Christian Bale as Batman
The Legend of Gotham
'The Dark Knight' is now showing at UK cinemas. But did you know Batman's beloved city has its origins in Nottinghamshire?
Gotham (pronounced Goat-ham) is a small village in South Nottinghamshire. It contains five pubs, a butchers, a newsagent, a fish and chip shop, a church (St Lawrence’s), a public library and a handful of houses. All the ingredients for a simple life out in the sticks…
These basic amenities, however, offer little sign of the rich legacy of a tiny geographical area which has left a sizeable footprint in transatlantic culture.
The village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire is the root of an international myth, the inspiration for the name of a dark underworld, adopted by the New Yorkers and ultimately the reason that legendary DC Comic character Batman hails from Gotham City.
Mad men of ‘Gotam’
It all began just under 1000 years ago. Stories and jokes that had circulated in England orally since the 12th century, were eventually printed up in books, the earliest of which recorded is The Merie Tales of the mad men of Gotam from 1565 (the year after William Shakesperare was born).
The text included tales of idiocy such as the one about a man who rode to market on horseback, carrying two heavy bushels of wheat on his own shoulders, in order not to burden his horse. Another told of a tenant who was late with his rent payment and so tied his purse to a quick-footed hare, which promptly ran away.
The books soon became popular and the place became fabled as a place of madness, its inhabitants proverbial for their folly.
Every era singles out some geographical location as a spawning ground for the less intelligent (in the modern day it has evolved into jokes about the Irish or Essex girls).
Five hundred years ago, Gotham was the butt of jokes about its simpleminded citizens, perhaps not least because the goat was considered to be a foolish animal.
Quite clever really…
The most famous of all the Gotham stories is set in the early 1200’s, when King John traveled throughout England with a crew of knights and ladies. The monarch was heading to Nottingham Castle by way of Gotham and dispatched a herald to announce his arrival.
Laws at the time stated that wherever the royal carriage rode would become the King’s land and a therefore a public highway. This thought obviously did not please landowners in the area...
Upon entering Gotham the herald was given an angry reception and returned to the King reporting that the townspeople had refused him entry. The monarch was livid, outraged at this lack of respect, so he sent an armed party of knights to wreak vengeance.
The townsfolk, however, had a cunning plan. In the twelfth century, medicine was still relatively basic and the greatest doctors of the time believed that insanity was a contagious disease, which could be passed between people like the common cold.
The knights arrived in Gotham to find the inhabitants engaged in various forms of insane behaviour such as pouring water into a bottomless tub, painting green apples red and trying to drown an eel.
They soon decided to make haste and leave for fear of catching the madness and upon their return reported back news of their encounter. The King subsequently instructed his horsemen to make a route around the village.
The name of Gotham originally transferred to the US with American historian Irving Washington. Washington was keenly aware of British literature and first affixed it as a nickname for his home city of New York in the Salmangundi papers (1807), a set of sardonic essays he penned with two colleagues. Repeatedly in these texts Manhattan was referred to as “ancient city of Gotham” or “the wonder loving city of Gotham’.
After this literary success, the name of Gotham continued to have implications throughout American literature as a dark underworld, an alter ego to the many metropolis’s that were springing up.
Batman’s metropolis is a dark looming underworld reminiscent of New York. His city is overrun by madmen such as the Penguin, The Riddler and The Joker, all dangerous eccentric characters, attempting to get one up on each other.
When New Yorkers Bob Kane and Bill Finger first created the caped crusader in the late 1930’s they considered naming his hometown ‘civic city’, ‘capital city’ or ‘coast city’. After flicking through the phonebook, however they came across a Gotham Jewelers and found inspiration.
The links between Gotham in Nottingham and the spiritual home of modern New York are a little tenuous these days but ultimately they are at the roots. Perhaps part of the beauty of being British is being surrounded by a rich and delicate historical tapestry that we constantly interact with, yet only occasionally become aware of.
Next time you see the signs on the motorway, you might want to consider visiting one of the five public houses in Gotham, Nottinghamshire and raising a glass to Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, Mayor Ralph Giuliani or any of the other 19 million residents of the modern day Gotham. I bet not even Bruce Wayne knows how close he came to fighting crime in Bestwood…
This article was first published in LeftLion Magazine Issue 4 released in Nottingham in April 2005.
last updated: 24/07/2008 at 09:40
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