The Fools of Gotham.
(A Paper read at the Rushcliffe Excursion.)
THOROTON interprets the name of this village as signifying "A dwelling or home of goats." Such derivation at once seems sound, in view of the circumstance that the earliest preserved forms of the name are "Gatham" and "Gataham;" and a few minutes spent on an Anglo-Saxon Grammar will shew that there are good philological grounds for this interpretation of the place-name."
Our county historian tells us that after the Conquest Gotham came to be of the Earl of Leicester's fee; and we find this association lasted for centuries, being alluded to indirectly in the celebrated Merry Tales.
In the twelfth century, Robert, Earl of Leicester, held a castle here, which upon a truce between himself and Ranulph, Earl of Chester, after a feud apparently, he agreed not to fortify, except by common consent. This castle, judging from what we know of contemporary fortifications, in all probability, was purely an earthwork enclosure, and appears to have been also utilised for the purposes of the Hundred Court. The spring which supplied the moat is now utilised for the village of Gotham.
Now with regard to the ancient tradition of the Fools of Gotham. It has often been truthfully said that similar stories of noodles have been told of a thousand places up and down the world, and it is perhaps superfluous for me to express my conviction that not one of the old fables ever had any foundation in fact, locally. In A Nest of Ninnies, 1608, we read of "The Fool of Mansfield," while in Jack of Dover's quest, etc., 1604, we hear of the "Fool of Nottingham." The orthodox twenty tales of Gotham may be thus described:—(1) The three wise men of Gotham. (2) The man, the horse, and the burden. (3) The hedging of the cuckoo. (4) The rolling cheeses. (5) The man and the trevet. (6) The smith and the wasps' nest. (7) The drowning of the eel. (8) The hare and the rents. (9) The mower and the grasshopper. (10) The twelve fishermen. (11) The horseman and the cheese. (12) The wife's hair and the horse's tail. (13) The cuckold. (14) The buzzard and the goose. (15) The wooer and the sheeps' eyes. (16) The gossips and the christening. (17) The man who would be married. (18) The Scotchman and the boar's head. (19) The wives of Gotham at the ale-house. (20) The priest of Gotham and his parishioners.
Besides the preceding, various other alleged "Tales of Gotham "are mentioned by divers writers, and in 1637 was licensed a book called "The second part of the wise men of Gotham."
A careful examination of the twenty Tales reveals the interesting fact that, if they were not actually written by a local hand, they were undoubtedly, in great measure, locally inspired.
The first story—"of the three wise men of Gotham" —appears in "A Hundred Merry Tales," 1526, which I think was prior to the appearance of the original edition of the Gotham Tales.
"Notts, versus Sussex" is a heading that might fitly be placed over a good deal that has been written by various writers, particularly Messrs. Horsfield and Lower, of the latter county, in controversy respecting the locale of the Merry Tales, for the place-name Gotham exists in Sussex. The claim put forth by the latter county, however, is an extremely flimsy one, and is bolstered up by arguments, every one of which is easily assailable. On the other hand, the Nottinghamshire tradition is so strong among all classes as, when viewed with other circumstances, to admit of no misunderstanding. Though our county cannot thus be deprived of its possession of a very ancient tradition, I should be the last to admit the fables had any foundation in fact—at least in the commonly-understood sense.
The authorship of the twenty Tales is another question that has excited considerable discussion, but which has yet to be settled. Except for Walpole's ascription of the work to "Lucas de Heere, a Flemish painter, who resided in England in the time of Elizabeth," it has always, down to recent times, been looked upon as compiled by Andrew Borde, who was born about 1490, and died 1549. Modern scholars, however, are mostly disposed to discredit the idea, explaining the appearance of the initials A. B. on the title-page as a device of the printer's to sell the work—though under false pretences.
The question of the origin of the Gotham tradition is one of very great interest, though probably it can never be answered. The twenty Tales themselves, so far as I can make out, throw no light hereon, as they appear to have been all adapted from older and extraneous sources. Undoubtedly, however, there must have been an original germ around which the nebulous thousand and one tales and rumours clustered. As to the form of this original germ not the faintest record appears to have survived. Hearne and Warton, writers of the 18th century, ascribe the origin of the tales to the terms of hypothetical ancient land tenures, expressing the belief that the villagers " formerly held lands there by such sports and customs as are touched upon in this book." Later writers, supporting the same view, instance ludicrous and extraordinary manorial customs formerly current elsewhere. The weak point of all this, however, is that if various outrageous practices were in old times not uncommon in association with land tenures, why was Gotham singled out from all other places to be pointed at as a village of fools on this account? In other words, why are there not many villages of fools traceable to a like origin ? Moreover, the reputation of Gotham extends back certainly to mediaeval times, when the various manor customs were in full swing, and when they could hardly have been deemed so extraordinary as to stigmatise the inhabitants of one particular village as a set of fools. Finally, no one has ever pretended to prove—say from manuscript authority—that any out-of-the-way customs were ever current at Gotham, so that on the whole we are justified in putting aside this theory.
