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The Wise Men of Gotham
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  1. Don't Talk
  2. The Hare That Was Sent to York
  3. The Men of Gotham and the Watch
  4. The Hiding of the Church Bell
  5. The Little Horse and Its Kind Master
  6. The Gotham Men and the Cuckoo
  7. The Sign of Spring (A shorter variant)
  8. The Salt Fish and the Eel
  9. The Crane in the Wheat Fields
  10. The Kettle that Would Not Walk
  11. The Cheeses that Ran Away
  12. The Lost Legs
  13. A Missing Man Found (a longer version of The Lost Legs)
  14. Twelve Men Went Fishing
  15. Bridge Thinking

Don't Talk

Four brave men from Gotham decided to sit silently and gaze at a lit candle without speaking for a week or so. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

The first man said, "Oh, no! The candle is out."

The second man said, "Aren't we supposed not to talk?"

The third man said, "Why must you two break the silence?"

The fourth man laughed and said, "Ha! I'm the only one who didn't speak."

The Hare That Was Sent to York

Once on a time the men of Gotham wanted to send a message to their landlord. He lived in York. This was before there were any railroads or mails, and if a message was to be sent, someone had to go with it. But no citizens of Gotham wished to go as far as York.

"How, then, shall we send our message?" said they.

"I caught a hare today," said one man, "and hares are very swift of foot, you know. Why not let him carry it?"

"Very good," said all; "we'll get it ready and we'll tell the hare the right way to go and he shall carry it."

So the letter was written and sealed and tied to the hare's neck. "First you go to Nottingham," they said to the hare, "and then you go straight on by the main highway to York, and the letter is marked for our landlord who lives near York Cathedral. You can ask when you get there which house is his. Commend us to him and give him the letter."

The hare, as soon as he was out of their hands, left the road and ran off across a field, and some of the men of Gotham cried out after it, "Stop! stop! You must go to Nottingham first."

"Let the hare alone," said one of those who was in the company. "He can tell a nearer way than the best of us all. Let him go."

"Yes," said another, "that is a clever creature. Let him alone. He won't keep the highway for fear of dogs."

The Men of Gotham and the Watch

One day a number of Gotham men were walking along the road when they found a watch lost by some traveller. None of them had ever seen such a queer thing before, and they looked at it with great surprise and curiosity. Suddenly, one of the party who had taken the watch in his hand noticed that a ticking sound came from the inside of it.

"Do you hear that?" said he. "The thing must be possessed by an evil spirit."

He was very much frightened and threw the watch away. Not one of the party dared touch it now. But the oldest among them, more courageous than the rest, picked up a large stone and hammered the watch till it was entirely smashed. Of course that stopped its ticking. The brave man then kneeled down and laid his ear to the watch and listened.

"Ah," said he proudly to his companions when he heard no sound, "I've taught him to keep quiet. That stone did the business."

So they all rejoiced that they had destroyed an evil spirit and went away leaving the watch on the ground.

The Hiding of the Church Bell

The men of Gotham were once greatly scared by a report that enemies were about to invade their country. They were anxious to save as much as they could from falling into the hands of the invaders; and first of all they decided to save their church bell, which they prized more than anything else. After a great deal of trouble they managed to get it down out of the church steeple; but what to do with it then was far from easy to determine.

"Where shall we hide it so the enemy can't find it?" asked one of another.

At last someone said, "Let's sink it in the deepest part of our pond."

"Agreed!" said his fellows, and they dragged the bell down to the shore of the pond and got it aboard a boat.

Then they rowed out to the middle of the pond and hoisted the bell overboard. After it had disappeared the worthy citizens of Gotham began to think they had been hasty. "The bell is now truly safe from the enemy," said they; "but how are we to find it when the enemy has left us?"

One of them, who was wiser than the rest, sprang up and cried, "That's easy enough. All we have to do is to cut a mark where we dropped it in!"

