pouring water into a bottomless tub, painting green apples red and trying to drown an eel. They soon decided to make haste and leave for fear of catching the madness and upon their return reported back news of their encounter. The King subsequently instructed his horsemen to make a route around the village.
The name of Gotham originally transferred to the US with American historian Irving Washington. Washington was keenly aware of British literature and first affixed it as a nickname for his home city of New York in Salmangundi (1807), a set of sardonic essays he penned with two colleagues. Repeatedly in these texts Manhattan was referred to as “antient city of Gotham” or “the wonder loving city of Gotham’.
After this literary success, the name of Gotham continued to have implications throughout American literature as a dark underworld, an alter ego to the many metropolis’s that were springing up. Batman’s metropolis is a dark looming underworld reminiscent of New York. His city is overrun by madmen such as the Penguin, The Riddler and The Joker, all dangerous eccentric characters, attempting to get one up on each other.
When New Yorkers Bob Kane and Bill Finger first created the caped crusader in the late 1930’s they considered naming his hometown ‘civic city’, ‘capital city’ or ‘coast city’. After flicking through the phonebook, however they came across a Gotham Jewelers and found inspiration. A later Batman comic editor would refer to Superman’s Metropolis as “ Manhattan on the brightest sunniest July day.” By contrast he felt Gotham was “ Manhattan at 3am, November 28 in a cold year.”
The references to Gotham in modern day New York City are found in a variety of wide reaching places. The Gotham Gazette is a daily NYC newspaper and website, covering news, politics, entertainment, housing, transportation, and arts. The Gotham Comedy Club is a NYC nightspot that has been described as "The Toast of the New York Comedy Scene" by Vanity Fair.
Most impressively, the Gotham Center is home to the history of New York City. It was set up by Historians Mike Wallace and Edwin G Burrows after they collaborated on the Pullitzer-prize winning book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. It is this text which much of the information in this article was sourced from.
The links between Gotham in Nottingham and the spiritual home of modern New York are a little tenuous these days but ultimately they are at the roots. Perhaps part of the beauty of being British is being surrounded by a rich and delicate historical tapestry that we constantly interact with, yet only occasionally become aware of. Next time you see the signs on the motorway, you might want to consider visiting one of the five public houses in Gotham, Nottinghamshire and raising a glass to Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise or any of the other 19 million residents of the modern day Gotham. I bet not even Bruce Wayne knows how close he came to fighting crime in Bestwood…