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The Comedy of Errors

The Dilettante Society on The Wise Men of Gotham

8 October 15 words: Lady M and F Dashwood
illustrations: Christine Dilks

The ladies from The Dilettante Society talk us through an age-old tale of mischief that earned a little village just outside of Nottingham quite the repuation...

When situations arise that make us want to rant, rage and run away, a little inventive problem solving is often the key to a wiser solution. With a dash of imagination and humour, much happier and effective results can be achieved and sometimes, as we shall discover, even make history. 

The legend begins at the turn of the thirteenth century, when the people of Gotham village were making preparations for a most unwelcome visitor. Rumour was rife that King John, the reputedly ruthless monarch who had recently ascended to the throne, had set his sights on Gotham as the perfect spot for a new royal hunting lodge, or perhaps even a castle. Losing the land upon which their livelihoods depended was, understandably, a prospect the locals found less than appealing. Besides, even a passing visit from the king would come at a considerable expense to the villagers. An ancient law decreed that any route made by the king would become a public highway, and the upkeep of such a road would be their responsibility.

Determined to avoid the unnecessary cost and to preserve their homeland, the people of Gotham set about to avert this bothersome occurrence, but were left in quite a predicament. Protesting that Lackland (as the king was less affectionately known) was unwelcome would not only be unpatriotic, but completely futile. Openly defying a notoriously repressive monarch was rather a tricky thing to do, and not to mention, probably deathly.

However, if weapons could not help them, perhaps their wits could. Something more creative was necessary to succeed – a plot so subversive and unexpected it would thwart any chance of the king coming within miles of their village forever more. In time, the people of Gotham, though common and lowly, came up with something so brilliant that the tales of their ingenuity would still inspire over 800 years later. In a display of great wisdom and rationality, they went completely mad.

When the day came that the king’s men were due to arrive, the village ceased in its everyday goings-on to embrace the eccentric, the ridiculous and the downright bizarre. Labour was suspended and the people set to task in plain sight on some rather more absurd activities. Most famously, one group busied themselves by fencing off a bush in which a cuckoo was roosting. When asked what they were doing, they explained that by capturing the cuckoo, which stood as a symbol for the beginning of summer, they were hoping to trap an eternal summer for their little village. When the bird flew upward to the skies, they lamented that they should have built the fence higher.

Another crowd was assembled around a pond to watch a man attempting to drown a bothersome eel, while one man was found intently destroying his wheelbarrow, which he claimed had been bitten by a stray dog. Concerned the wheelbarrow may go mad and bite him in turn, he chopped it completely to bits. Some spent the day rolling wheels of cheese down the hill towards Nottingham, in hopes they would sell at market, while others gathered piles of wood to put in the shade in order to protect them from the strong sunlight.

Of course, the villagers’ foolish antics were really a display of great cunning and artistry, but the formal and orderly royal messengers had never set eyes on such absurd tomfoolery. As insanity, at this time, was considered to be a contagious disease, it would be most unsuitable for a wise and eminent royal to reside by a village that was akin to a madhouse.

With haste, the men proceeded to report back to the king that Gotham was a highly dangerous place inhabited by fools and other plans must be made. Their devious plan successfully executed, normal life resumed for the people of Gotham, but little did they know what a reputation they had acquired.

Tales of the infamous fools of Gotham and their ridiculous antics soon spread throughout England; their humorous escapades and brilliantly perverse logic passing into local legend and spread through oral tradition. By the mid-sixteenth century, their notoriety was sealed in writing with the publication of a chapbook named Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham. With its humorous quality, this amusing and incredulous collection of stories was wildly popular but gave no explanation for the Gothamite’s lunacy. The truth of the story was already well-known however, and the village was largely perceived as wise rather than mad with the popular saying, “There are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.” The huge success of the book led to many subsequent editions, and the title was swiftly changed from ‘mad’ to ‘wise’.

Indeed, the tale of The Wise Men of Gotham proved so captivating, the chapbook continued to be republished until the end of the nineteenth century, even making its way across to the United States. In 1807, Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, founded Salmagundi: a satirical literary magazine which lampooned Manhattan society. It was here he mockingly gave the nickname of Gotham to New York, and its inhabitants seemed to rather enjoy the joke, for use of the moniker persisted.

This tradition would later become a direct inspiration for another Gotham when in 1939 a writer named Bill Finger noticed a Gotham Jewellers in the New York phonebook. Taken by the name and dimly aware of its meaning, he decided to rename the metropolis of his current work as Gotham City. Yes, it was Nottingham’s village of bizarre pranksters which gave Batman his home; Metropolis by day, and the crime- and corruption-riddled city of Gotham by night.

Proud of their mischievous heritage, in recent years Gotham local parish council have petitioned to twin the village with New York City. Although still unsuccessful, they once received a nice letter from the NYC mayor acknowledging the cultural and historical link between the city that never sleeps and the quaint rural settlement on the outskirts of Nottingham. In the past, Gotham’s legend has been reenacted in local performances and, in 2013, a totem-like sculpture representing the story was unveiled in Gotham village, complete with Batman scaling the side of the structure.

There is much that makes the tale of The Wise Men Of Gotham so enduring; the charismatic imagination of the villagers, the element of getting one over on the authorities, the perverse logic whereby wisdom appears foolish. Far more than just a humorous story, there is a timeless, mythical quality to this fable, through the way in which the inspired acts of a community 800 years ago still resonate today.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Monday 12 October, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier.

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