He snatched a knife from his pocket and cut a deep notch in the side of the boat where the bell had been thrown overboard. "It was right here that we heaved the bell out," said he.

Then the men of Gotham rowed back to the shore, fully assured that they would be able to find their bell by the mark on the side of the boat.

The Little Horse and its Kind Master

There was once a man of Gotham who started for market with two bushels of wheat, and the wheat was in a bag laid across his horse's back, and the man sat just behind the bag. But he had not gone far when another man of Gotham called to him from a wayside field and said, "Your horse is small, neighbour, for so much of a load. why don't you walk and lead it?"

Illustration of a story about some Wise Men of Gotham

"That's what I would do," replied the first man; "but my foot is lame and I can't walk very well."

"Then if you must ride," said the other, "I think you might take the bag of wheat on your shoulder so the horse wouldn't have to carry that, too.

"Why, so I could," said the first man; and he hoisted the bag of wheat to his shoulder and there he carried it all the way to market.

"Ah," said he, when he reached his destination, "how my little horse does pant and sweat! I did well to share the work with it, for I see clearly that the horse has had burden enough carrying me without having also to carry this heavy bag of wheat."

The Gotham Men and the Cuckoo

The men of Gotham thought that the cuckoos were the finest songsters of all the birds. "The only thing I don't like about the cuckoos," said one man, "is that they don't sing all the year through. They stay with us only a few months in the spring and summer, and then they fly away."

"Well," said another man, "why not catch one of the birds and keep it with us always?"

This plan was pleasing to the men of Gotham and they said, "Yes, we'll catch a cuckoo and we'll fix a place for it near the middle of the village, so that we can all hear it sing every day."

They went to work at once and in a corner of a field built a stout paling fence more than six fee high and filled in all the crevices with brush and willow twigs. "No bird can get through that fence," said they when it was finished.

Then they caught a cuckoo and put it inside of the fence, and they said to the cuckoo, "You must sing there all through the year, or you shall have neither meat to eat nor water to drink."

But the cuckoo as soon as it was set free inside of the fence flew away.

"A vengeance on the bird!" exclaimed the men of Gotham. "We didn't make our fence high enough."

The Sign of Spring

A light version of the same tale

The men of Gotham heard a cuckoo calling from a bush. They were alerted to try and preserve springtime for ever by keeping the cuckoo there with them. So they set about to build a hedge or fence around the bush to keep the bird in place. But all of a sudden the cuckoo flew away.

"If only we had made the hedge higher, she would not have escaped," said they.

The Salt Fish and the Eel

The men of Gotham were very fond of salt fish, and they bought a great many of them. There was, indeed, no meat food they had on their tables oftener. Of course the cost was considerable, and one time, about the beginning of winter, the men of Gotham got together to consider how to save this expense.

"We have a nice large pond right in the middle of our town," said one man; "why not raise our own fish?"

"Yes, it's a good pond," said another, "but where would we get the fish to stock it with?"

"That's easily done," responded the first man." You well know how fish multiply. Haven't we many fish not yet eaten in our homes? Put those in the pond and let them breed, and next year we'll have a plenty. We won't need to go to market for our salt fish, but will catch them as we want them from our pond."

"Good! good!" cried the men of Gotham clapping their hands and stamping their feet. "Let every man who has salt fish left cast them into the pond!"

"I have many white herrings," said one.

"I have many sprats," said another.

"I have many red herrings," said another.

So they all told what salt fish they had and said, "Yes, yes, throw them into the pond and we shall fare like lords next year!"

Without further delay the salt fish were put into the pond, and when spring came the men of Gotham thought the fish must have multiplied and that it was time to take some of them out. So they dragged the pond with a net and drew it to the shore expecting to find it full of fish, but it was empty. Again and again they dragged it through the pond, yet do what they would they could not catch any fish. However, at last a large fat eel was found in the net.

"Ah!" said they all, "a mischief on this eel, for he has eaten all our fish."

