Bacon's Essays: Of Travel

Bacon’s essay Of Travel is loaded with excellent, if sometimes difficult to follow, advice. I don’t know about you, but the embassies of most of the countries I’ve visited don’t tend to encourage casual visitors hanging about their conference rooms.

Masquerade at the French Court, ca. 1470

Bacon only traveled abroad once, when his father sent him to France to learn civil law and improve his French. He left in 1576 or 1577, around age 15, and returned three years later on receiving news of his father’s death. He didn’t like traveling. He had delicate health and suffered from strange foods and strange beds. Once he returned to London, he rarely went farther than his boyhood home in Gorhambury, a mere 20 miles away.

We should also remember that in Bacon’s day, travel was meant to be educational, especially for the young. He doesn’t consider travel for sport, like hiking or surfing, or for pure rest, like lying on the beach under a palm umbrella. You need this if you’re working a job with long hours and lots of stress! People in the sixteenth century did travel for health, sometimes, although the journey itself might well inflict more harm than the destination could relieve.

Learn the language

“He that travelleth into a country, before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.”

Many people around the world speak at least a little English nowadays — they didn’t in the sixteenth century — but even so, if you want to get past the Central Tourist Zone, you should make at least an attempt. It’s always useful to be able to read the signs and it’s nice to learn how to say at least “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Good morning.” The more unusual the language, the happier people will be that you made the effort.

Keep a journal

Officer’s mess on the Golden Hinde

“It is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen, but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land-travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it; as if chance were fitter to be registered, than observation. Let diaries, therefore, be brought in use.”

Bacon knew that on those sea voyages the literate officers spent much of their time sitting at tiny tables. The ceilings in those ships were unbelievably low! 

I take copious notes when I’m traveling for a book; none whatsoever when I’m traveling for pure fun. Likewise, I take hundreds of photographs on research trips and just the odd snap or two, usually just with my phone, otherwise. 

Francis Bacon’s must-sees

Listified by yours truly. They didn’t do bullets in Bacon’s day.

Pannini Ruins and the Colosseum in Rome

“The things to be seen and observed are:

  • the courts of princes, especially when they give audience to ambassadors;
  • the courts of justice, while they sit and hear causes; and so of consistories ecclesiastic;
  • the churches and monasteries, with the monuments which are therein extant;
  • the walls and fortifications of cities, and towns, and so the heavens and harbors;
  • antiquities and ruins;
  • libraries;
  • colleges, disputations, and lectures, where any are;
  • shipping and navies;
  • houses and gardens of state and pleasure, near great cities;
  • armories; arsenals; magazines;
  • exchanges; burses; warehouses;
  • exercises of horsemanship, fencing, training of soldiers, and the like;
  • comedies, such whereunto the better sort of persons do resort;
  • treasuries of jewels and robes; cabinets and rarities;
  • and, to conclude, whatsoever is memorable.’
  • “As for triumphs, masks, feasts, weddings, funerals, capital executions, and such shows, men need not to be put in mind of them; yet are they not to be neglected.”horse-show

Some of these are still on most people’s lists; others, not so much. Next time you go to India or Pakistan (or the UK, USA, France, etc.) ask about taking a peek at their nukes. Here’s a list of who has how many.

I don’t pop into every local library, but I’ve certainly been to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. and the British Library in London. I intend to pay homage to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in September too. (Thomas Bodley was a friend of Francis Bacon’s, btw.)

Conferences might count as listening to disputations in colleges, but I sincerely doubt that I’ll be dropping into a courtroom at any time during my travels. Although, now that he mentions it, I have to wonder if I could hear a case in the Old Bailey. Nah! I want to go back in time as well as across to London. For that, I’m better off with the Old Bailey Online. (How much would Bacon love the internet?) 

Bring a tutor and keep moving

Las Golondrinas, Oaxaca

“Then he must have such a servant, or tutor, as knoweth the country, as was likewise said. Let him carry with him also, some card or book, describing the country where he travelleth; which will be a good key to his inquiry. Let him keep also a diary. Let him not stay long, in one city or town; more or less as the place deserveth, but not long; nay, when he stayeth in one city or town, let him change his lodging from one end and part of the town, to another; which is a great adamant of acquaintance.”

This way you get to know more of the place you’re visiting. I’ve stayed in probably half of the budget hotels in Oaxaca, during my dissertation research days. (I can highly recommend Las Golondrinas.) For some reason, I just got into trying them all. In contrast, I’ve stayed in the same hotel in London every time I’ve been there (the Tavistock near Russell Square.) This time I’m branching out, venturing into South Kensington for a change of view.

