1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gotham, Wise Men of
GOTHAM, WISE MEN OF, the early name given to the people of the village of Gotham, Nottingham, in allusion to their reputed simplicity. But if tradition is to be believed the Gothamites were not so very simple. The story is that King John intended to live in the neighbourhood, but that the villagers, foreseeing ruin as the cost of supporting the court, feigned imbecility when the royal messengers arrived. Wherever the latter went they saw the rustics engaged in some absurd task. John, on this report, determined to have his hunting lodge elsewhere, and the “wise men” boasted, “we ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.” The “foles of Gotham” are mentioned as early as the 15th century in the Towneley Mysteries; and a collection of their “jests” was published in the 16th century under the title Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham, gathered together by A.B., of Phisicke Doctour. The “A.B.” was supposed to represent Andrew Borde or Boorde (1490?–1549), famous among other things for his wit, but he probably had nothing to do with the compilation. As typical of the Gothamite folly is usually quoted the story of the villagers joining hands round a thornbush to shut in a cuckoo so that it would sing all the year. The localizing of fools is common to most countries, and there are many other reputed “imbecile” centres in England besides Gotham. Thus there are the people of Coggeshall, Essex, the “carles of Austwick,” Yorkshire, “the gowks of Gordon,” Berwickshire, and for many centuries the charge of folly has been made against “silly” Suffolk and Norfolk (Descriptio Norfolciensium about 12th century, printed in Wright’s Early Mysteries and other Latin Poems). In Germany there are the Schildburgers, in Holland the people of Kampen. Among the ancient Greeks Boeotia was the home of fools; among the Thracians, Abdera; among the ancient Jews, Nazareth.
See W. A. Clouston, Book of Noodles (London, 1888); R. H. Cunningham, Amusing Prose Chap-books (1889).