What Day Is It?: French Revolution Style
I feel like time has pretty much lost all meaning. Anymore, remembering what day of the week it is feels like a herculean task. But at least we have a calendar we know and understand!
For the folks living through the French Revolution, knowing the day and the year became rather complicated. And this was added to trying to find food, not get arrested and executed, and remembering to call everyone Citoyen–or risk getting arrested and executed.
At first, the calendar change was unofficial. After the Bastille, fervent revolutionaries started referring to 1789 as Year I of Liberty, then Year II of Liberty, etc. By the time year III rolled around at the beginning of 1792, the government du jour realized that they needed to make an official calendar. It was necessary for recording important things like financial documents. Even revolutionary governments have to focus on the practicalities!
So, at the start of 1792, they decided to make January 1st the first day of Year IV of Liberty. This made things clean, even if it truncated Year III by about six months. That would be weird enough, but they didn’t stop there.
Things Get Complicated
The first French Republic was declared in September 1792. So, the year name changed to Year I of the Republic instead of Liberty. January 1793 would then start of Year II of the Republic. So far, so good.
And then in November 1793, they went much further and abolished the old Gregorian calendar (the one we use today) and replaced it with an entirely new calendar. The only thing that remained constant was that it had twelve months. Though of course these had new names. But each month had 30 days, split into three “decades” that replaced the weeks. The decades were 10 days long, with the 10th day dedicated to rest. This conveniently did away with anything “vulgar” and reminiscent of the church or Ancien Régime. No more Sundays, no more holy days or saints’ days. Just a uniform calendar based on reason.
And the names for these new units of time? The days of the week were sort-of Latin: primidi, duodi, tridi, quartidi, quintidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nonidi and décadi. Décadi was the day of rest. And then they went poetic for the months, quite literally. The government didn’t like the original very France-centric names for the months. So they asked poet Philippe François Nazaire Fabre to come up with something better. He went with nature, using a seasonal theme for each month. Mid-summer (July/August), for example, is Thermidor. Which pretty much sums up my apartment right now. 😛
The Next Level
They then took it a step further and gave each day a natural and seasonal “theme”. Each 5th day (quintidi) had to be an animal name. Every 10th day (the very welcome décadi) was named for agricultural equipment like a barrel or fruit press. A botanist assigned the other days to plants, in the correct order of their seasonal growth or harvest. You can see them in this detail on the calendar from above. For an easy-to-read full list (in French), click here.
They did understand the need to maintain 365 days per year plus leap years. So, at the end of each year there were 5 bonus days (jours complémentaires or sansculottides) that would ostensibly be the equivalent of an actual long holiday. Every fourth or fifth year would add an additional day to account for leap year.
The net result? The average worker received fewer days off, reduced considerably from one every 7th day to one every 10th day. Plus there were no more religious holidays. Not surprisingly, the calendar didn’t quite catch on in the provinces.
Timing Is Everything
The trickiest part for using the calendar is that the year started on the Autumnal Equinox in September. The equinox fell on the day after the declaration of the Republic, so they went with it. However, they didn’t know exactly when a new year would start until the equinox happened. Unlike now, they were not able to calculate the exact date and just had to wait for the magic to happen. They knew the date range (it isn’t that variable) but not the exact date that it would occur. Thus they had to wait to print the calendars until after the equinox if they featured an alignment with the Gregorian calendar (like our example).
This challenge along with a general lack of popularity prompted Napoleon to begin phasing out the Republican Calendar in pieces. He finally just called it on January 1, 1806. Religion was back, the calendar was back, and people could celebrate normally. They still had an Emperor but hey, birthday parties were back!
Art and Propaganda
Not all calendars were tables with patriotic images. Then, as now, calendar girls were also popular. Here are a few examples of the 1790s calendar girls. They all have a poem with them. Brumaire especially skews proto-Soviet propaganda for me. And weirdly some astrological names are mentioned. Not exactly “rational”!
Does anyone else get a Mucha vibe? Art Nouveau was definitely the progression of the romantic natural themes of the entire century before it!
The legacy of the calendar lives on in small ways. In a cursory search, I could only find one location that has a visible reference to it. The grande école Ecole normale supérieure, founded during the Revolution, has the date 9 Brumaire Year III set above the entrance door.
The Conciergerie offers a more in-depth experience of the Revolution. You can see a recreation of Marie Antoinette’s cell, as well as other spaces staged to represent the period. As you go through, there are also museum displays and a video (in French). For added impact, a room is dedicated to the victims of the Revolution, with their names on the wall and a touchscreen where you can look for specific names. It seems that my very non-aristo French relatives made it out alive, thankfully. 🙂
The Conciergerie is now back open and requires a ticket.
The calendar pops up in other ways as well. For example, The Commune in 1871 briefly returned to the calendar in symbolic solidarity with the Revolution.
Lobster Thermidor, prime example of 19th-century culinary indulgence, is supposedly named after an 1891 play, Thermidor: drame historique en quatre actes by Victorien Sardou. The play was set during the Thermidorian Reaction that overthrew Robespierre. It received an outraged reaction from radical Republicans in the audience and was quickly shut down.
Interestingly, there is a lack of consensus on which chef actually created the dish. We also don’t know if it was a promotional item or created in reaction to the controversial play. And there is an off chance it was actually created for Napoleon back when Thermidor was a thing. The one thing everyone agrees on is that it definitely has ties to the month of Thermidor. 😄
Here is Julia Child’s Lobster Thermidor recipe for you to try at home while we are stuck far away from Paris. God speed in your culinary journey!
While the calendar and corresponding new clock never caught on, one new idea definitely did. The metric system began life as the new system of weights and measures of the Republic, created along side the calendar and clock. Also using 10 (decimal) as the base, the metric system eventually became the measurement system of nearly the whole world. Barring a few stubborn holdouts, of course.
I hope this quick review of the Republican Calendar and the chaos it must have sown helps you feel a little bit better our own time challenges. Please let me know in the comments! Merci! 🙂
Republican Calendar and Extract. Calendrier-republicain-debucourt2. From Wikimedia Commons, posted by HerrAdams. From collection Bibliothèque nationale de France Gallica. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Months Chart: Created by Author, Michelle Keel. Based on information in Calendrier républicain entry on Wikipedia.fr and French Republican calendar on Wikipedia.com July 2020
Ecole normale supérieure: “Ecole normale supérieure 2“. From Wikimedia Commons, posted by Ordifana75. Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The Warden’s Office: by the Author, Michelle Keel. Taken at the Conciergerie October 2018.
Brumaire: “Brumaire : 23 octobre. Le soleil entre au signe du Scorpion…” By Tresca, Salvatore and Lafitte, Louis, 1797-98. Bibliothèque nationale de France Gallica. Public Domain.
Thermidor: “Thermidor commence le 20 ou 21 juillet” By Tresca, Salvatore and Lafitte, Louis, 1797-98. On Wikimedia Commons, posted by Underlying lk. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Vendémiaire: “Vendémiaire commence le 22 septembre” By Tresca, Salvatore and Lafitte, Louis, 1797-98. On Wikimedia Commons, posted by Underlying lk. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Messidor: “Messidor commence le 21 ou 22 juin” By Tresca, Salvatore and Lafitte, Louis, 1797-98. On Wikimedia Commons, posted by Underlying lk. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.