THE MERRY TALES
WISE MEN OF GOTHAM.
edited by R. H.
There were two men of Gotham, and one of them was going
to Nottingham market to buy sheep, and both met together
on Nottingham bridge. "Well met," said one to the other;
"whither are you going?" said he that came from Nottingham.
"Marry," said he that was going thither, "I am going
to the market to buy sheep." "Buy sheep!" said the other,
"which way will you bring them home?" "Marry," said
the other, "I will bring them over this bridge." "By Robin
Hood," said he that came from Nottingham, "but thou shalt
not." "By my maid Margery," said the other, "but I will."
"You shall not," said the one. "I will," said the other.
Then they beat their staves one against the other and then
against the ground, as if a hundred sheep had been betwixt
them. "Hold there," said the one. "Beware of my sheep
leaping over the bridge," said the other. "I care not," said
the one. "They shall all come this way," said the other.
"But they shall not," said the one. "Then," said the other,
"if thou makest much ado, I will put my finger in thy
mouth." "A groat thou wilt," said the other. And as they
were in contention, another wise man that belonged to
Gotham, came from the market with a sack of meal on his
horse, and seeing his neighbours at strife about sheep and
none betwixt them, said he, "Ah! fools, will you never learn
wit? Then help me," continued he, "to lay this sack upon
my shoulder." They did so and he went to the side of the
bridge and shook out the meal into the river, saying, "How
much meal is there in my sack, neighbour?" "Marry," said
one, "there is none." "Indeed," replied this wise man,
"even so much wit is there in your two heads, to strive for
what you have not." Now which was the wisest of these
three I leave thee to judge.
There was a man of Gotham that rode to the market with
two bushels of wheat, and, lest his horse should be damaged
by carrying too great a burden, he was determined to carry
the corn himself upon his own neck, and still kept riding
upon his horse till he arrived at the end of his journey. I
will leave you to judge which was the wisest, his horse or
On a time the men of Gotham fain would have pinned in the
cuckoo that she might sing all the year, and in the midst of
the town they had a hedge made round in compass, and got
a cuckoo and put her into it, and said, "Sing here and thou
shalt lack neither meat nor drink all the year." The cuckoo,
when she found herself encompassed by the hedge, flew
away. "A vengeance on her," said these wise men, "we
did not make our hedge high enough."
There was a man of Gotham who went to Nottingham
market to sell cheese, and going down the hill to Nottingham
bridge, one of his cheeses fell out of his wallet and ran down
the hill. "Prithee," said the man, "can you run to the
market alone? I'll now send one after another." Then
laying his wallet down and taking out the cheeses, he
tumbled them down the hill one after another. Some ran
into one bush and some into another. He charged them,
however, to meet him at the market place. The man went
to the market to meet the cheeses and staying till the market
was almost over, then went and inquired of his neighbours
if they saw his cheeses come to the market. "Why, who
should bring them?" says one. "Marry, themselves," said
the fellow, "they knew the way very well. A vengeance on
them, they ran so fast I was afraid they would run beyond
the market; I am sure they are by this time as far as York."
So he immediately rode to York, but was much disappointed.
And to add to it he never found nor heard of one of his
A man of Gotham bought, at Nottingham market, a trevet
of bar iron, and going home with it his feet grew weary with
the carriage. He set it down and seeing it had three feet
said, "Prithee, thou hast three feet and I but two; thou
shalt bear me home if thou wilt," so he set himself down upon
it and said to it, "Bear me as long as I have done thee, for
if thou dost not thou shalt stand still for me." The man of
Gotham saw his trevet would not move. "Stand still," said
he, "in the mayor's name and follow me if thou wilt and I
can show you the right way." When he went home his wife
asked where the trevet was. He said it had three legs and
he had but two and he had taught him the ready way to
his house, therefore he might come himself if he would.
"Where did you leave the trevet?" said the woman. "At
Gotham bridge," said he. So she immediately ran and
fetched the trevet herself, otherwise she must have lost it on
account of her husband's want of wit.
A certain smith of Gotham had a large wasp's nest in the
straw at the end of the forge, and there coming one of his
neighbours to have his horse shod, and the wasps being exceeding
busy the man was stung by one of them. The man,
being grievously affronted, said, "Are you worthy to keep
a forge or not, to have men stung with these wasps?" "O
neighbour," said the smith, "be content, and I will put them
from their nest presently." Immediately he took a coulter
and heated it red hot, and thrust it into the straw at the end
of his forge, and set it on fire and burnt it up. Then, said
the smith, "I told thee I'd fire them out of their nest."
