The Wise Men of Gotham

"Notts Nutters Rule OK!"

Nottingham has a unique and colourful relationship with madness, thanks to a series of stories attributed to a village not ten miles as the cuckoo flies from the Making Waves offices.

Cover of an early pamphletNobody knows the genesis of the twenty tales contained in The Wise Men of Gotham, first published four hundred years ago, but it is generally agreed they chronicle an outbreak of mass insanity rooted in the reign of Bad King John, usurper of Good King Richard's throne.

Either to prevent his majesty forging a new byway to Nottingham across valuable pasture, or to avoid the swingeing taxes he levied to finance his war against the rebel barons (it's not clear which), the good folk of Gotham hit on the ingenious idea of confounding John and his lackeys by acting totally off their trolleys.

Cover of an early pamphlet

In the village pond, they fished for a cheese that was a reflection of the moon. To prevent burglars kicking in their front doors, they strapped them to their backs while out working the fields. Having one leg more than their owners, three-legged stools bought at market were left to make their own way home to Gotham.

Present day Gotham pub sign

Present day Gotham pub sign

Most famously, they wove a high fence around a tree to cage a cuckoo, hoping to prolong the fecundity of spring. When they placed the bird in the tree, it flew off, up and out of the stockade. Crestfallen, the assembled peasantry loudly admonished their stupidity and vowed to build the hedge higher next time.

Even allowing for the simple superstitions of the age, none of the individual stories are disturbingly insane, but together, in a damp and impoverished corner of loyal Nottinghamshire, they must have totally freaked the court. John and his retinue undoubtedly made a sharp exit before the Gotham disease laid them low. (In Merry Old England, madness was considered contagious.)

Whether any of this actually happened matters not. There are similar stories of communities feigning madness to fend off tyrannical authorities in Europe and the Far East, all dated later than King John's reign. Gotham was then a cluster of hovels squashed between vast marshes and steep escarpments, with no reliable source of drinking water, few sources of income, and a debilitating trepidation of the next round of arbitrary taxes, normally collected by the Sheriff of Nottingham's men. They would have had good reason to plot such an audacious rebellion, if only to leak scare stories in a 13th century precursor of political spin.

But there is still a Cheese Hill, named after another mad episode involving rolling cheeses to market, and the barn of the old Cuckoo Bush Farm stands firm beside the old Ridgeway from Loughborough to Nottingham that by-passed Gotham. At the junction with the track down to the village is Cuckoo Bush, a copse containing a small tumulus that occupies a circular glade where the open birdcage was apparently built.

Gotham from the ridge dividing it from Nottingham

Gotham from the ridge dividing it from Nottingham.

In the foreground are the indentations of old gypsum quarries and in the background is the modern gypsum factory. Away from the village, it is possible the ‘madness’ was ascribed to something in the water, since the village streams then ran white from the gypsum that would later become a prime source of income.

The words ‘Gothamite' or ‘Gothamist' still appear in some dictionaries as pejorative terms for the afflicted, and while ‘cloud-cuckoo-land' comes from an Aristophane's play (circa 414BC), it seems more than likely that the phrase and title ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' derives from the Gotham story.

The Gothamites crossed the Atlantic in 1807, when the writer Washington Irvine began publishing his satirical attacks on New York society in the magazine Salmagundi. Searching for a scathing name for the metropolis, he came up with Gotham City. In the 1930s, when DC were devising a new superhero comic, it was the name Bob Kane chose for the Big Apple look-alike where Batman would fight the good fight against psychos like The Joker.

The name of Nottinghamshire's little village of fools is now recognised around the world as a pseudonym for one of the planet's craziest cities and biggest ship of fools. But in Gotham there is an old saying: ‘More fools ride through Gotham than live there'.

So close to the city, there are some delightful walks around Gotham, easily accessed by a No. 1 NCT bus from Beastmarket Hill. To explore the locations of the stories on foot, download the Gotham Heritage Trail at:


Posted on 27/08/2009 by John Clark


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  • I didn't know any of this. Fascinating tale well told. Will do heritage walk this week end - and bring me fishing rod !!

    Posted by kevin foley, 03/11/2009 3:16am (8 years ago)

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