April Fools’ Day has never been a favorite of mine, but it is a good opportunity to write about a subject I’ve been meaning to address, which is the town of fools. This topic came up several years ago, when I wondered why some ethnic jokes spread to other parts of the world and others don’t. Polish jokes, for instance, are quite common in the United States. Perhaps the most famous example of a particular town known for its stupid inhabitants, however, is Gotham in Nottinghamshire. According to legend, the supposed foolishness of Gotham originated during the reign of King John. The people didn’t want a public highway in their village, so they purposely acted ridiculous so that the king wouldn’t want to visit there. Among other things, they became known for trying to drown eels, shade wood from the sun, trap a cuckoo bird with a fence, and roll cheeses down a hill so they could find their own way to market.
The town is known through the nursery rhyme “Three Wise Men of Gotham,” with the impression being that the “wise men” part is meant to be sarcastic.
It was the reputation of this town that led to Washington Irving nicknaming New York City Gotham in 1807. The nickname stuck, and I’m not even sure that everyone who uses it realizes that it was originally a mild insult. Gotham City, the home of Batman, was probably named both because of its resemblance to New York and the fact that it’s a place full of villainous lunatics.
It might also have had something to do with Gothic architecture, although if the Internet is to be believed, the town of Gotham is not etymologically related to the Goths. Rather, it means “goat homestead.”
Another town with a similar reputation is Schilda in Germany, which is a real place in Brandenburg that inspired Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, but I don’t know that the city of fools has much to do with the actual location.
The reputation of Schilda has a similar origin story to that of Gotham, with the town originally being known for its wisdom. Because so many of them were being recruited to serve various kings, leading to a depopulation of the town, they pretended to be stupid. The tales of Schilda in turn inspired European Jews to tell their own stories of the foolish town of Chelm. This is a city in Poland, so I suppose jokes about Chelm are technically also Polish jokes. Wikipedia has a few of them, including the tale of how the residents didn’t like the shammes leaving tracks in the snow, so they got some volunteers to carry him around. They seem to largely be examples of absurd logic, where the reasoning can be technically correct, yet miss the point. The legend associated with Chelm is that an angel was carrying around sacks of wisdom and foolishness, and he accidentally dropped the former so that it all landed on Chelm. This article tells the history of the Chelm stories, but admits that nobody really knows why Chelm was chosen as the butt of the jokes.