"And now what shall we do with him?" said they.

"Kill him!" said one.

"Chop him into pieces!" said another.

"Not so," said another; "let's drown him!"

"Be it so!" said all, and the men of Gotham rowed their boat out to the middle of the pond and threw the eel overboard into the deep water.

When they saw the eel wriggling down toward the bottom one man said, "Do you notice how frightened he is? See how he squirms and twists with terror."

"He may squirm and twist as much as he pleases," said another man." He must shift for himself now."

"Yes," said they all, "he shall have no help from us;" and they left the eel to drown.

The Crane in the Wheat Fields

Once, in the summer, when the wheat had grown high, a crane was often seen in the fields belonging to the Gotham townsmen. The bird was walking up and down in the grain patches to catch frogs. This troubled the men of Gotham greatly. "See how big he is," said one, "and look at the legs of him. He is treading down a vast deal of grain, to be sure."

"We must drive the animal away, or we shall have no harvest," said another.

"Very true," said still another, "and the quicker the better. Let's appoint a shepherd, for the job. He's used to much walking and the work would suit him well."

So one of their shepherds was appointed to go into the fields and chase the bird out. But as he went in after the crane his neighbours noticed that his feet were very broad and large, and though he scared off the bird, at the same time he trampled down a great deal of wheat.

"That will never do," said one of the townsmen, and the men of Gotham puzzled their brains for some better method.

At last one of them said, "The thing to do is this - some of us must carry the shepherd when he goes into the grain again, so that he shan't tread it down."

"Yes, yes," cried the others, "that's the proper thing to do, and why didn't we think of that before, I wonder?"

Then they took a stout fence gate off its hinges and had the shepherd sit down on it. Eight men lifted the gate on their shoulders and carried it through the fields of wheat, where the crane was in the habit of resorting, that the shepherd might scare the bird away.

"The shepherd won't trample down any more of our grain with his big feet now," said the men of Gotham.

The Kettle that Would Not Walk

One day a Gotham man was getting ready to go to market, and his wife said to him, "Husband, we need a new iron kettle for the fireplace. Don't fail to buy one."

So the man bought a kettle at Nottingham, and toward evening he took it on his arm and started for home. But the kettle was heavy, and at length his arm grew tired with carrying it and he set it down. While he was resting he noticed that the kettle had three legs. "What a pity I didn't see those legs before!" cried the man. "Here you have three legs and I have but two, and yet I've been carrying you. It were fairer that you had carried me. Well, you shall take me the rest of the way, at least."

Then he seated himself in the kettle and said, "Now, go on; I'm all ready;" but the kettle stood stock still on its three legs and would not move.

"Ah!" said the man, "you're stubborn, are you? You want me to keep on carrying you, I suppose; but I shan't. I'll tell you the way and you can stay where you are till you get ready to follow me."

So he told the kettle where he lived and how to get there, and then off the man went. When he reached home his wife asked him where the kettle was.

"Oh, it will be along in good time," he replied.

"And what do you mean by that?" said she.

"Why," said he, "the kettle I bought has three legs, and was better able to walk here from Nottingham market than I who have but two legs. Yet I never noticed it had legs till I was nearly here. Then I told it to walk the rest of the way itself, for I would carry it no farther."

"Where did you leave it?" asked the wife.

"You don't have to be anxious," responded the man. "I told it the way, and it will be along in good time, as I said before."

"And where did you leave it?" again asked the wife.

"At Gotham bridge," he replied.

She was not so sure about its coming as he was and she hurried off to get it, and when she brought it home the man said, "I'm glad you have it safe, wife, for I've been thinking while you were gone that it might have taken a notion to walk back to Nottingham if we had left it alone there in the road much longer."

