Elizabethan government


Bacon's Essays: Of Followers and Friends

Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Followers and Friends” was first published in 1597. It was somewhat amended for the 1625 edition (the year before his death.) In 1597, things were getting tenser and tenser between his patron, the Earl of Essex, and Queen Elizabeth. In between writing advice letters, Bacon published a bit of philosophy (The Colours of Good and Evil) and this first edition of his immortal Essays. He also laid out the gardens at Gray’s Inn Walks. (They’ve changed in the past 400 years.)

Segmenting your followers

(Italics & bolding here are mine.)

Costly followers are not to be liked; lest while a man maketh his train longer, he make his wings king-trainshorter. I reckon to be costly, not them alone which charge the purse, but which are wearisome, and importune in suits.”

This is timely advice. I’ve been cleaning up my newsletter this month. Subscribers who never open anything (vain followers?) cost me money, which thus clips my wings by limiting some other thing I might do. And heaven knows we don’t want followers (think Twitter or Facebook) who are argumentative (wearisome) or constantly asking you for favors, advice, or anything.

Funny how things come around, huh? In the 80’s, none of us ordinary Susies had followers. Now, pretty much everybody has at least a few.

Ordinary followers ought to challenge no higher conditions, than countenance, recommendation, and protection from wrongs.” These are the ones you want. They just want you to acknowledge them (countenance) and recommend them from time to time. The Earl of Essex could get people out of jail if he wanted to. We can defend our social media followers from trolls, perhaps, or from being grossly misunderstood by another poster.

Factious followers are worse to be liked, which follow not upon affection to him, with whom they range themselves, but upon discontentment conceived against some other; whereupon commonly ensueth that ill intelligence, that we many times see between great personages.”

Party politics creates this situtation a lot. You don’t like the candidate you’re voting for much, but you really hate the one you’re voting against. So the one you vote for can’t count on you for anything. You’re acting purely oppositionally.

Trumpets of commendation

“Likewise glorious followers, who make themselves as trumpets of the commendation of those they follow, are full of inconvenience; for they taint business through want of secrecy; and they export honor from a man, and make him a return in envy.”

Bacon’s not a fan of publicity. He thinks most ‘business,” by which he means negotiation more than transaction, should be handled out of the public eye — in ‘secret.’ And it is true that having every word that falls from some politician’s lips repeated ad infinitum in the press can make that person seem foolish, or wishy-washy. Maybe that’s a valid portrait, but it doesn’t aid good governance.

“There is a kind of followers likewise, which are dangerous, being indeed espials; which inquire the secrets of the house, and bear tales of them, to others. Yet such men, many times, are in great favor; for they are officious, and commonly exchange tales.”

Some politicians love flattery and negative gossip about their opponents so much, they don’t realize they’re harboring a spy for the opposite side.

Descent into opacity

From about the midpoint, I find it very hard to figure what Bacon is talking about. He liked to be opaque; his mother scolded him about it. And these essays would have been read by educated men like his brethren in the Inns of Court or Lord Essex’s retainers. They would read them and discuss them with great enjoyment after supper.Shakespeare_and_His_Contemporaries

You and I, alas, must slog through as best we can. Whately is some help.

He starts by allowing that followers of men who are meant to be followed, as soldiers follow officers, are perfectly fine, provided that they don’t get carried away with “pomp or popularity.” (‘Popular’ was not a praise word for Francis Bacon; on the contrary.)

“But the most honorable kind of following, is to be followed as one, that apprehendeth to advance virtue, and desert, in all sorts of persons.”

Take out most of the commas and this makes more sense. It is honorable to follow someone who knows how to advance virtue and to deserve being followed. Yes, indeed.

“And yet, where there is no eminent odds in sufficiency, it is better to take with the more passable, than with the more able.” Well, color me stumped! ‘Sufficiency’ probably means ‘adequate competency,’ or something similar. ‘Passable’ could also mean ‘adequate’ — it means that today. Or it could mean ‘authorized, legal.’

I think this means, All things being equal, the more authorized option is better than the more exciting one. But I could be wrong.

“And besides, to speak truth, in base times, active men are of more use than virtuous.” This is pretty obvious once you understand that ‘base times’ means ‘times of trouble.’ You want that multi-talented mercernary when things go sour more than you want that virtuous philosopher.

Making use of your followers

“It is true that in government, it is good to use men of one rank equally: for to countenance some extraordinarily, is to make them insolent, and the rest discontent; because they may claim a due.”

Don’t play favorites, especially not among those of equal rank. Always good advice.

“But contrariwise, in favor, to use men with much difference and election is good; for it maketh the persons preferred more thankful, and the rest more officious: because all is of favor.

The older meaning of ‘officious’ is just ‘dutiful.’ He’s saying, reward the ones who work hard and use their talents toward your ends, because the rest will see that that’s the way to win your favor.

