Where does the seven day week come from and why does it rule our lives?
From the fear of the Sunday blues to the boredom of a bumpy Wednesday to the sweet relief of a Friday afternoon, the seven days of the week rule our lives in countless unseen ways.
But while other units of time, like days, months, and years correspond to the rhythms of the Earth, weeks are much more of a human construction.
“It is the only unit of time that is not visually perceptible in the natural world. And yet … it has a ‘real’ presence in people’s lives,” said David M Henkin, professor of history at the ‘University of California at Berkeley. ABC RN Late Night Live.
In his new book, The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are, Professor Henkin explains exactly why we don’t like Mondays.
Seven planets, seven days
The origins of our Monday to Sunday week go back thousands of years.
“Some people have argued that there are roots of this in Babylonia [which lasted from around 1900 BCE â 500 BCE] but the proof is rather thinâ¦ The Romans had definitely [a seven-day week]”, says Professor Henkin.
The ancient Romans settled over a seven-day week about 2,000 years ago because there are seven celestial bodies that can be seen from Earth: the sun, the moon, and the five planets.
âThe idea was that each of these celestial bodies dominated over a day,â explains Professor Henkin.
Also around this time, Jews marked the Sabbath every seven days, Christians later counting seven-day cycles (and Muslims also counting beyond that).
Professor Henkin says that the Roman and religious structures “became entangled or unified, they converged to form a calendar unit.”
âSince then it has become a significant timing device, a dating system, in most societies that were affected by the Roman Empire,â he says.
The Roman Empire faded away, but the major monotheistic religions spread, taking the seven-day week with them.
The “birth” of the modern week
In the centuries that followed, the only major features tied to a particular day in a seven-day week were a day of worship or rest.
Other than that, the unit of time and the different days inside wasn’t that important to most people after all.
Medieval knights, for example, probably didn’t care if it was a Monday or a Thursday it was the same for them.
But Professor Henkin says that changed dramatically in the 19th century, when the “modern week” came into being.
Around this time, specific days of the week began to be used to plan and coordinate social and business activities.
All kinds of events – from payday to receiving mail to laundry – began to be tied to a particular day of the week.
Also in the 1800s, the concept of a two-day weekend began to take shape for parts of society.
“I have spent many, many years reading people’s diaries, looking at people’s lives, and trying to figure out when, if and why the day of the week was important to them,” says Professor Henkin.
“[It was in the 19th century when] all of a sudden people started to remember events from the recent past, using the day and not the date to tell you when it happened. “
Professor Henkin says that the increase in weekly meetups and weekly plans has meant that people have started talking about âfeelingâ this unit of measure for the first time.
The role of television
Professor Henkin points to a technological development that has further established the seven-day week as we know it: television.
By the mid-20th century, televisions had become ubiquitous in homes around the world.
âTelevision was important, especially in the post-WWII era, to coordinate people’s weekly habits,â he says.
“[Initially] there were very few options on what to consume, and most people in the United States typically only consumed one of three offerings on any given night. It was the same in Australia. It really meant that people’s weekly habits were much more coordinated. “
âIn the 1960s and 1970sâ¦ Wednesdays and Thursdays people were probably more influenced by what they watched on television than by any other consideration.
Thus, the societal changes of the 19th century and the ubiquitous technological developments of the 20th century cemented the rhythms and importance of the seven-day week.
Alternatives to the seven-day week
Over the centuries, there has been opposition to the seven-day week, with some countries changing it.
After the French Revolution, the victorious revolutionaries implemented a new calendar with a 10-day week, both to get rid of old religious influences and to decimalize the measurement.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviets introduced a five-day week, and then later a six-day week, with different workers having different days off.
Needless to say, the French and Soviet models failed, both reverting to the standard seven-day week.
From the beginning to the middle of the 20th century, some in the business world also pushed to change the way we use the week, as it does not adapt evenly to months or years, and therefore creates headaches for the week. accounting.
“[This movement] was not trying to change the length of the week, but to change the way the week fits into other units of the calendar, âsays Professor Henkin.
British calendar reformer Moses B Cotsworth proposed the Fixed International Calendar, consisting of 13 months of 28 days each. And in his calendar, each date always fell on the same day of the week, so, for example, November 25 was always a Sunday.
“It seemed like a ripe time for the international community to ‘tame’ the week and fit it into all other time units.”
But the Fixed International Calendar was not adopted, after failing to gain final approval from the League of Nations in 1937.
Although there was one notable exception, the Kodak Company, which used it for accounting from 1928 to 1989, when the company aligned itself with the rest of the business world.
Is the week fading?
So what about the seven day week?
“I think it’s not as unifying calendar unit as it was 30 years ago. And as a mnemonic device, it’s not as necessary or as useful,” says Professor Henkin.
With much more flexible work arrangements, on-demand entertainment, and much of our lives online, we are much less beholden to the day of the week and what it prescribes.
But Professor Henkin says recent COVID-19 lockdowns have shown that we still form a large part of our routine depending on the day, even when we are confined to the house.
“In fact, I don’t think that [the week] comes undone. I don’t think we’re going to get rid of it, âhe said.
And so, for the foreseeable future, many of us probably still won’t like Mondays.
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