Throsby, 1797, puts on record what purports to be a tradition, to the effect that a form of madness was temporarily assumed by the men of Gotham, with the object of escaping the consequences of having intercepted King John and his retinue— a company such as, in numbers, with the multitudinous servants and followers, could probably have almost eaten up the contemporary population of the village—in their way across Gotham meadows or moor. The details of this story present a mass of improbabilities, such as call only for rejection.
Another untenable theory, which it is unnecessary here to particularise, is broached in Walks round Nottingham (p. 234).
My own view is that, in seeking for an explanation of the ancient tradition, we need to cast our eyes about for some striking and distinctive feature such as would be likely in early times to single out the village from its neighbours. One such feature is suggested by the author of the last-named work (Walks round Nottingham) where he speaks of the isolation of the place, which is two miles from its nearest neighbour on any side. This detail affords food for reflection, though, as an explanation, I deem it inadequate, for many other villages are similarly isolated.
To come to the point, therefore, after scanning the area of the extensive parish of Gotham, I find only one important old-time feature sufficient to arrest the attention in this relation. I allude to the folkmoot of the wapentake—the meeting-place of the Hundred of Rushcliffe, a gathering spot for some score parishes, comprising thirty townships. Of the importance hereof in olden times there can be no two opinions, so that this, to my mind, is the distinctive feature to which we must look for the origin of the ancient tradition of the Fools of Gotham. Here however, at the very beginning as it were, my theory ends, for I can point with safety to no event nor detail associated therewith, such as may have supplied an excuse for eternally stigmatising Gotham. Possibly certain proceedings of the Hundred Court excited ridicule, in which case the local phrase, "Fools of Gotham," may have been anciently interchangeable with "Fools of Rushcliff." Otherwise, perhaps the moated court enclosure, evidently identical also with the ancient Castle of Gotham—a work of unknown antiquity—may have aroused the scathing criticism of outsiders, for it appears to me rather unfortunately situated, in that it is commanded and overlooked by the immediate steeply rising hill, whence comes also the water supply, whereas such works, as at Nottingham, usually crowned an eminence. Evidently the object of this low site was the acquisition of all the materials of a wet moat, but perhaps it was afterwards found that the possession of this advantage was more than counterbalanced by the disadvantages, and that the place, after experience, came to be looked upon as a work of folly. The enclosure is now traditionally known in the locality as the "site of Rushcliff Hall"—though there is no extant sign of any substantial building having been erected thereon.
As in Halliwell's time, the earliest-known reference to the Fools of Gotham is that in the Townley Mysteries (1422-1483), upwards of four centuries old. The men of Gotham are also alluded to in the play of Misogonus, 1560, in Philotimus, 1583, and in Kemp's Knack to Know a Knave, 1594. To these allusions by contemporary writers, it is a pity we cannot add another from Shakespeare. However, we have fairly good evidence that our great national poet was familiar with the old tradition, from the fact that in Much Ado about Nothing he alludes to the Hundred Merry Tales—hence known as Shakespeare's Jest Book—where occurs the tale of the Three Wise Men of Gotham.
Many other writers of the 17th century allude to Gotham and the Gothamites, among whom I may mention the names of Decker, Wibarne, Tom Coryat, Wither, Archbishop Laud, Richard Braithwaite, Blithe, Dr. More, Fuller, and Anthony a Wood. A good deal of useful matter is also to be gleaned from writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Turning to the bibliographical side of our subject, we find considerable uncertainty exists as to when the twenty Tales of Gotham were first printed. The story of Gotham which appeared in the Hundred Merry Tales, 1526, is so different from the version in the ordinary collection, that I think it preceded the latter. On the other hand it is evident, from internal allusions, that the Tales of Gotham are older than the Reformation. For these reasons, I think the Merry Tales of Gotham were first printed between 1526 and 1536; or, roughly speaking, somewhere about the year 1530. The earliest edition however, of which we now possess any record, is one mentioned by Halliwell as having been printed by Thomas Colwell, probably between the years 1556 and 1566. Even this, however, is not now known to exist, and the same may be said of a reported edition printed by Wikes about 1568, and likewise of another edition of 1613, formerly in the Bodleian Library. The earliest allusion to the existence of the Gotham Tales, in chap-book form, occurs in A Brief and Necessary Introduction, etc., 1572, wherein, among a number of other folk-books, occur "The Fools of Gotham." The earliest edition now known to exist is that of 1630, in the Bodleian Library, which was reprinted by Mr. W. C. Hazlitt, in 1864.
