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.”

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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