Make friends who influence people

Don’t hang with your countrymen (unless you’ve just come in from the field and you’re very very tired). Don’t insist on eating your regular at-home food. That’s always good advice! Mexico has the best Mexican food in the world, unsurprisingly. It’s a great cuisine; explore it! And while England is not famous for it’s cuisine, they have made an heroic effort to banish the bad old stereotypes of cold toast and overdone roast. I’m not into fancy dining, but I adore Pret-a-Manger. The English invented the sandwich and they still make the best. Cheddar and chutney, salmon and cress, hummus with olives and rocket… Delicious!

Her Majesty in 2007

That part seems pretty obvious. Bacon’s next recommendation is a bit less so: “As for the acquaintance, which is to be sought in travel; that which is most of all profitable, is acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors: for so in travelling in one country, he shall suck the experience of many. Let him also see, and visit, eminent persons in all kinds, which are of great name abroad; that he may be able to tell, how the life agreeth with the fame.”

So far, neither the President of Mexico nor the Queen of England has granted me an audience. They gave us a reception at the American Embassy during my Fulbright year in Mexico, but otherwise, I have met no persons of any eminence anywhere at all. At least I don’t think so. Schmoozing the secretaries of eminent people might qualify as a form of stalking these days or a strategy for confidence tricksters. If you want people to look askance at you and possibly even report you to the local bobby, go for it.

Things to avoid

“For quarrels, they are with care and discretion to be avoided. They are commonly for mistresses, healths, place, and words. And let a man beware, how he keepeth company with choleric and quarrelsome persons; for they will engage him into their own quarrels.”

You know that’s right! There is nothing more tedious than being saddling with a quarrelsome, whiny traveling companion. Run, don’t walk. Drop off the key, hop on a bus, catch the next train.

And when you get home, don’t make a display of your new foreign ways. This was an irritation in Elizabethan times — men coming back from Italian and larding their speech with Italian bon mots.

“And let his travel appear rather in his discourse, than his apparel or gesture; and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories; and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners, for those of foreign parts; but only prick in some flowers, of that he hath learned abroad, into the customs of his own country.”

Book review: Blood and Guts by Roy Porter

Blood and Guts by Roy Porter is a whirlwind tour of the history of Western medicine, organized by topic. Porter’s aim is to situate beliefs and practices in the culture of the times, a subject I find fascinating. He knows the territory inside and out, being one of the preeminent historians of medicine, and has adroitly managed to be comprehensive and brief, but not shallow. Hats off and thumbs up!

I’m writing this post as I type up my notes from the book, so you’re getting snippets that caught my attention, rather than a carefully crafted reprise. The book is a zippy read; if you want more, read the whole thing. I hit 1000 words for this post with just the first two chapters. Others chapters discuss with the same high degree of information and entertainment the body, the laboratory, surgery, therapies, the hospital, and medicine in modern society. 


plaguePorter begins five million years ago, when the Australopithecines emerged from our family tree. In a few million years, Homo sapiens spread across the globe, hunting and gathering. Porter says life was short and I guess it was, but the principal hazards were childbirth, starvation, accidents, and being eaten by wild animals. Not, significantly, infectious diseases, which didn’t become a serious threat until after the agricultural revolution moved people into year-round residence in ever-denser communities. Hello, Plague!

Domestic animals gave us tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, measles, and the common cold (from horses!) The vermin that grain and farm animals attract spread salmonella, cholera, polio, typhus, diphtheria, and bubonic plague. I’m getting woozy just typing in all these names. Stable populations would build up immunities to some degree, then go galloping or sailing off to infect new communities. The Black Death took about 25% of Europe’s population in four years. European diseases wiped out 50-90% of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the fifteenth century. Mind-boggling.

The twentieth century discovered the causes of most of these diseases and then developed actual cures, in a stunning victory over an ancient enemy. But new diseases arise, like AIDS, Ebola, and Lassa. Porter warns, “From an evolutionary perspective, man’s global fight against disease seems more like a a holding operation in a war without end.”


A medicine man

Prehistorically (and forward), healers were shamans, in tune with the supernatural causes of illness and accident, and communicators with potential sources of better luck and supernatural protection. “With the evolution of more complex settled societies, herbalists, birth-attendants, bone-setters, and healer-priests followed.” One might say, a class of health professionals arose once there was surplus food to sustain them.

When writing was invented, rituals, spells, and recipes for healing were among the first things to get written. In ancient Egypt, physicians might be female as well as male. The most famous was Imhotep, (male) chief vizier to Pharaoh Zozer (2980-2900 BC), “renowned as a physician, astrologer, priest, sage and pyramid designer.” Smart guy. Papyri have survived with his sayings about health and healing. “Egyptian medicine combined religious beliefs and magical techniques with an impressive array of practical drug treatments and surgical skills.”

