In Chapter One of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, what are "maces, bags, and purses"?

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msmeow-7867 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which an attribute or characteristic is substituted for the thing meant. A couple of modern-day examples include calling businessmen ‘suits’ or thugs ‘hoods.’ Charles Dickens uses metonymy masterfully in his novel Bleak House, and this is what is at play when he writes, “[T]here are two or three maces, or petty-bags, or privy purses, or whatever they may be in legal court suits” (Dickens, 1853, p. 7), essentially describing the types of lawyers present in the chancery in terms of the clothes they wear. In court-related terms, a ‘mace’ is a ceremonial staff that represents authority. (Probably the closest thing we have, at least in the U.S., to something like this anymore is in some highly ritualized religious ceremonies.) So Dickens’s referral to ‘maces’ probably meant lawyers who led the processional of court officials into the chancery. A ‘petty-bag’ was a type of lawyer who specialized in a sort of internal affairs law, dealing with lawsuits for and against members of the Lord Chancellor’s staff. The term is a truncated form of the Anglo-Saxon ‘petite baggage;’ these lawyers were often identified by the small bags they carried. ‘Privy purse’ is a term used to denote an allowance taken from public revenue to pay for the British sovereign’s private expenses. The one assigned to manage household and private finances for the royal family is called The Keeper of the Privy Purse, so it is likely that the lawyers to whom Dickens refers by this term specialized in monetary matters. The most significant issue about his use of these terms, however, is that he uses them sarcastically; he has no respect for the legal system or those who serve it, and he is essentially name-calling.