British origin of Gotham, nickname for New York City

Many centuries before becoming a nickname for New York City and the name of a fictional city associated with the Batman stories, Gotham was used in Britain as the name of a (probably fictional) village proverbial for the folly of its inhabitants—cf. Hogs Norton and moonraker.

(There is a village so named in Nottinghamshire, England, but it is not certain that this was the place alluded to.)

The earliest known occurrence of Gotham is from the cycle of mystery plays known as the Wakefield, or Towneley, plays (the unique manuscript dates back to the mid-15th century); as Rosemary Woolf explains in The English Mystery Plays (University of California Press, 1972), the secular plot of the First Shepherds’ Play is that of the Three Wise Men of Gotham, which has survived only as a story in jest-books (read below); within this plot, and illustrating it, is a brief allusion to the story of Moll and her pitcher. The theme of the Three Wise Men of Gotham, according to the jest, is as follows: two shepherds quarrel over the issue of whether one of them may bring back over a certain bridge the flock of sheep that he is about to buy at the fair—part of the foolishness consisting in the fact that these sheep are as yet unbought; the third man, a miller, arrives and empties into the river his sack of meal which he then demonstrates to be as empty of meal as the heads of the two shepherds are empty of wits. In the First Shepherds’ Play, the first shepherd, who has lost his sheep through rot, has scarcely any money to buy more sheep at the fair to replace them, yet in the quarrel he asserts that he will bring back a hundred sheep—a provocatively large number—and, to enrage the other further, acts the part of driving them on, “go now, bell weder”. The third shepherd sets himself up as a wise man and tells them the story of Moll and her pitcher to illustrate their folly: Moll’s dreams of future wealth are all lost when she drops and breaks the very pitcher on which those dreams were founded. The third shepherd, however, is just as foolish as the others, for to make a more telling illustration, as in the jest, he empties his sack of meal. At this point, the character of Iak [= Jack] Garcio, who is in the employ of the shepherds, intervenes and draws the moral:

(from The Towneley Plays Project – University of Calgary)
Now god gyf you care: foles all sam
Sagh I neuer none so fare: bot the foles of gotham
[…]
Of all the foles I can tell / From heuen vnto hell
ye thre bere the bell / God gyf you vnceyll
     in contemporary English:
Now God give you sorrow, fools all together
I never saw none so fair, but the fools of Gotham
[…]
Of all the fools I can tell, from heaven unto hell
You three bear the bell. God give you misery.

The second-earliest occurrence of Gotham is from A .C. mery talys (A Hundred Merry Tales), a jest-book published in London in 1526; this is the tale of the Three Wise Men of Gotham:

(from Shakespeare’s Jest Book: An Edition of A Hundred Mery Talys (Gainesville, Florida, 1970)
Of the .iii. wyse men of gotam.
A certayn man there was dwellynge in a towne callyd Gotam which went to a fayre .iii. myle¹ of to by shepe² / & as he cam ouer a brydge he met wᵗ one of hys neybours & told him whether he went / & he askyd hym whych way he wold bryng thẽ / whych sayd he wold brĩg thẽ ouer the same brydge / nay quod the other mã but thou shalt not / by god quod he but I wyll / yᵉ other agayn said he shuld not / & he agayn said he wold bryng them ouer spyte of his teth³ & so fell at wordys / & at the last to buffertys that eche one knokkyd other well about the heddys wᵗ theyre fystys. To whom there cam a thyrd man which was a mylner wyth a sak of mele vppõ a horse a neybour of theyrs & partyd them & askyd thẽ what was the cause of theyr varyaunce / whych then shewyd hym the matter & cause as ye haue harde / Thys thyrd man the mylner thought to rebuke theyr folyshnes with a famylyer example & toke hys sak of mele from his hors bak & openyd it & pouryd all the mele in the sak ouer the bridge into the ronyng riuer wherby all the mele was lost & sayd thus. By my trouth neybors because ye stryue for dryuyng ouer the brydge those shepe which be not yet bought nor wot not wher they be / me thynkyth therfore there is euyn as mych wyt in your heddys as there is mele in my sak.
Thys tale shewyth you that some man takyth vppõ hym to shew other men wysdome when he is but a fole hym self.