Henri III and the Duke of Guise. Lots of ill-advised favoritism going around at the French court in those days.

“It is good discretion, not to make too much of any man at the first; because one cannot hold out that proportion.” You can’t keep it up, he’s saying, but generally, respect has to be earned. And favors should be earned too, or they lose their value.

“To be governed (as we call it) by one is not safe; for it shows softness, and gives a freedom, to scandal and disreputation; for those, that would not censure or speak ill of a man immediately, will talk more boldly of those that are so great with them, and thereby wound their honor. Yet to be distracted with many is worse; for it makes men to be of the last impression, and full of change.”

Favoritism is a real problem in Bacon’s day. Probably in ours too, although it doesn’t come up much for the self-employed novelist :-). Also, our business and non-profit orgs have tons of rules about it. They don’t stop it from happening. The Favorite gets away with murder (scandal and disreputation). The Favorite might also talk boldly about the boss, claiming that private knowledge, which will ultimately end up making the Boss look like a Fool.

But being surrounded by an entourage is worse. It makes you more likely to have your head turned by whatever was said last, so you’re always changing your mind.

A (very) few words about friends

“To take advice of some few friends, is ever honorable; for lookers-on many times see more than gamesters; and the vale best discovereth the hill.”

Outsiders see more of what’s going on than insiders. You can’t really the hill while you’re standing on it, but from the valley, you can see the whole thing.

“There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior, whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other.”

This is kind of sad, but then these are some of the worst years in Bacon’s life. He’s getting nowhere, career-wise, in spite of the Earl of Essex’s best efforts. The earl is blocked at every turn by the wily Sir Robert Cecil, Bacon’s cousin and chief obstructor. Bacon was arrested in the street for debt the year after these essays were published. (You didn’t make much money from publication in those days either.) Bacon’s best friend was his brother Anthony, whose health was declining. His next best friend was the Earl of Essex, probably, but you can’t pal around with an earl, unless you’re one yourself.

Bacon had kinder things to say Of Friendship in an earlier essay.

The Earl of Essex, attributed to Nicolas Hilliard


Of Seals and signatures: More of the history of identification

A continuation of my review of Higgs’ book about identification (see below), in which we look at various forms of non-documentary identification, ending in the Age of the Document.

Clothes make the man

Anne Vavasour, not a carpenter or a sailor or a sempstress…

Clothes have always been at least partly designed to proclaim your identity; your gender first and foremost, but also your social status and/or your profession. Clerical garb is very distinctive, for example. This is why the Tudors kept passing Sumptuary Laws, trying to make sure the people wearing the fancy clothes really were important and not just rich.

Clothes can be stolen by imposters, but the company of a group of retainers in matching outfits — livery — bearing the readily recognized insignia of a noble family was considerably harder to forge. This is why aristocrats plastered their coats of arms on everything they owned, including their servants.

The right to bear arms was controlled in England by the College of Heralds, who were kept very busy during the Tudor period. Many new men rose through competence and hard work, and then wanted to provide themselves with pedigrees. Aspiring arms-bearers had to submit hard evidence: documents, monuments bearing your progenitor’s likeness or arms, artifacts in notable houses, or records in the Tower Record office.


Coat of Arms of the College of Arms

Higgs writes (p. 55): “Care had to be taken to distinguish between true and forged evidence, given the lengths to which some would go to prove a spurious pedigree. Thus, a fictitious claim of descent of the Wellesbournes of Buckinghamshire from Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, was supported by forged medieval deeds and seals, and the placing in Hughenden church of a fabricated thirteenth-century knightly effigy.”

That guy really wanted his pedigree! He obviously didn’t do a good enough job, though, since the story of his failure lives to the day. Well, that’s a form of immortality too, I guess.


Of seals and signatures

We consider signatures the ultimate expression of identity in legal contexts. Contracts and deeds are not valid without signatures on them. We present a credit card and sign the slip. I e-sign my contracts with editors and cover designers, which is sort of funny, but we (speaking collectively) aren’t ready to give up that crucial proof yet. My dog could be e-signing those things, for all anyone knows! (She’s very smart.) And my signature is a scrawl, a sad thing really, totally illegible. I was told once by a clerk in the grocery store that legibility didn’t matter, as long as I would recognize it and acknowledge it as mine. Huh.

Mesopotamiam cylinder seal with the impression it makes. So lovely!

But long ago, only clerics could write. Reading and writing didn’t go hand in hand, so even if your noble person was eccentric (or devout) enough to be able to read, he or she might not be able to write. We learn from Higgs (p. 59) that “The seal is a very ancient form of personal validation. Minute stone of clay discs, engraved with straight lines or criss-cross patterns have been found in Mesopotamia from the period of the Hassuna culture of 6000 to 5500 B.C…. The earliest English documents known to be authenticated by seals are writs of Edward the Confessor (1042-66), although there are earlier Anglo-Saxon references to them.”

