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3 June 2015

Gotham

Yesterday, we tweeted this:
It’s a surprising one. To most people, Gotham is just another nickname for New York, and in that guise it’s by far and away best known as Batman’s stomping ground. 

Hang on—has someone done a superhero called Hawkman yet? They have? Curses. There really is nothing new under the Sun. But we digress. 

So—Batman. New York. Newcastle. Gotham City. How did all that happen?

Well, this particular story starts not with a bungled robbery in an inner-city alleyway, but way back in Tudor England. Sometime around the mid-fifteenth century, the name Gotham began to be used as a byword for any unsophisticated, backwater town or village, whose populace were all proverbially foolish, bumpkin-like characters. 

The earliest record we have of that comes from one of the Wakefield Mysteries, a series of thirty-two religious plays first performed in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, sometime in the mid-1400s. We know from the only surviving script of these plays (housed here) that one of them contained the line, “foles all sam, Sagh I never none so fare, Bot the foles of Gotham”—cut through all the late Middle English spelling and jumbled syntax, and you’ll have something along the lines of, “they’re all fools, I never saw a fool so fair [game] as the fools of Gotham.”

This allusion became so widespread in Tudor English that in 1540 an entire book of comic anecdotes about the ironically-named “Wise Men of Gotham” was published, including one story about a Gothamist who rode his horse while wearing a huge sack of grain on his back so that the horse didn’t have to carry all the weight, and another about a gang who decided to punish an eel that had eaten all the fish in a pond by trying to drown it. The joke even inspired a sixteenth-century folk rhyme, which described the hapless misadventures of three wannabe seamen from Gotham:

Three wise men of Gotham,
Went to sea in a bowl.
Had the bowl been stronger,
My song had been longer.


It’s unclear whether or not this proverbially foolish “Gotham” was based on an actual place. It’s been suggested that the real-life village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire may well have been where these Tudor writers had in mind, but connections have also been drawn to a long-lost Gotham Hall” in Essex, the proximity of which to the capital could have made its rustic inhabitants a prime target for jokes among the more urbane Londoners nearby (although if that’s the case, it’s doubtful that the earliest written record of Gotham would appear 200 miles north in Wakefield). 

But whatever or wherever the original Gotham might have been, over time use of its name started to change—and that’s where Newcastle comes in.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Gotham began to be used as a nickname for any place whose inhabitants were seen as less sophisticated or less cultured than those of larger, more cosmopolitan cities. In this context, it was probably applied to a number of different places across England, among them—entirely unfairly, of course—Newcastle upon Tyne. But as those Tudor folktales and rhymes steadily dropped out of fashion, the name Gotham began to lose all its negative connotations so that by the time the nineteenth century came into view, it was merely being used as a byword for any large town or city, regardless of the sophistication of the people who lived there. And in that context, it remained particularly associated with Newcastle

The earliest record of that that we have—which provides the earliest reference to any large city being labelled “Gotham”—comes from a local Newcastle ballad called Kiver Awa’ (“a command used in drilling”, according to the English Dialect Dictionary) written in November 1804, and first published in a collection of Rhymes of Northern Bards in 1812:


The “Gotham of the Tyne” mentioned here was Newcastle, and the first few lines of this, the last verse of Kiver Awa’, prove that by the time the poem was written Gotham was nothing more than a local name for the city—and clearly one used with considerable pride. 

So where does New York come into the mix? Well, English emigrants are presumed to have taken Gotham, their old nickname for a large city, across to America in the early 1800s and there began using it in reference to New York. It first appeared in print in the United States in an instalment of Washington Irving’s satirical magazine Salmagundi in November 1807, which made reference to “the chronicles of the renowned and antient [sic] city of Gotham”. 

For Irving’s article to have made sense to its readers, we can presume that the nickname Gotham was already fairly well established in New York by the time he came to use it in 1807. But given that Kiver Awa’ still predates Irving’s essay by three years—and given the lengthy history that the name Gotham had back in England—we can safely say that the first city we know of being called “Gotham City” was Newcastle upon Tyne, not New York.


So the dark night rises—just over the Tyne Bridge. 







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