Fathers Say

This 1688 edition of an advice book originally published in 1664 promises to instruct the child addressee in "how to demean himself in the most important passages of this life." Modern readers may see "demean" and assume the anonymous author is a dispenser of tough love—or of a shame-based, if culturally mediated, form of child rearing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, during the early modern period the word commonly referred to any kind of behavior. It was completely neutral in tone: you either demeaned thyself well or poorly. This sense of the word lives on in “demeanor.” Thus, the book’s inside title page takes on a much rosier quality—one more appropriate this Father’s Day season.

The courtesy genre was quite popular in seventeenth-century England. Writers often used the father-to-a-son/child framework as a rhetorical device for conveying advice to a larger audience. The convention can be traced at least as far back as James I’s Basilikon Doron (Royal Gift). First printed in 1599, the book ostensibly addresses the king’s eldest son, Henry, preparing him to demean himself as a prince and eventually king. The content, at times rooted in the minutiae of material existence, can serve this end: young Henry, it is advised, should be sure to eat meat to fortify himself for travel, never to let his hair and nails grow too long, etc. Some parts, though, are more universal—or, at least, more polemical. James’s defense of the divine right of kings inflects the advice he offers his son. God made you, he tells Henry, “a little God to sit on his Throne, and rule over other men.”

Happy Father's Day, everyone.