On Good Friday the men of Gotham consulted together what
to do with their white herrings, sprats, and salt fish, and
agreed that all such fish should be cast into a pond or pool
in the midst of the town, that the number of them might increase
the next year. Therefore everyone that had any fish
left did cast them immediately into the pond. "Then," said
one, "I have gotten left so many red herrings." "Well,"
said another, "and I have left so many whitings." Another
cried out, "I have as yet gotten so many sprats left."
"And," said the last, "I have gotten so many salt fishes,
let them go together in the great pond, without any distinction,
and we may be sure to fare like lords the next year."
At the beginning of the next Lent, they immediately went
about drawing the pond, imagining they should have the
fish, but were much surprised to find nothing but a great
eel. "Ah!" said they, "a mischief on this eel, for he hath
eaten up our fish." "What must we do with him?" said
one. "Chop him in pieces," said another. "Nay, not so,"
said another; "but let us drown him." "Be it accordingly
so," replied they all. So they went immediately to another
pond and cast the eel into the water. "Lay there," said
these wise men, "and shift for thyself, since you may not
expect help from us." So they left the eel to be drowned.
On a time the men of Gotham had forgotten to pay their
rents to their landlord; so one said to the other, "To-morrow
must be pay-day, by whom can we send our money?" So
one said, "I have this day taken a hare and she may carry
it, for she is very quick-footed." "Be it so," replied the rest;
"she shall have a letter and a purse to put our money in,
and we can direct her the way." When the letter was
written and the money put into a purse, they tied them
about the hare's neck, saying, "You must first go to Loughborough
and then to Leicester, and at Newark is our landlord;
then commend us to him and there is his due." The
hare, as soon as she got out of their hands, ran quite a contrary
way. Some said, "Thou must first go to Loughborough."
Others said, "Let the hare alone, for she can
tell a nearer way than the best of us, let her go."
A man of Gotham, that went mowing in the meadow, found
a large grasshopper. He instantly threw down his scythe
and ran home to his neighbour and said that the devil was
at work in the field, and was hopping among the grass.
Then was every man ready with their clubs, staves, halberts,
and other weapons to kill the grasshopper. When they came
to the place where the grasshopper was, said one to the other,
"Let every man cross himself from the devil, for we will not
meddle with him." So they returned again and said, "We
are blest this day that we went no farther." "O, ye
cowards!" said he that left the scythe in the meadow,
"help me to fetch my scythe." "No," answered they,
"it is good to sleep in a whole skin. It is much better
for thee to lose thy scythe than to mar us all."
On a certain time there were twelve men of Gotham that
went to fish; some waded in the water and some stood on
dry land. In going home, one said to the other, "We
have ventured wonderfully in wading, I pray God that
none of us did come from home to be drowned." "Nay,
marry," said one to the other, "let us see that, for
there did twelve of us come out." Then they told themselves
and every one told eleven. Said the one to the other,
"There is one of us drowned." Then they went back to the
brook where they'd been fishing, and sought up and down
for him that was drowned, making a great lamentation.
A courtier coming by asked what it was they sought for
and why they were sorrowful. "Oh," said they, "this day
we went to fish in the brook; twelve of us came out together
and one is drowned." The courtier said, "Tell how
many there be of you." One of them told eleven, but he did
not tell himself. "Well," said the courtier, "what will you
give me and I will find the twelfth man?" "All the
money we have got," said they. "Give me the money,"
said he. He began with the first and gave him a stroke
over the shoulders with his whip, that made him groan,
saying, "Here is one," and so he served them all, and they
groaned at the matter. When he came to the last, he paid
him well, saying, "Here is the twelfth man." "God's
blessings on thee," said they, "for finding our brother."
A man of Gotham, riding along the highway, saw a cheese,
so drew his sword and pricked it with the point in order to
pick it up. Another man who came by alighted, picked
it up and rode away with it. The man of Gotham rides to
Nottingham to buy a long sword to pick up the cheese, and
returning to the place where it did lie, he pulled out his
sword, pricked the ground and said, "If I had had but this
sword I should have had the cheese myself, but now another
has come before me and got it."