The Cheeses That Ran Away

There was a man of Gotham who filled a sack with cheeses and started off for Nottingham market to sell them. He carried the sack on his back, and when he became tired he sat down by the wayside to rest. Thus he went on till he reached the summit of the last hill he had to climb before he came to Nottingham bridge. There he rested, and when he rose to continue his journey a cheese slipped out of the sack and rolled down the hill toward the bridge.

"Ah! Mr. Cheese," said the man, "so you can run to market alone, can you? I wish I had known that before. It would have saved me the trouble of carrying you. Well, then, if you can go to market alone, so can the other cheeses, and I'll send them along after you."

So he laid down his sack, took out the cheeses, and one by one rolled them down the hill. As the last one spun down the road he shouted, "I charge you all to meet me at the market-place."

Some of the cheeses went into one bush, and some went into another bush, but the man did not notice that, and he trudged on cheerfully to the market expecting the cheeses would meet him there. All day long he loitered about the market. As evening approached be began to inquire among his friends and neighbours and other men if they had seen his cheeses come to the market.

"Who should bring them?" asked one of the marketmen.

"Nobody," replied the man of Gotham. "They would bring themselves. They know the way well enough."

"Why, then, aren't here?" said the marketman.

"A plague on them all!" cried the owner of the cheeses. "It has just occurred to me what the trouble is. I did fear, when I saw them start off so fast, that they would run beyond the market, and I'm sure they must be now miles away on the road to York."

This said, he hired a horse and rode in all haste to York in pursuit of his cheeses. But he didn't find them at York.

The Lost Legs

Several men of Gotham once sat down on the ground in a circle, and when they wanted to get up their legs were so intermingled that none could make out which were his.

"Alas!" said they, "what a pity that we sat down thus. We'll never again be able to rise and walk - that's quite plain."

So they remained sitting there very sorrowful and quiet till they saw a traveller passing. They called to him and asked if he could tell them how they might find their legs. The traveller took his cane and pointed out to each man his feet." Now," said he, "you know where your feet are, all you need do is to stand on them."

But his explanations only confused the men of Gotham the more. "It's of no use," said they. "However, we thank you, sir, for your good intentions."

"Oh, well," said the traveller, "I haven't given up yet. I'll try one more plan."

Then he struck one of the men smartly on the legs with his cane, and that man discovered which legs were his in no time and scrambled away. The traveller served another man in like manner and a third, and so on till every man tumbled out of the heap and got on his feet.

"How remarkable!" said one of them, "that with the rap of a stick we should discover our legs so quickly when with all our thinking we could not have determined which were which if we had been sitting there a hundred years."

A Missing Man Found

Once on a time twelve men of Gotham went fishing in the stream that supplied the town pond, and sometimes they fished from the shore, and sometimes they waded out into the stream to get better positions from which to cast their lines. As they were coming back one of them said, "We've ventured much this day wading. I pray God that none of us drowned."

"Let's see about that," said a second man. "Twelve of us came out this morning. I'll count and see if twelve are going back."

So he counted, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven." But he forgot to count himself. "I can make no more than eleven," said he. "Surely, one of us is drowned."

Then the other men counted, but each forgot to count himself and could find only eleven. "Alas!" said one to another, "there's no doubt about it. One of us is drowned."

They went back to the stream where they had been fishing and looked up and down for him that was drowned and lamented greatly. By and by a man of Nottingham came riding past." What are you looking for there?" he asked, "and why are you so sad?"

"Oh," said they, "this day we came to fish in this stream, and there were twelve of us. But one is drowned, for now there are but eleven of us."

"Count me how many of you there are," said the stranger.

One of the men of Gotham counted, and as he did't count himself he made eleven.

"Well," said the stranger, "what will you give me if I find the twelfth man?"

"Sir," said they, "we'll give you all the money we carry on us."

"Give me the money," said the Nottingham man.

When the money was safe in his pocket he said, "Now pass in front of me;" and he began with the first man and hit him a crack on the shoulders with his whip.

"There is one," said he.