Probably some scores of editions of the Gotham Tales have appeared during the past three or four centuries—for it had a run of a length utterly outside the wildest dreams of the modern book-writer. The familiar "Cuckoo" cut, which so frequently adorned the title-page of the chap-book, is doubtless known to most of us. I shall not attempt to say anything about the various later editions that have come under my notice, but I may mention that in comparatively modern times they were issued from divers provincial presses. In addition to information of a copy printed at Coventry, towards the end of last century, I have had the loan of a Hull edition, printed about 100 years ago. A Nottingham collector has the latest chap-book edition I have seen—one printed at Glasgow, about 1820. The first modern reprint, that of Halliwell, 1840—though issued only as a shilling pamphlet, is now as rare as many of the chap-books—a copy having realised thirty shillings at a London auction sale.
Before concluding this short paper, I may briefly touch upon one further detail, such as throws a strong side-light on the former widespread popularity of the tradition of Gotham. I refer to the use of the name for satirical purposes—a practice of which many striking instances might be adduced —though a reference to two only will serve our purpose. In 1613, when the future Archbishop Laud was in his fortieth year, President of St. John's, Oxford, a dispute or "sedition' as Wood calls it, was raised in the university. Some of the youngsters, headed by Henry Wightwich, of Gloucester Hall, deemed the dignity of the Convocation House diminished by certain practices of a trivial nature. Their rebellion was supported by men of higher standing, and some of the leaders even went the length of threatening secession from Oxford, and the erection of a new college at Stamford." Aroused by a suggestion, which was either absurd or of mighty moment, Laud determined to crush it at once by overwhelming it with ridicule. The stories of the folly of the Gothamites, which were then familiar to everybody, gave him a foundation to build upon. He conceived the design of publishing a burlesque account of the contemplated foundation at Stamford, under the name of 'Gotam College,' introducing into its imaginary regulations such Gothamite recollections as could be made applicable, with such strokes of humour as could be brought to bear upon the contemplated design, in the way of quizzing and contempt. There exist, among the State Papers in the Public Record Office, placed at the end of the year 1613, various papers, mostly in Laud's handwriting, which clearly indicate the nature of his contemplated publication. Why the intended pamphlet, or whatever it was to have been, was laid aside, does not appear. The Gothamite scheme may have died away, and it was not deemed advisable to stir its decaying embers." (Vide Notes and Queries, Third Series, Vol. V.)
The other instance of a fictitious Gotham, to which I alluded, is of a totally different character, and, moreover, is current to-day. New York was first called Gotham by Washington Irving, in Salmagundi, 1809, in satirical allusion to the singular wisdom of its inhabitants. This name has clung tenaciously to the greatest city of the other hemisphere, though its original signification seems now to have been forgotten. The Americans however have adopted a new pronunciation, and they now speak of Goth-am and the Goth-amites. In Daw's Sermons we find the passage: "Ye dandies of Gotham! I have seen fools and fops in forty different cities, but none to compare with you." Again, in Fraser's Magazine ("Sketches of American Society") we read: "I intend to present you with some phases of outward life and manners—such things as would strike or interest a stranger in our beloved Gotham, and in the places to which regular Gothamites—American Cockneys, so to speak—are want to repair." (See Words, Facts, and Phrases, 1882.)
Such are a few of the thousand and one historical reminiscenses and associations called to mind by a visit to Gotham in Nottinghamshire. For the information of such as are interested, I may mention that for the past few months I have beguiled many leisure hours by the prosecution of a detailed study of the Merry Tales of Gotham, and the various offshoots of the subject. The upshot thereof is represented by a monograph of over 250 manuscript pages, which will run through the columns of a local newspaper before appearing in book form.
* Anglo-Saxon gat = goat. PI. gata. Old Norse geit.