Q: I’m an environmentalist doing research on Hart Island, the site of the potter’s field in NYC. How did a burial site for unclaimed bodies get this particular name?
A: An old sense of the word “potter” as a vagrant or an itinerant peddler led to the use of the term “potter’s field” as a burial ground for paupers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As far back as the early 1500s, the OED says, one meaning of “potter” was “a (typically itinerant) trader in earthenware items; a pedlar who sells pots, etc. Also: a tramp, a vagrant.”
This now rare sense of “potter” was first recorded sometime before 1525 in an early Robin Hood tale in which Robin impersonates an itinerant seller of pots in order to fool the Sheriff of Nottingham. Here’s the OED citation:
“ ‘Pottys, gret chepe!’ creyed Robyn … all that say hem sell Seyde he had be no potterlong.” (“ ‘Pots, great bargain!’ cried Robin … and all that saw him sell said he would not be a potter for long.”)
The Middle English tale, which some sources date circa 1500, was collected in 1888 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, now commonly known as the Child Ballads after the editor, Francis J. Child.
This old sense of “potter” survived into the 19th century. William Wordsworth, for example, uses it in his poem The Female Vagrant (1798), in a reference to homeless tramps that are like “potters wandering on from door to door.”
The OED says the indigent sense of “potter” is responsible for the use of “potter’s field” as “a piece of ground used as a burial place for the poor and for strangers.”
The earliest written use of the phrase in this sense, Oxford says, is from a letter written by John Adams from Philadelphia in 1777: “I took a walk into the Potter’s Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital.”
The OED also has these later citations:
1870: “For seven years the land had remained waste, a sort of Potter’s field, and a scandal to that part of the metropolis.” (From the journal Nature.)
1906: “When I wrote a letter … you did not put it in the respectable part of the magazine, but interred it in that ‘potter’s field,’ the Editor’s Drawer.” (A figurative use by Mark Twain in the Westminster Gazette.)
1993: “We had a potter’s field on the campus, where Papa used to bury all the colored people in the area whose folks had no money.” (From the memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years, by Sarah Louise and Annie Elizabeth Delany. The African-American sisters grew up on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, NC, where their parents were educators.)
An early biblical example is included among these citations for “potter’s field,” but it’s enclosed within brackets as representing a different use of the term.
The passage comes from William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible into English from the New Testament Greek (Matthew 27:5 in the Tyndale Bible):
“They toke counsell, and bought with them [i.e., Judas’s 30 pieces of silver] a potters felde to bury strangers in.” (Tyndale’s phraseology was adopted by the King James Version of 1611, Matthew 27:7, almost word for word.)
That is the earliest known use of “potter’s field” in English, but it didn’t refer to a public burial ground for the indigent.
An earlier English bible, John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation from fifth-century Vulgate Latin into Middle English, has “a feeld of a potter, in to biryying of pilgryms.” (Here Wycliffe uses “pilgrims” in its original sense: travelers, itinerants, or strangers.)
Apparently both Tyndale’s “potters felde” and Wycliffe’s “feeld of a potter” are meant literally—a field belonging to a potter. So both accurately render the original wording in Matthew, which has “potter’s field” in Greek.
Now this requires a brief (we hope) detour, because religious scholars have long wrestled with the use of “potter’s field” in Matthew.
The first book of the New Testament, Matthew is believed to have been written in Greek in the latter part of the first century or the beginning of the second.
The “potter’s field” passage is part of what biblical commentators call a “fulfillment quotation,” one linking a New Testament event to an Old Testament prophecy.
The passage presents several problems. To begin with, the author of Matthew mistakenly attributes the Old Testament passage to Jeremiah, while it’s actually in Zechariah.
To complicate matters more, he took the Old Testament reference (to a parable in which money is given back) not from Hebrew but from a version in which the wording was distorted, according modern biblical scholarship.
The source for the reference in Matthew is believed to have been a revised version of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was begun in the third century BC and completed in the following century.
The phrase “potter’s field” or “field of a potter” doesn’t appear in the Old Testament Hebrew parable, according to the biblical scholar Maarten J. J. Menken.
In fact, nowhere in the Hebrew Old Testament is there such a ”potter’s field,” as the bible scholars Thomas J. Dodd, C.C. Torrey, and others have written.
In the text of Zechariah that is pointed out in Matthew as prophetic, “field” was a Greek addition and “potter” was a slight misspelling of a Hebrew word for “treasury” or “furnace”—that is, a foundry for smelting coins.
Our sources for this include The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 2005, by the British theologian John Nolland, and “The Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 27,9-10: Textual Form and Context,” by Menken, published in the journal Biblica, 2002.
We won’t devote any more time to the biblical backstory, but we’d like to take a moment here to debunk two common myths about the term “potter’s field.”
There’s absolutely no evidence to support the fiction that this term for a burial ground was derived from either a man named “Potter” or a field where clay was dug to make pottery.
As for the original sense of “potter” to mean a maker of pots, it may have existed in writing in Old English in the 10th century. An OED citation from a document dated circa 1250 “is a late copy of a grant of land at Marchington, Staffordshire, made in 951,” the dictionary says.
That citation, an apparent reference to property boundaries, reads, “Of stenges heale, on potteres lege” (“from corner stakes, on potter’s land”).
The noun “pot,” the OED says, was first recorded in an Old English recipe: “þæt se pott beo full” (“that the pot be full”).
The word “pot” was “inherited from Germanic,” the OED says, but it also exists in in similar forms in the Romance languages. This seems to point to an earlier, prehistoric origin, Oxford suggests.
“The word in the Germanic and Romance languages and in post-classical Latin,” the editors write, “perhaps ultimately shows a loanword from a pre-Celtic language (perhaps Illyrian or perhaps a non-Indo-European substratal language), although a number of other etymologies have also been suggested.”
Good luck with your research on Hart’s Island, which has been used as a potter’s field by the City of New York since just after the Civil War.