A man in Gotham that did not love his wife, and she having
fair hair he said divers times he would cut it off, but durst
not do it when she was awake, so he resolved to do it when
she was asleep; therefore, one night he took a pair of shears
and put them under his pillow, which his wife perceiving,
said to her maid, "Go to bed to my husband to-night, for
he intends to cut off my hair; let him cut off thy hair and
I will give thee as good a kirtle as ever thou didst see."
The maid did so and feigned herself asleep, which the man
perceiving, cut off her hair, wrapped it about the shears,
and laying them under the pillow, fell asleep. The maid
arose and the wife took the hair and shears and went to the
hall and burnt the hair. The man had a fine horse that he
loved, and the good wife went into the stable, cut off the hair
of the horse's tail, wrapped the shears up in it and laid them
under the pillow again. Her husband, seeing her combing
her head in the morning, marvelled thereat. The girl,
seeing her master in a deep study, said, "What ails the
horse in the stable, he has lost his tail?" The man ran into
the stable and found the horse's tail was cut off; then going
to the bed, he found the shears wrapped up in his horse's
tail. He then went to his wife, saying, "I crave thy mercy,
for I intended to cut off thy hair, but I have cut off my own
horse's tail." "Yea," said she, "self do self have." Many
men think to do a bad turn, but it turneth oftimes to themselves.
A man of Gotham laid his wife a wager that she could not
make him a cuckold. "No," said she, "but I can." "Do
not spare me," said he, "but do what you can." On a time
she had hid all the spigots and faucets, and going into the
buttery, set a barrel of broach, and cried to her spouse,
"Pray, bring me a spigot and faucet or else the ale will all
run out." He sought up and down but could not find one.
"Come here then," said she, "and put thy finger in the tap-hole."
Then she called a tailor with whom she made a
bargain. Soon after she came to her husband and brought
a spigot and a faucet, saying, "Pull thy finger out of the tap-hole,
good cuckold. Beshrew your heart for your trouble,"
said she, "make no such bargain with me again."
A man of Gotham took a young buzzard and invited four or
five gentlemen's servants to the eating of it; but the wife
killed an old goose, and she and two of her gossips ate up
the buzzard, and the old goose was laid to the fire for the
gentlemen's servants. So when they came the goose was
set before them. "What is this?" said one of them. The
goodman said, "A curious buzzard." "A buzzard! why it
is an old goose, and thou art an knave to mock us," and so
departed in great anger. The fellow was sorry that he
had affronted them, and took a bag and put the buzzard's
feathers in it; but his wife desired him, before he went, to
fetch a block of wood, and in the interim she pulled out the
buzzard's feathers and put in the goose's. The man, taking
the bag, went to the gentlemen's servants and said, "Pray,
be not angry with me, you shall see I had a buzzard, for
here be the feathers." Then, he opened the bag and took
out the goose's feathers; upon which one of them took a
cudgel and gave him a dozen of stripes, saying, "Why, you
knave, could you not be content to mock us at home, but
you are come here to mock us also."
A man's wife of Gotham was brought to bed of a male child,
and the father invited the gossips who were children of eight
or ten years of age. The eldest child's name was Gilbert, the
second's name was Humphrey, and the godmother was called
Christabel. Their relations admonished them divers times,
that they must all say after the parson. And when they
were come to the church, the priest said, "Be you all agreed
of the name?" "Gilbert, Humphrey, and Christabel," said
the same. The priest then said, "Wherefore came you
hither?" They immediately said the same. The priest
being amazed could not tell what to say, but whistled and
said, "Whey," and so did they. The priest being angry,
said, "Go home, you fools, go home." Then Gilbert, Humphrey,
and Christabel did the same. The priest then provided
godfathers and godmothers himself.
A young man of Gotham went a wooing a fair maid: his
mother warned him beforehand, saying, "Whenever you look
at her, cast a sheep's eye at her, and say, 'How dost thou,
my sweet pigmy?'" The fellow went to a butcher and
bought seven or eight sheep eyes. And when this lusty
wooer was at dinner, he would look upon the fair wench
and cast in her face a sheep's eye, saying, "How dost thou
do, my sweet pigmy?" "How do I do," said the wench;
"swine's face, what do you mean by casting a sheep's eye
at me?" "O! sweet pigmy, have at thee with another."
"I defy thee, swine's face," said the wench. "What my
sweet old pigmy, be content, for if you live to next year
you will be a foul sow." "Walk, knave, walk," said she,
"for if you live till next year you will be a fool."
There was a man of Gotham who would be married, and
when the day of marriage was come they went to the church.
