Time for revolution

Today is Day Two of the First Week of Rainful in the CCXXI year of the revolution. We have just left the month of Snowful, even if the British weather has not yet caught up. This is not the start of a piece of pulp science fiction but today’s date as determined by the French Revolutionary Calendar. The republican zeal to remake society was to extend to recalibrating and renaming all units of time.

On 14 July 1789, the royal fortress of the Bastille Saint-Antoine was attacked by an angry group of Parisian commoners. The storming of the Bastille would become the iconic image of the French Revolution, celebrated down the years as La fête nationale or Le quatorze juillet, France’s national day and a public holiday.

More decisive action was being taken in the newly convened and renamed National Constituent Assembly. In a matter of months the revolution would become radicalised and work to create a fairer constitution would eventually descend into the madness of the Terror. Society was to be radically remade and the revolution renewed in the blood of ‘traitors’.

Thousands would be subject to the ‘National Razor’ (Le Rasoir National) with the guillotine becoming one of the most enduring symbols of the revolution. The guillotine itself was a product of the radical age; legislation for a common, clean and quick method of execution had been proposed by Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. In the Terror, the King, Queen, nobles, clerics, intellectuals and politicians, along with and a multitude of commoners, had brief, final appointments with ‘Madame Guillotine’.

Radicalism was not confined to a murderous reordering of society or the general mobilisation of the citizenry. The French Revolution was to go much further in distancing itself from the past. If the Ancien Régime had been abolished in 1789, the following years would seek to eradicate all trace of it from a new, modern republican France.

The changes would go to the heart of everyday life. Time would be recalibrated and renamed according to the French Revolutionary calendar (calendrier révolutionnaire français), devised during the Revolution and used between 1793 and 1805. It was a radical shift and one which suggested the excesses that flew from the worship of rationalism and logic.

Time was decimalised: ten hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour and 100 seconds in an hour. To make this fit into solar cycle, the second was shortened by 13.6%. This triumph of logic was proposed by Jean-Charles de Borda on 5 November 1792 and decreed by the National Convention on 5 October 1793:

“XI. Le jour, de minuit à minuit, est divisé en dix parties, chaque partie en dix autres, ainsi de suite jusqu’à la plus petite portion commensurable de la durée.

XI. The day, from midnight to midnight, is divided into ten parts, each part into ten others, so on until the smallest measurable portion of duration.”

But what is logical for measurement and currency was not suited to something as deeply ingrained as measuring time. Unsurprisingly, this fundamental reform did not catch on – mandatory use of ‘French Revolutionary time’ was suspended after just over six months of official use (between 22 September 1794 and 7 April 1795).

With the hours, minutes and seconds sorted, it was time to move on to the days, months and years. The year seemed to be divided in a hopelessly irrational and chaotic way – why did February have only 28 days most years? Why did some months have 31 days and others 30? The Revolution would solve this with a decimal calendar.

Another bugbear of Revolutionaries was the inherent conservatism and clericalism of the calendar. Just writing the date would invoke a line of kings and gods and years were designated by reference to the supposed birth year of Jesus Christ. To anti-clerical atheists this was not only irrational – it was treasonous and a heresy to the new philosophy of reason.

To solve all of this the French Revolutionary Calendar was devised and introduced. The revolutionary new year would start at the southward equinox, roughly 22/23 September. There would still be twelve months in a year, but they would each contain 30 days. The names were all changed to remove any association with the past and they were grouped into seasons, with common endings for months sharing a season:

Autumn

  • Vendémiaire (from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”), starting 22, 23 or 24 September;
  • Brumaire (from French brume, “fog”), starting 22, 23 or 24 October;
  • Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”), starting 21, 22 or 23 November;

Winter

  • Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), starting 21, 22 or 23 December;
  • Pluviôse (from Latin pluvius, “rainy”), starting 20, 21 or 22 January;
  • Ventôse (from Latin ventosus, “windy”), starting 19, 20 or 21 February;

Spring

  • Germinal (from Latin germen, “germination”), starting 20 or 21 March;
  • Floréal (from Latin flos, “flower”), starting 20 or 21 April;
  • Prairial (from French prairie, “pasture”), starting 20 or 21 May;

Summer

  • Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), starting 19 or 20 June;
  • Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July; and
  • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August.

Whilst not as decimal as a ten month year, it was at least rational, tied to the seasons and observable meteorological and biological patterns and cleansed of all superstitious and religious connotations.

These new months would be divided into three décades of ten days each. Here, logic once again governed as the days were shorn of their pagan and Christian derived names and given rational replacements: primidi (first day); duodi (second day); tridi (third day); quartidi (fourth day); quintidi (fifth day); sextidi (sixth day); septidi (seventh day); octidi (eighth day); nonidi (ninth day) and décadi (tenth day).

Saints days which, by 1789, fell on almost every day, were to be replaced by a comprehensive annual commemoration of animals (for days ending in 5), tools (for days ending in 0) and plants or minerals (for all other days). The list of all 360 is too exhaustive for this blog; fortunately, they are set out in all their earnest detail elsewhere.

Once you’ve digested all of these changes, you’ll have noticed 360 is five days short (six days short in a leap year). Each year would culminate in five (or six) complimentary days – les jours complémentaires which were to be kept as national holidays. Starting in the middle of September (or, if you are feeling suitably revolutionary by all of this, after the end of Fructidor and before the start of Vendémiaire):

  1. La Fête de la Vertu, ‘Celebration of Virtue’;
  2. La Fête du Génie, ‘Celebration of Talent’
  3. La Fête du Travail, ‘Celebration of Labour’
  4. La Fête de l’Opinion, ‘Celebration of Convictions’
  5. La Fête des Récompenses, ‘Celebration of Honors (Awards)’; and
  6. La Fête de la Révolution, ‘Celebration of the Revolution’

All of this serious, revolutionary work was open to satirical mocking across the Channel. The Revolutionary Calendar, with its careful, poetic months was mocked as: “Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety”.

The calendar was not hugely successful even in republican France. The traditional names of the days of the week were restored with effect from Easter Sunday 1802 after the 1801 reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Napoléon finally abolished the calendar with effect from 1 January 1806, barely twelve years after its introduction.

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