That’s true: Batman’s hometown wasn’t inspired by New York City, but this English village that pretended to be insane.
We are near Nottingham, England, where is located the quiet town inspired NYC’s nickname and the fictional namesake in the DC Comics universe. One story goes that King John, also the villain in the legend of Robin Hood, was due to travel through Gotham on his way to nearby Nottingham.
The sleepy medieval village of Gotham, or “Goat’s Town,” has by some stories been painted as town of fools, however other accounts claim just the opposite, that the villagers were an exceptionally shrewd bunch who only pretended to be fools to trick the powers that be!
It’s this folklore that led the name Gotham, even if pronounced “goat-um” by the locals.
According to the story, in the 13th century, King John of England announced his intentions to build a hunting lodge near the village. Such royal decision may have inspired joyful celebrations from many loyal subjects, but not so with the people of Gotham.
Any road used by the king automatically became a King’s Road, and as such, attracted of course a hefty tax burden for the locals who also used it.
This extra tax could be ill-afforded in a poor rural village like Gotham, and determined to do anything they could to prevent King John from ever setting foot in the place, the so-called “Wise Men of Gotham” hatched an ingenious plan.
At the time, madness was thought to be infectious, so, according to the legend, the entire village pretended to be insane by staging surreal acts of folly whenever a king’s representative was present.
So, the villagers tried to build a hedge around a bush which contained a migratory Cuckoo, a symbol of summer, to prevent the start of winter.
They also tried to drown an eel in a pond.
They sheltered wood from the sun.
They rolled cheese down a hill, expecting it to go to market in Nottingham of its own accord.
The plan worked, leading to the saying: “There are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.”
It seems that the King never set foot in Gotham, and when King John’s knights saw the villagers behaving as if insane, the knights swiftly withdrew and the King’s road was re-routed to avoid the village.
The village became a byword for madness, slipping quickly into folk legend, and of course tales and nursery rhymes have been published since the 15th century about the antics of the villagers. They were collected in various books including The Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam, published in 1565.
In 1807, nearly 600 years after King John’s death, public awareness of the tales of the Wise Men of Gotham was as strong as ever in the English-speaking world.
The American author Washington Irving was the first person to link Gotham in England with New York in the US. He repeatedly referred to Manhattan as Gotham when writing, in the Salmagundi papers, a satirical periodical mocking New Yorkers.
Over a century later still, the name of Gotham as a synonym for New York still survived when DC Comics writer Bill Finger, inspired by Irving, chose the name Gotham for the fictional city his crime-fighting superhero Batman was to live.
So, It is perhaps right therefore that the legend has now come full circle and returned home: Wollaton Hall in nearby Nottingham became the filming location of Batman’s house, Wayne Manor, in the 2011 film Dark Knight Rises, and numerous mentions of the village in Nottinghamshire have been made in the famous movie and comic book franchise.
In a story titled “Cityscape” in Batman Chronicles No. 6 it is revealed that Gotham was initially built for the purpose of housing the criminally insane, and Robin reads a journal that tells of how Gotham got its name: “I even have a name for it. We could call it ‘Gotham’ after a village in England – where, according to common belief, all are bereft of their wits.”
Today, the sign welcoming tourists and visitors to Gotham has become a popular selfie spot for comic book fans, and souvenir hunters have stolen it numerous times.
In the village tourists still visit Cuckoo Bush Mound, the bush where the cuckoo was thought to have been fenced in, even if in reality, it’s actually the site of a Neolithic burial mound.
They can also have a drink at the Cuckoo Bush Inn and view the recently installed wind vane that commemorates the story of the Wise Men of Gotham. Of course, to complete the legend and bring it in to the current days, the weather vane even has a small Batman figure ascending it!