The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham

"I pity the fool" BA Baracus

“I pity the fool” BA Baracus

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl;
If the bowl had been stronger
My tale would have been longer.

Tales of Gotham circulated for centuries before they were finally published in a pamphlet entitled The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham by a writer using the pseudonym A.B. of Phisicke Doctor. These tales would spread across the globe and crop up in other folktales and mythologies. The best example being Washington Irving using Gotham as a satirical name for New York City which Adrian Reynolds and Francis Lowe explore in our current chapter.

Gotham has become a byword for ‘foolish’ or ‘eccentric’ behaviour, something explored by Frank Earp of Nottingham’s Hidden History organisation in our embedded content here. The Merry Tales contain 20 stories celebrating the ridiculous. Here’s a brief synopsis of some of the stories to get you in the mood for silliness.

The Men of Gotham and the Cuckoo: The arrival of the cuckoo in the village signified summer was on its way. The locals reasoned that if they could keep the cuckoo in the village then they would have an eternal summer so they built a high wooden fence around a bush containing the bird. When the bird flew off they lamented ‘Oh dear, we didn’t build it high enough. Next year…’

The Men of Gotham Drown an Eel: Lent is a period of strict fasting with only a few food sources allowed. One of which was fish. When Lent was over the locals threw spare fish they had not eaten back into the water so they would breed and provide sustenance for the following year. All logical so far. Next Lent when they went fishing all they caught was an eel which they reasoned must have eaten all of their fish. They discussed various punishments for the eel but agreed drowning was the best. So they threw it back into the water.

The Men of Gotham and the Sheep: A man from Gotham was heading to Nottingham to buy sheep when he passed a man at a bridge heading in the other direction. They had a chat and he explained his plans. The man complained that the sheep would block up the bridge and an argument ensued in which they imagined the scenario. Both waving their arms around herding around the imaginary sheep. A third man turned up carrying a sack of meal from the mill and became frustrated at this seemingly pointless argument and emptied his sack of food into the river. ‘How much meal is in that their sack?’ he asked ‘None,’ came the reply. ‘Well then, there’s just as much meal in this sack as there are brains in your heads’ he chided…

gotham cheeseThe Men of Gotham and the Cheese: A man from Gotham was on his way to market in Nottingham when he tripped over and a cheese fell out of his bag and rolled down the hill. The man was impressed, presuming the cheese knew its way. ‘Well, if you do I suppose the others do too’ and so he let all of the other cheeses out of his bag. ‘Meet in the market’ he called. The man was surprised he hadn’t thought of doing this before. It was a lot easier. When he arrived in Nottingham he couldn’t find any of his cheeses. ‘They must have misunderstood me’ he reasoned. I bet they’re half way to York by now.’ So he borrowed a horse and set off to York to find them.

The Man of Gotham and his Horse: A man set off to market with two bags of faggots and his horse. He thought it was unfair to expect the horse to carry the heavy bags and also there wouldn’t be room for him if it did. So he hatched an ingenious plan. He would tie the bags around his own neck and that way there would be room for him to ride on the horse. Everyone was a winner…

The Men of Gotham and the Hare: It was rent day and the men of Gotham had forgotten to pay their rent so they tied a purse of money to a hare and gave it careful instructions to their landlords homes. ‘First you go to Lancaster, then to Loughborough, then you finish up in Newark.’ When the hare was set loose it headed off in a completely different direction. ‘Don’t worry,’ reasoned one man. ‘he probably knows a much quicker route.’

The original can be viewed in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

The original can be viewed in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

The Men of Gotham Cross a River: Seven men from Gotham were walking in the countryside when they found their way blocked by a wide river. It was very deep but they had no choice but to wade across. On reaching the other side, one man began counting to make sure everyone was ok. He looked around him and counted 6 people. The other men did similar and came up with 6 men. They agreed someone had drowned without realising they had not counted themselves. A stranger passing by, amused by their stupidity, offered a solution: ‘All sit around that cowpat and dip your noses into it. The amount of holes will tell you how many of you survived.’ The wise men did this and discovered there were seven holes. With cow dung on their noses they thanked the man and were mightily relieved they had all made it across.

Source: The Editorial Board of the University Society Boys and Girls Bookshelf (New York, NY: The University Society, 1920) Courtesy the private collection of Roy Winkelman

Source: The Editorial Board of the University Society Boys and Girls Bookshelf (New York, NY: The University Society, 1920)
Courtesy the private collection of Roy Winkelman

The Women of Gotham: Women of Gotham were sat around a table in a tavern discussing whose husband has married the wisest. One woman claimed to be the most reliable as she did the same thing every day. Nothing. The second woman said her quality was frugality and to save money on candles her family stopped work in light and went to bed. The third saved money on food by not eating but drank a gallon of ale every day. The fourth wife saved money by drinking and eating anything that anyone would give her in the tavern. The fifth wife vowed never to bore her husband and so divided her time equally between him and other men. The sixth preserved her furniture by spending all her time at other people’s houses. Similarly, wife number seven saved on wood by sitting in front of fire’s in other people’s homes. Number eight knew the price of pork, mutton and chicken was very expensive so she only bought pig, sheep and fowls. The ninth wife saved money on soap by only washing once a quarter. The wife of the man who owned the tavern thought she was the most eligible as she drank all of his beer, ensuring none of it went off and got wasted. You can decide for yourself which husband got the best deal…

Research for this blog came from this book: Nottinghamshire Folk Tales by Pete Castle, The History Press

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