meaning and origin of the phrase ‘mess of pottage’

mess of pottage - Illustrated London News - 5 August 1961

Hungry sheep on holiday need not complain too vigorously that they look up and are not fed. For instance, there is A Mess of Pottage, by Natala de la Fère. Conceive, if you can, the reactions of a highly respectable family of French peasants when, after having enjoyed a tin of soup sent to them from America by their aunt, discover, by a subsequent letter, that they have consumed the ashes of their grandmother! Of course there is farce here, but it is delicate farce, with passages of genuine, if light, sensibility, and a real feeling for the traditional French countryside.

review of A Mess of Pottage, a novel by Natala de la Fère (Macmillan), in The Illustrated London News of 5th August 1961



In to sell one’s birthright for a mess of pottage, mess denotes a portion, a serving. This phrase means to accept a trivial material advantage in exchange for something of higher moral worth. And to sell something for a mess of pottage means to sell something for a ridiculously small amount.

It is a semi-biblical phrase referring to the Book of Genesis, chapter 25:

(New International Version)
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’ (That is why he was also called Edom [= red].)
31 Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’
32 ‘Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’
33 But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.

The expression mess of pottage does not appear in the biblical text itself, but it would once have been an everyday phrase. As such, it appears for example in the heading of chapter 25 in the Geneva Bible of 1560:

Esau selleth his birth right for a messe of potage.

The earliest instance of the expression is from a tretis of tho orderes þat be vndyr þe reule of oure fader Seynt Augustin, drawe oute of a sermon seyd be frer Ion Capgraue at Cambrige, þe ȝere of our Lord a M cccc xxij, i.e., A Treatise of the Orders under the Rule of St. Augustine, from a sermon preached at Cambridge in 1422 by the English theologian and historian John Capgrave (1393-1464); this text says that Jacob

supplanted his broþir, bying his fader blessing for a mese of potage.

The Bridgettine monk and author William Bonde (died 1530) used the expression with reference to the story of Esau in Here begynneth a deuout treatyse in Englysshe, called the Pylgrimage of perfection (1526):

Som for a messe of potage, with Esau careth nat to sell the euerlastyng inheritaunce of heuen.

I have found an early instance of the phrase without explicit reference to the biblical story is in The Morning Post (London) of 19th March 1803, which reported that at the House of Lords, the previous day, the Earl of Carlisle had declared, about himself:

No declarations as to his want of ability for undertaking the task; nor any insinuations as to the limited sphere in which he moved, or the little respect to be paid to the opinions of his companions, should ever make him swerve from his duty. Being a free and independent Peer, he would exercise his privilege; nor should he ever sell his birth-right for a mess of pottage.

Another early occurrence is from the same newspaper which, on 24th July 1804, gave an account of an election hustings; one of the candidates declared to the electors:

“The worthy Alderman, for so in courtesy I must call him, the worthy Alderman and the Gentleman who seconded his motion, have talked a great deal of beef and ale; but you have too much good sense to barter your rights for a mess of pottage.”

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