The next one he cracked with his whip likewise. "There are two," said he; and so he served them all down to the last, whom he gave an extra hard blow and said, "Here is your twelfth man."

"God bless your heart!" said all the company; "you've found our neighbour."

Twelve Men Went Fishing

The same tale, a longer version

Once on a time, on a bright spring day, twelve men of Gotham went fishing at the river. They loved fishing with each other and were happy.

Some of the men fished from the riverbank, but some of the men decided they would wade into the river to fish. All the men caught many fish, and as the day went on, they grew merrier and merrier.

When the sun dipped low in the west, the men found it was time to head back home to their wives and families after a long day fishing. They all agreed.

"But wait," said one of then, "some of us were fishing from dry ground, but some of us were wading."

"Yes," said another.

"I hope no one has drowned," said the fifth man.

"We'd better find out!" said a third, looking around.

They all stared at the swiftly flowing river. And then they wanted to count themselves to make sure.

"It's a good idea," said a fourth man.

They began to count.

The first man began. He pointed to each of the others, one at a time, saying, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven ..." he counted. "That's only eleven," he said and seemed puzzled. "We were twelve when we came."

"I'll count," said the second man. "You could have made an error." And he too pointed at each man. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven . . . only eleven!" he cried.

One by one they counted, and one by one they all counted but eleven men.

"One of us has drowned!" they shouted together, and sprang to the river. There they searched for their lost companion. They dived into the cold water and searched some more. They were soaked and cold, but they cared for one another, and so they searched till the sun had nearly set.

Then a good-looking courtier rode past. "Hi ho," he waved to the men, for they looked worried and troubled as they were dashing to and fro, diving and jumping in their drenched clothes. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Sir," said the first man, "we came to fish in this river today, and there were twelve of us when we began, but now we are only eleven."

"One of us has drowned," said the second man.

"We're searching to find our friend," added a third one sadly.

"Yes," shouted all the others. "We must find the missing one."

The courtier smiled. "How much will you pay me if I find your twelfth man?" he asked.

"We'll give you everything we have."

"Very well, then," said the courtier, "first give me your money."

The damp men from Gotham began to pour their coins out of their satchels and their pockets.

"We'll give you our fish, too," said one of them, and they handed the courtier their buckets full of fish.

The courtier gathered the coins and fish. "Now," he said, "line up here, on the riverbank," and the twelve men of Gotham lined up before the courtier.

The courtier began to count. He tapped each man upon the shoulder with his riding staff as he counted. "One," he said, "and two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven." He tapped one more time: "And here is the twelfth man," he said, tapping the shoulder of the number they had been missing.

"You've found our friend!" the men jubilated.

Bridge Thinking

There were two men of Gotham. One of them was going to market to Nottingham to buy sheep, and the other came from the market. They met on Nottingham Bridge. "Where are you going?" said the one who came from Nottingham.

"That's none of your business," replied the other, "but I don't mind telling you that I am going to Nottingham to buy sheep."

"Buy sheep!" said the other, "and which way will you bring them home?"

"Well," responded the other, "I will bring them over this bridge."

"Not at all," said he that came from Nottingham. "I won't let you drive your sheep across this bridge."

"You will!" yelled the other.

"I won't!" declared the other.

Each man carried a stout cane, and as they talked they swung their canes in the air and thumped with them on the ground.

"If you act like that," said John, "you'll make my sheep jump over the side of the bridge into the water and they'll drown."

"You can take them home some other way."

"No, I shall not!" said John, "I shall bring them across this bridge."

"You'll get a rap on your head with my cane if you do," said Thomas.

While they were quarrelling another man of Gotham came from the market. The man was leading a horse with a bag of meal on its back. He stopped on the bridge and listened to learn what the trouble was between his two neighbours. "How is this?" said he - "you're ready to come to blows over some sheep; but I see not a single sheep for you to fight about."

"No," explained the other two, "they're not bought yet."

