1 April: The Wise Fools of Gotham


Three Wise Men of Gotham 

Went to sea in a bowl. 

If the bowl had been stronger

My tale had been longer.


Nursery Rhyme c 1765

About 1540, a collection of stories was published called the ‘Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam.'The author was given as ‘A.B. Pizisicke Doctour.’ No one knows who that really was and the hint that it was Andrew Boorde, Henry VIII’s physician was probably false. The stories were not original but had previously appeared in various Mystery Plays, notably at Wakefield.



The practice of regarding people from a particular location as mad, foolish or stupid is common in many cultures across the world. In Mediaeval England, long before we pointed our fingers at the Irish, it was the much maligned inhabitants of Gotham in Nottinghamshire.

The Gothamites got their reputation from a story about King John when he was marching towards Nottingham, intending to pass through Gotham. Believing that any land crossed by a king became a public road – which they would then have to maintain, the peasants of Gotham decided to try to prevent the King from passing.


King John sent the Sherriff (of Nottingham!) to find out the reason for their lack of co-operation. When they heard this the people of Gotham decided to act as stupidly as they could, to avoid punishment. When the Sheriff arrived some villagers were trying to drown an eel in a pond, some were dragging their carts to the top of a barn to shield it from the sun's rays, some tumbled cheeses downhill hoping they would find their own way to Nottingham market, some people were building a hedge to catch a cuckoo. The sheriff and his men and asked what they were doing.

'We are rolling stones uphill to make the sun rise' they said.

'You fools!' said the Sheriff. 'Don't you know that the sun will rise without any help?'

‘Oh will it?’ they replied. ‘We never thought of that. How wise you are!’

The Sheriff gave up trying to get any sense out of them and fearing their madness was contagious, went on his way. So having got the better of their betters, the villagers became known as the wise fools of Gotham. A local expression ‘There are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.’ tells us what the people of Gotham think of the story which is still commemorated in the name of the Gotham pub- ‘The Cuckoo Bush’.

So it’s an obvious day to make a fool. Some cookery books suggest that ‘fool’ as in rhubarb or gooseberry comes from the French ‘fouler’ - to crush. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t and says ‘origin unknown’. It seems quite straightforward to me – if we think of the words we use for cold desserts; fool, trifle, flim-flam, whim-wham, flummery, they all signify something of little regard, light as air, a bit of nonsense, in other words something fluffy and of no account with which to sweeten off at the end of a meal.

Fools have been around at least since the time 'The Merie Tales' were published, I especially love gooseberry fool, but we’re not there yet, here’s a rhubarb one.

Rhubarb Fool

About 6-8 sticks of rhubarb
Rind and juice of an orange
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 dsp orange flower water.
1 tub full fat creme fraiche

Wash the rhubarb, trim it and cut into one inch lengths. Put in a wide dish and sprinkle with the sugar, grated orange rind and the juice from the orange. Roast in the oven at 200c for 30 minutes. Remove and cool. Mash lightly with the back of a fork, add the orange flower water. Fold together with the creme fraiche and chill. Serve from a deep glass with a ginger biscuit or orange flavoured shortbread.

And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.

Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

From ‘The Triple Fool’ by John Donne (1572-1631)

7 comments:

Alice said...

Among the wonderfully foolish things I could do today, making a rhubarb fool will be the wisest. Thank you, Liz!

Gerry Snape said...

thankyou for the rhubarb recipe, Liz. Our's is growing at the rate of triffids! We blanched quite a bit this year and it was so tender that it literally fell apart when I poured boiling water on it...left with rhubarb puree! It was still sweet and delicious though.
By the way did you know that Irish jokes originated with us telling Kerryman jokes? you have to do it to someone!

A Trifle Rushed said...

Rhubarb fool, yummy! Thanks for another super post. Jude x

Jane said...

Thanks Liz I love the Gotham story and what a good idea to have a fool!!

Liz said...

Thank you all - the orangey rhubarb fool was delicious - I didn't know the Irish had a target for their humour too!

Choclette said...

Great post Liz, I chortled away merrily. Have never heard of Gotham until now - if you discount Batman that is. Or is it linked?

Liz said...

Washington Irving used Gotham for a city inhabited by fools in the 19c, he got the name from the Merie Fools of Gotham..so you were right!!