You could wear your seal on a ribbon or chain around your neck, or have it made into a ring. Even peasants had seals. Like your scribble on the card reader, it only has to produce an image which the person supposedly being identified by the said image will accept as their own.

We still use seals today for all sorts of official documents. States, countries, cities, universities, and many other entities have seals, whose use is jealousy guarded.

Higgs suggests that signatures may have been given authority over seals by the passing of the 1677 Statute of Frauds, which included provisions such as: 

“1. certain conveyances of interests in land must be in writing and signed by the parties;
  2. wills of real estate must be in writing signed by the testator…” (p.66)

What’s in a name?

On p.74, Higgs notes, “changing one’s name in England was not in itself a crime…. English common law recognized that a person might take any surname he or she pleased, provided that this was not done for a fraudulent purpose, or in order to deceive and inflict pecuniary loss on another. As long as the person persuaded the public to adopt and use the name he or she preferred, a change of surname was perfectly legal, and this seems to be true of first names as well.”

Francis Bacon’s signature

This is the way pen names work nowadays. You just pick one and start using it. Best to choose a name you’ll answer to. Something easy to spell, with an available domain name…

Sir Walter Raleigh’s signature

Surnames became a little more solid over the Tudor period, as births were more commonly registered in parish churches. There it was, written in the big book. “What d’ye mean, calling yourself James Williamson? The church register says you’re William Jameson!”

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a radical plan for identifying individuals. He believed that “Everything which increases the facility of recognizing and finding individuals, adds to the general security.” (Higgs, p.76) Bentham thought every person should be tattooed with their unique identifier: first name, surname, place and date of birth. Higgs calculates his own as “Edward Higgs Lancaster 151153.” The idea of tattooing identity numbers on people never took off, apart from a short and brutish run in Nazi Germany.

Certificates, licenses, and passports

Births were registered in parish churches, as mentioned before, from the 16th century forward. Alas, that wasn’t a perfect solution to the identity question. Churches burned or were flooded. Most uk038cwere well supplied with mice, who liked nothing better than a tasty old registry. By the early 19th century – a time when people began to migrate from country to city in vast numbers, to take factory jobs – the authorities began to bewail the lack of sound evidence of who was whom and whence and where.

As always, they were chiefly concerned with property ownership. Anyone might turn up anywhere and claim anything, for all anyone could do about it.

Then the 1836 Registration Act divided all of England and Wales into registration districts (note the secular foundation), assigning a registrar to each. “These local officers were to record, and issue certificates of, birth, marriage and death, the latter including cause of death.” Copies were sent to a central General Register Office, “which created indexes of these and made them available to the public at a central site at Somerset House in London.” Now, we’re getting somewhere!

Passports, in the form of a letter from a monarch granting the bearer permission to leave the country, have been around for centuries. Wikipedia credits the rapid expansion of the railway system, and the burgeoning middle class, for making the old-fashioned passport system completely obsolete. They just couldn’t be checked in any meaningful way, not when trains could pass through several countries in a single journey!

William Powell Frith, The Railway Station

You didn’t need a passport to travel in the Victorian period. You needed money, of course, and food for the trip, and an extra shawl, and something to read…

Modern passports were stimulated by the need for border security during WWI. After that bloodbath ended, the League of Nations had a conference on passports which resulted in the general design of the ones we use today.

Biometric identification

I signed your contracts. Where are my cookies?

Fingerprints, hair color (easy to change), eye color (not quite as easy), height, blood type, DNA. We don’t trust documents so much anymore, in the Information Age. Not when Labradors could be e-signing book cover contracts. (She misunderstood the concept of cookies.)

Fingerprints were known to be unique, at least to Jan Evangelista Purkyně or Purkinje (1787–1869), a Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was established in Argentina, by Juan Vucetich. Another was established in 1897 in Calcutta for use in criminal records. The first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded at Scotland Yard in London in 1901.

And thus the new age of identification began. We 21st-century people consider fingerprints far superior forms of identification to signatures, although we still rely on the latter. I guess giving up a print feels somehow too intrusive, too lacking in that fundamental essence of trust. How are we going to feel when we’re asked for a cheek swab, to pop in that DNA sample?

It’s not that farfetched. I googled “us visa thumbprint” out of curiosity and found a slew of websites for services that help people get their papers in order to come to the US of A. The process does not look very friendly. I belong to the old “give us your tired and poor” philosophical camp. These are more like, “stand up and let us do biometric scanning and then take all your prints and a bundle of money while we’re at it.”

This place will do your biometric interview for you: https://www.path2usa.com/fingerprinting-and-biometrics-for-us-visa. That includes ink-free fingerprints (less messy) and a digital photo of your face. So that last thing is just a photo, for pity sake. What, are they going to use actual film?

But we know who are we are. Or so we believe…


Higgs, Edward. 2011. Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present. New York: Continuum.


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