The priest said, "Do you say after me." The man said "Do
you say after me." The priest said, "Say not after me such
like, but say what I shall tell you; thou dost play the fool
to mock the holy scriptures concerning matrimony." The
fellow said, "Thou dost play the fool to mock the holy
scriptures concerning matrimony." The priest wist not
what to say, but answered, "What shall I do with this
fool?" and the man said, "What shall I do with this fool?"
So the priest took his leave and would not marry them.
The man was instructed by others how to do, and was afterwards
married. And thus the breed of the Gothamites has
been perpetuated even unto this day.
There was a Scotsman who dwelt at Gotham, and he took
a house a little distance from London and turned it into an
inn, and for his sign he would have a boar's head. Accordingly
he went to a carver and said, "Can you make me a
bare head?" "Yes," said the carver. "Then," said he,
"make me a bare head, and thou'se hae twenty shillings for
thy hire." "I will do it," said the carver. On St. Andrew's
day before Christmas (called Yule in Scotland) the Scot
came to London for his boar's head. "I say, speak," said
the Scotsman, "hast thou made me a bare head?" "Yes,"
said the carver. He went and brought a man's head of wood
that was bare, and said, "Sir, there is your bare head."
"Ay," said the Scot, "the meikle de'il! is this a bare head?"
"Yes," said the carver. "I say," said the Scotsman, "I will
have a bare head like the head that follows a sow with gryces.
What, fool, know you not a sow that will greet and
groan and cry a-week, a-week." "What," said the carver,
"do you mean a pig?" "Yes," said the Scotsman, "let me
have her head made of timber, and set on her a scalp and let
her sing, 'Whip whire.'" The carver said he could not.
"You fool," said he, "gar her as she'd sing whip whire."
In old times, during these tales, the wives of Gotham were
got into an ale-house, and said they were all profitable to
their husbands. "Which way, good gossips?" said the ale-wife.
The first said, "I will tell you all, good gossips, I
cannot brew nor bake, therefore I am every day alike, and
go to the ale-house because I cannot go to church; and in
the ale-house I pray to God to speed my husband, and I
am sure my prayers will do him more good than my labour."
Then said the second, "I am profitable to my husband in
saving of candle in winter, for I cause my husband and all
my people to go to bed by daylight and rise by daylight."
The third said, "I am profitable in sparing bread, for I drink
a gallon of ale, and I care not much for meat." The fourth
said, "I am loath to spend meat and drink at home, so I go
to the tavern at Nottingham and drink wine and such other
things as God sends me there." The fifth said, "A man will
ever have more company in another's house than his own,
and most commonly in the ale-house." The sixth said,
"My husband has flax and wool to spare if I go to other
folk's houses to do their work." The seventh said, "I spare
my husband's wood and clothes, and sit all day talking at
other folks' fires." The eighth said, "Beef, mutton, and
pork are dear, I therefore take pigs, chickens, conies, and
capons, being of a lesser price." The ninth said, "I spare
my husband's soap, for instead of washing once a week, I
wash but once a quarter." Then said the ale-wife, "I keep
all my husband's ale from souring; for as I was wont to
drink it almost up, now I never leave a drop."
On Ash Wednesday, the minister of Gotham would have a
collection from his parishioners, and said unto them. "My
friends, the time is come that you must use prayer, fasting,
and alms, but come ye to shrift, I will tell you more of
my mind, but as for prayer I don't think that two men
in the parish can say their paternoster. As for fasting, ye
fast still, for ye have not a good meal's meat in the year.
As for alm-deeds, what should they give that have nothing?
In Lent you must refrain from drunkenness and abstain
from drink." "No, not so," said one fellow, "for it is an
old proverb, 'That fish should swim.'" "Yes," said the
priest, "they must swim in the water." "I crave thy mercy,"
quoth the fellow, "I thought it should have swam in fine
ale, for I have been told so." Soon after the men of Gotham
came to shrift, and being seven the priest knew not what
penance to give. He said, "If I enjoin you to pray, you
cannot say your paternoster. And it is but folly to make
you fast, because you never eat a meal's meat. Labour hard
and get a dinner on Sunday, and I will partake of it." Another
man he enjoined to fare well on Monday, and another
on Tuesday, and another on Wednesday, and so on one after
another, that one or other should fare well once in the week,
that he might have part of their meat, on every day during
the week. "And as for your alm-deeds," the priest said,
"ye be but beggars all, except one or two, therefore bestow
your alms on yourselves."