"Ah, where is your common sense?" said the newcomer. "Here, lift this bag of meal from the horse to my shoulders and I'll show you what I think of you."

They did as he suggested, and then he went to the side of the bridge, untied the mouth of the bag and shook all his meal out into the river. "Now, neighbours," said he, "how much meal is there in my bag?"

"Why, surely," replied they, "there is none at all."

"Quite right!" said he, "and just as much wit is there in your two heads to stir up a strife about a thing you have not."

So the three men went their ways, and which was the wisest of these three persons, do you think?


A Village in Nottinghamshire

Pretending to be Insane to Thwart King John

Why did the men of Gotham act like 'mad men' or 'fools'? With at least twenty tales of foolery to their credit, there should have been a good reason for such behaviour.

According to some traditions the men of Gotham pretended to be quite mad and stupid to avoid the costs that would have been entailed in hosting King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216. King John might either build a hunting lodge or buy a castle and grounds around that place. Versions differ. The townsmen had no desire to be saddled with this expense, and therefore when the royal messengers appeared, wherever they went they saw the people occupied in some idiotic pursuit. The king was then told of it, abandoned his intention, and the "wise men" of the village remarked, "We know there are more fools that pass through Gotham than remain in it."

Another version: The king was making his way towards Nottingham. His route would have taken him directly through land owned by the village of Gotham. At this time it was believed that wherever the King made his way would become a public highway. Thus, when the King's herald arrived in the village, he found those who lived there, engaged in various acts of apparent insanity. And since people thought madness was contagious at that time, King John changed direction to avoid them all.

And there is yet another version.

Compare 1 Samuel 8 in the Old Testament.

Gotham and Gotham

Something to get hold of here is that some elements in apparent folly tales like these have their origin in both a remote past and also a not so remote one. Many tales became associated with the village of Gotham (pronounced 'goat ham') in Nottinghamshire around 1540 in the reign of Henry VIII. Twenty selected tales appeared in print as The Wise Men of Gotham. It's a collection of stories compiled into a single work. It can be demonstrated clearly that many of the stories, perhaps all, were not original and existed before 1540. And the vast bulk of the tales appear to originate from before the English Reformation.

THE OTHER GOTHAM: In Sussex there is another Gotham that lays claim to the tales. But the Sussex Gotham was not big enough, just a manor in the parish of Hailsham. Thus, a local writer would probably have called a book from that area something like Mad men of Hailsham. Also, there are at least 45 other villages in England and one in Wales that claim as their own one or more of the Gotham cycle of tales.

At any rate, Gotham near Nottingham became the 'best known' village of fools because of the published tales.

The tales were much later exported to America by Washington Irvine. He let his native New York be called 'Gotham City' (well, a city of fools). This in turn developed into the Gotham City of Batman.

Nowadays it can be hard to understand why and how "men of Gotham" stories have the impact they have, and what is the sound value of such ancient tales. Some tales possess something deeper than humour. That is well-known to writers and experts alike.


Are we living to control nature or one another, or living to get interesting? Well, "There is the right way, the wrong way, and the way they do it in the Army". There could also be another way, the Gotham way. The wise fools of Gotham do not seem to measure up. That might matter to lovable children who also get entertained by these scraggy experts on freaking understanding.

It helps to be a realist, but not to be arrested for it.

Wise Men of Gotham, Literature  

Clouston, William Alexander. The Book of Noodles: Stories of Simpletons; or, Fools and Their Follies. Popular Edition. London: Elliot Stock, 1903.

Halliwell, James Orchard. The Merry Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham. London: John Russell Smith, 1840.

Simrock, Karl, tr. Die Schildbürger. Reprint ed. Furth im Wald, Praha: Vitalis Verlag, 2000. (Original edition: Berlin, Vereins-Buchhaus, 1842). Online.

Stapleton, Alfred. All about the Merry Tales of Gotham. Nottingham, R. N. Pearson, 1900.

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