(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Trained in European religious history, Craig Harline practices his craft with breathtaking skill. Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl has exactly the right balance of overview and contextual detail. Intriguing “close-ups” offer the reader tangy characters and vivid situations, breaking up denser explanatory and technical material into more appropriable units. Both specialized and general audiences are bound to profit from this fine work.

Harline’s first chapter, “Prologue: Sunday Ascendant,” helps one understand how Sunday came into Western culture, becoming both a blessing and a problem. While the ancient world employed diverse calendars and schemes (many of them lunar-based) for determining weeks, the modern system comes from the Hellenistic Greeks and Judaism by way of Rome. In pre-Christian, Ptolemaic Alexandria, astronomers fixed the distance from Earth of the seven known planets. Saturn was the furthest away; then came Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moonthese names, of course, are Anglicized versions of the Latin variants. Each of these heavenly bodies exerted its particular influence on the earth and became associated not only with days of the week but particular hours within that week. Curiously, their distances did not correlate with a planet’s place in the scheme of days. Rather, “Saturn Day was the first day, Sun Day the second, then Moon Day, Mars Day (Tuesday), Mercury Day (Wednesday), Jupiter Day (Thursday), and Venus Day (Friday).” Significantly, at this point no day enjoyed a privileged status.

In 587 b.c.e., the Babylonians conquered the Jewish kingdom and carried many of its inhabitants into exile. According to Harline, one cannot determine whether the Babylonian fascination with the number seven influenced the pattern of the Jewish week or a preexistent Jewish scheme influenced the mental habits of the captors. In any case, by the second century c.e. Jews and their rigorous Sabbatarian practices had exerted tremendous influence on surrounding cultures. Christianity only deepened this influence, though for a variety of reasons the followers of Jesus of Nazareth moved the special day to the first day of the Roman weekwhich had earlier become Sunday instead of Saturday. One reason for this change was the increasing prestige of Sunday in pagan religionespecially the cult of the Invincible Sun, favored by a succession of emperors, and Mithraism, the influential religion of the Roman soldiers, which honored Sunday with special rituals and rest.

Constantine’s proclamation in 321 declaring Sunday as the official holy day for Roman citizens may have been made to benefit the huge number of Christians now under his rule. “More likely, Constantine, like many Roman aristocrats of the time, was simply trying to find common ground for his mixed pagan and Christian subjects, especially his soldiers,” observes Harline. Herein resides one of the great problems of Sunday, however. By setting aside a day for a general cessation of normal activities, a society doubtlessly benefits most people and thereby elicits greater loyalty, but how should “cessation” be handled? Inevitably a tension is established between those who “understand the true meaning” of Sunday“it is the Lord’s Day”and those who follow other (or no) traditions.

How the meaning of Sunday gets worked out in the European West is the subject of Harline’s six major chapters. Behind his account is a vast literature, but he eschews point-by-point documentation, providing instead fifty-three pages of bibliographical notes at the end of the book. He also uses several focusing devices to give narrative power to the bookdiscussing a typical Sunday in a particular village, drawing on personal journals, memoirs, short stories, novels, and even film. The result is a satisfyingly detailed work that still manages to sustain several conversations about scholarly disputes and interpretive problems.

Chapter 2, “Sunday Middle-Aged,” is set in a fictional village in the south of England around the year 1300. Following a renowned essay by the historian H. S. Bennett, Harline traces out the events of a single Sunday in June from the standpoint of “houselings” or common villagers. While medieval theologians stressed with utmost clarity the need for Sundays to be worshipful and restful, the realities of agricultural life meant that plenty of work still had to be done before Mass. Haying and harvest season pressed peasants into Sabbath labor, much of it for the lord of the manor of which the village was a part. As the lord’s word carried more weight than that of the priest, such work met with little criticism. Moreover, poor vicars usually led village churches, and they too had to labor in barns and fields. However, attendance at Mass was a paramount duty and, as Harline presents it, a singularly meaningful one because of the miracle that occurred at Eucharist.

Also, by this period, substantial Norman (Romanesque) churches were available to most villagers, who rejoiced in their beauty and learned from their sculptures, murals, and decorated rood screens. After Mass, the best meal of the week waited at home, with afternoon and evening bringing the festal character of the day to full expression. Meeting in the churchyard and at taverns, the houselings drank, gossiped, sang, danced, played games, wagered, and held competitions and fairs. Naturally, “depravity” or “concupiscence” might beckon at such times. Harline points out that the official Christian prohibition of sex on the Sabbath had spread to other days tooWednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, all of Advent and Lent, and numerous other days and seasons. “This left fewer than one hundred days in the year for licit sexual relationsas long as the woman was not lactating or menstruating, of course, which were also proscribed days,” he explains, adding dryly: “How many Christian villagers kept to such a schedule is unknown.”

“Sunday Reformed,” Harline’s third chapter, develops a complex and surprising picture of the Sabbath in The Hague in 1624. Recalling that the rigorous...

(The entire section is 2541 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 43.

Library Journal 132, no. 7 (April 15, 2007): 102.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (August 26, 2007): 17.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 7 (February 12, 2007): 83.

U.S. Catholic 72, no. 7 (July, 2007): 49.

Washington Monthly 39, no. 5 (May, 2007): 70-72.

The Wilson Quarterly 31, no. 2 (Spring, 2007): 96-97.