Hippocrates broke with this millenias-old tradition, advocating a secular medicine based primarily on regulating the diet to maintain health. His teachings were similar to Indian Ayurvedic medicine in that they explained health and illness in terms of the humors: the four essential fluids which regulated the body. Health obtained when they were in balance; when out of balance, various forms of illness resulted.

A medieval doctor

Here’s an example: “If, perhaps through faulty diet, the body made too much blood, sanguineous disorders followed as one grew overheated and feverish. One might, by consequence, have a seizure, an apoplectic fit, or grow maniacal.” The obvious treatment is a little judicious blood-letting.

The job of the doctor under this system is to evaluate the state of the humors. This was done chiefly by studying urine samples. The doctor didn’t even have to leave his chambers; patients could send a sample to be analyzed.

Porter notes, “The appeal of the humoralism which dominated classical medicine and formed its heritage lay in its comprehensive explanatory scheme, which drew upon bold archetypal contrasts (hot/cold, wet/dry, etc.) and embraced the natural and the human, the physical and the mental, the healthy and the pathological.” It was a powerful theory, given the knowledge available.

The training and accreditation of physicians moved out of churches and into the universities from the twelfth century. Healing split into several branches. First in status were physicians, who were educated in these temples of learning and who limited themselves to diagnosis and prescription. They did not need to touch their patients or even necessarily visit them. They elicited symptoms, perhaps by means of an early modern questionnaire, from which they determined the nature of the disease and formulated a treatment. They also studied those urine samples.

Second came apothecaries, the professionalized class of herbalists. They were originally part of the Grocers’ Guild in England. Third were surgeons, the only ones who always laid their hands upon their patients. They had to be strong and fast to do their work, before the development of effective anesthetics. Both apothecaries and surgeons learned their trades through apprenticeships.

The doe-eyed Doctor Bashir

Doctors couldn’t do much more than alleviate symptoms until the nineteenth century, when things really began to pick up. Thermometers were available from the 1860s; sphygmomanometers measured blood pressure. Pain could be alleviated with opiates. Aspirin was invented by Bayer in Germany in 1896. The stethoscope was invented in 1816. We consider these basic diagnostic tools, although we do still surrender those urine samples. Microscopes (and better) make it increasingly possible to identify specific diseases and new medicines make it increasingly possible to cure them, rather than merely mitigate symptoms.

As the effectiveness of doctors rose, so did their popularity. “The average American visited the doctor 2.9 times a year in 1930; by 2000 this had doubled.” People learned that going to the doctor could help them; also they learned through advertising that there were many, many more ways to be sick than they would otherwise have imagined.


Porter, Roy. 2002. Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine. London: W.W. Norton & Co.




Texas now and then

This week in the Hill Country

Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman Driveaustin-chamber-music
July 8, 2016 – July 24, 2016
Recurring weekly on Sunday, Friday, Saturday
Time: 7:30 PM to 10:00 PM
Price: $12- $55


Zilker Metropolitan Park
2100 Barton Springs Rd.
Austin, TX
July 13, 2016
Time: 8:00 PM
Price: Free

Yesterday’s News

It’s all bad news, this week. Sorry about that!

kiowa-and-caddoans1859    The Texas legislature abolished the Texas Indian reservations and placed the Indians under the charge of federal officials whose plan was to remove the Indians from the state. The removal process was set in motion on July 31, 1859, when 1,112 Indians, including 235 Anadarkos, were escorted by a military regiment to the Wichita reservation in western Oklahoma. This is from an article about José María, Anadarko chief, diplomat, and proponent of peaceful relations with whites, was born sometime around 1800, probably in the region of present-day Nacogdoches. The residents of that area, a small Caddoan-speaking group known as the Anadarkos, were successful agriculturalists, long-range traders, and members of the Hasinai Confederacy, the largest grouping of Caddoan peoples in Texas.

The illustration (from Wikimedia Commons) shows a group of Kiowa and Caddoan Indians confined in Fort Marion at St. Augustine, Florida. It’s as close as I can get. There were Kiowas and Caddoans in Texas at the same time.

1919    Lemuel Walters, a black man, was murdered by a white mob in Longview. The Longview Race Riot occurred during the Red Summer -May to October of 1919. It was the second of twenty-five major racial conflicts that occurred throughout the United States during these months. In 1919, Longview, a rural cotton and lumbering community in Northeast Texas, had a population of 5,700; 31 percent were black. Walters was safely locked in the Gregg County Jail until the sheriff willingly handed him over to a white mob. The article doesn’t say why he was in jail, but it does say he and an unnamed white woman from Kilgore were in love. Perhaps he was caught holding hands with her.