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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Actor dressed as King John
Actor dressed as King John

© Mick Riley
Wise men of Gotham

Outline the myth

'The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham' was a chap book first published in 1540, during the reign of King Henry VIII. A chap book was a type of cheap, populist publication peddled by travelling salesmen. The book contained a series of anecdotes about the villagers of Gotham, each story describes the villagers undertaking a bizarre task. In ‘The Kind Master’ tale, a man rides his horse carrying a sack of corn on his own shoulder in order to relieve the burden on his horse.
Cuckoo bird
Cuckoo from "The Cuckoo Bush" tale
© Mick Riley
Another of the tales, ‘The Cuckoo Bush of Gotham’, has villagers building a hedge around a tree to entrap a cuckoo. When the bird flies off, the villagers berate themselves for not making the hedge higher.

“’A vengeance on her,’ said they; ‘we have not made our hedge high enough.’”

In ‘The Drowning of the Gotham Eel’, the villager punish an eel they believe is responsible for killing their fish by drowning it. The tales display a type of perverted logic that is comically ridiculous – we can identify with the logic employed by the villagers, but also realise its inane daftness. In subsequent editions of the chap book the ‘mad’ was replaced with ‘wise’, and has enjoyed continuous re-publication. Some of the tales are believed to have existed since the 12th Century in the oral tradition before eventually finding their way into print. But why were the Gotham villagers acting so strangely?

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Look back into the past using the Legacies' archives. Find nearly 200 tales from around the country in our collection.

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