Image: Northern Wheat

December 9, 2022

What’s With Weeks?

December 9, 2022


In a wide-ranging and fascinating essay in Aeon, historian David Henkin takes apart the whole idea of weeks which, as he explains:

“serve as powerful mnemonic anchors because they are fundamentally artificial. Unlike days, months and years, all of which track, approximate, mimic or at least allude to some natural process (with hours, minutes and seconds representing neat fractions of those larger units), the week finds its foundation entirely in history. To say ‘today is Tuesday’ is to make a claim about the past rather than about the stars or the tides or the weather. We are asserting that a certain number of days, reckoned by uninterrupted counts of seven, separate today from some earlier moment … Weekly counts are reinforced by the habits and rituals of other people. When those habits and rituals were radically obscured or altered in 2020, the week itself seemed to unravel.”

Henkin traces the origin of the seven-day week to the Romans about 2,000 years ago:

“As the scholars Ilaria Bultrighini and Sacha Stern have recently documented, it was in the context of the Roman Empire that a standardised weekly calendar emerged out of a combination and conflation of Jewish Sabbath counts and Roman planetary cycles … But the crucial formation of our modern experience of weekly time took place around the first half of the 1800s, with the rising prominence of … the differentiated weekly schedule.”

Puritanism — with their weekly stocktaking rituals — and industrialization accelerated the process.

“With the rise of wage labour in the northern and western US, for example, Saturday night became more than just the end of the working week; it was also payday, generating patterns of consumption, commercial leisure and material security that shaped the distinctive feel of each of the intervening days of the cycle …

“The link between diary-keeping and weekly stocktaking also grew more conspicuous during the first half of the 19th century, following the spread of mass-market, preformatted diary books, which typically arrayed periods of approximately a week, as opposed to the monthly spreads that had been featured in earlier almanacs. The new calendar formats reinforced the habit of assessing one’s obligations, accomplishments and shortcomings in weekly increments.”

But, as he points out, these habits were reinforced outside the workplace:

“During the first half of the 19th century, masses of Americans in the northern and western US flocked to theatres, joined fraternal lodges and reform organisations, attended lectures and concerts, and subscribed to newspapers. Increasingly, many also patronised banks (which typically redeemed notes only on certain weekdays) and sent and received letters (which in less populous areas arrived on weekly schedules). All of these practices required participants to attend to what day of the week it was. Whether the activity took place once a week, twice a week or even once a month, so long as meetings, commercial offerings, publications and mail deliveries were consistently attached to particular days of the week, the weekly calendar became indispensable …

“For those who lived in small towns and on farms … they would anticipate the arrival of the weekly mail, apportion the reading of the newspaper they received every seven days, or follow the schedules of a train or stagecoach that passed through regularly on specific weekdays.”

The essay is full of interesting detail and I thoroughly recommend it.