¹ .iii. myle: three miles
² to by shepe: to buy sheep
³ ouer spyte of his teth = over spite of his teeth: notwithstanding his opposition
fell at wordys = fell at words: engaged in a verbal altercation
fell […] at the last to buffertys: came […] at last to blows
a mylner: a miller

According to the British antiquary John Trotter Brockett (1788-1842) in A Glossary of North Country Words, in use (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1825), the name of Gotham was applied to Newcastle upon Tyne, in Northumberland; this was apparently far from being a derogatory appellation, judging by the verse accompanying the definition:

Gotham, a cant name for Newcastle.
               “Heav’n prosper thee, Gotham! thou famous old town,
               “Of the Tyne the chief glory and pride;
               “May thy heroes acquire immortal renown,
               “In the dread field of Mars, when they’re try’d.”
                                                                                                         Song, Kiver Awa’.

It was the American author Washington Irving (1783-1859) who applied the name of Gotham to New York City in Salmagundi; or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and others, a satirical magazine ridiculing the city’s cultural and political mores. The name of Gotham in this sense is generally said to have first appeared in the seventeenth issue, on 11th November 1807, but it was in fact first used in the second issue, published on Wednesday 4th February 1807; a story titled Mr. Wilson’s Concert, describing a “concert given in the tea-room, at the City-Hotel”, satirises such social gatherings; Snivers, an Englishman, “had put on his cognoscenti phiz—he being, according to his own account, a profound adept in the science of musick”:

(1808 edition)
The person who played the french [sic] horn was very excellent in his way, but Snivers could not relish his performance, having sometime since heard a gentleman amateur in Gotham play a solo on his proboscis, or nozzle, in a style infinitely superior.

The phrase the wise men of Gotham appeared in the third number, published on Friday 13th February 1807:

One of the greatest sources of amusement incident to our humourous knight errantry, is to ramble about and hear the various conjectures of the town respecting our worships, whom every body pretends to know as well as Falstaff did prince Hal at Gads-hill. […]
One of the most tickling, dear, mischievous pleasures of this life is to laugh in one’s sleeve—to sit snug in a corner, unnoticed and unknown, and hear the wise men of Gotham, who are profound judges (of horse-flesh,) pronounce from the style of our work, who are the authors. This listening incog. and receiving a hearty praising over another man’s back, is a situation so celestially whimsical, that we have done little else than laugh in our sleeve ever since our first number was published.

The eighth number, of Saturday 18th April 1807, mentions both Gotham and the learned Linkum Fidelius, a recurring character in the magazine:

Wisely was it said by the sage Linkum Fidelius, “howbeit, moreover, neverthelesse, this thrice wicked towne is charged up to the muzzle with all manner of ill-natures and uncharitablenesses, and is, moreover, exceedinglie naughte.” This passage of the erudite Linkum was applied to the city of Gotham, of which he was once lord mayor as appears by his picture hung up in the hall of that ancient city—but his observation fits this best of all possible cities “to a hair.” It is a melancholy truth that this same New-York, though the most charming, pleasant, polished and praise-worthy city under the sun, and in a word the bonne bouche of the universe, is most shockingly ill-natured and sarcastic, and wickedly given to all manner of backslidings—for which we are very sorry indeed.

The little man in black, by Alexander Anderson - caricature of Aaron Burr

The Little Man in Black
engraved by Alexander Anderson (1775-1870)
caricature of Aaron Burr* carrying a book titled Linkum Fidelius
originally published in Washington Irving’s Salmagundi
source: Library of Congress

* Aaron Burr (1756-1836), Senator from New York and third Vice President of the United States

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.