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Mike Duncan (00:00):

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.34a, the Republican Calendar.


So greetings from the past. By the time this episode goes live, I think I will be in London. Did you guys know that gentleman Johnny Burgoyne is buried in Westminster Abbey? If I’ve played my cards right, then I was there yesterday and should have already taken a picture of me with my gentleman Johnny t-shirt standing next to his marker. And we’ll see if the hotel Wi-Fi lets me upload a picture of that along with the episode. Anyway, we are here today to talk about the famous French Republican Calendar, the attempt by the revolutionaries to completely reinvent how humans mark the passage of time. When you head out there into the world, you might find people calling it the French Revolutionary Calendar, but as we’ll see in a second, that is actually a misnomer, and for a very particular reason. But if you accidentally call it the French Revolutionary Calendar, don’t beat yourself up. And if you hear somebody call it the French Revolutionary Calendar, don’t beat them up. It’s no big deal. And nobody likes a pedant.


After the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, patriotic revolutionaries took to informally calling it the Dawn of the Era of Liberty, and often specifically referring to 1789 as Year One of the Age of Liberty. But this was all merely poetic expression. As the revolution progressed, however, more and more stuff started happening, and more and more things started getting reformed, time itself did finally come under scrutiny. As you may know, space came under scrutiny as well, which is where the meter comes from, but that’s a story for another day, because we’re here to talk about revolutionary time, not revolutionary space.


The urge to remake the markers of time really came from two main currents. First, Enlightenment science and its desperate obsession with rationalizing everything. And then second, anti-clerical radicals who wanted to abolish any lingering sway held by the Catholic Church on the good citizens and citizenesses of France. After the insurrection of August the 10th, which seemed to have finally truly swept aside the Ancien Régime, the movement to remake the calendar went from interesting conversation in the salons to actual working commission of the National Convention.


Now just to get this out of the way, technically, the National Convention rushed ahead on this, and just as they were abolishing the monarchy in September 1792, they also declared 1792 year one of the French Republic, and ordered all public documents to be so dated. But it was only public documents that were so dated, and it’s unclear just how widespread the practice was.


Plus, there was some disagreement about when exactly the year should start, and whether the rest of the calendar should be capped, or whether a whole new system should be devised. So the convention appointed a commission to make a recommendation. This commission was chaired by Charles Gibert Rome, who was by disposition a mathematician, but who had also become a prominent national politician since being elected into the legislative assembly in 1791. Rome gathered up a collection of men to help study the issue and make a recommendation, and though the majority of the men he consulted were all Enlightenment science nerds, mostly astronomers, chemists, geographers, and mathematicians, there were also a few appointees from the more liberal arts side of the world, the most prominent being poet, playwright, and spinner of fictitious foreign plots, Fabre de Glantina.


The first major question that presented itself was, are we going to craft a revolutionary calendar or a republican calendar? If it was the former, then obviously 1789 is year one, and we are currently in year … well, wait a minute. Are we in year four, or have we moved into year five? If we say year one was 1789, do we mean starting January 1, 1789, or like July 14, 1789?


But luckily we don’t have to linger on that particular debate, because the commission soon decided it wasn’t going to be a revolutionary calendar, it was going to be a republican calendar, and they decided to fix the beginning of the new year one at the moment the monarchy was abolished on September 22, 1792. But because the commission was full of science nerds, they couldn’t just leave it at the anniversary of the abolition of the monarchy. They said, hey look, that just so happens to coincide with the autumnal equinox, so we’ll say that the year starts at midnight on the day of the autumnal equinox. Which leads to some weirdness, because the autumnal equinox floats around a little bit. So like, in 1795, the first day of the republican year would actually correspond to September the 23rd, and in 1803 it would actually correspond to September the 24th. This will lead to all kinds of weird conversion problems for historians, but let’s not get into it right now.


Setting aside the scientific problem of when to start the calendar, we can certainly say that poetically and politically it begins at the dawn of the republic. After that, each republican year would be divided into 12 months, same as before. Now for a bunch of guys who were utterly obsessed with the number 10, I find it interesting that they didn’t go with a 10-month year, but that would have obviously run into a couple of other problems. For one thing, these guys were super hot on the idea of a 10-day week, and there’s not really any good way to make the math work if you’re trying to cram 10-day weeks into 36-day months. The other thing is that these guys were all natural scientists and recognized that the year was divided into four distinct seasons, partitioned by the equinoxes and the solstices.


So they kept the 12-month year, each month being divided into three 10-day weeks, for a total of 30 days each. But wait, you say, that’s only 360 days. What about the other five days? And what do you do with leap years? Hold your horses, we’ll get to it.


Now one of the big impetuses for the calendar, as I said, was the desire to break the long ingrained Catholic habits of the French people. Most especially, the every seven days is a Sunday, and that is our day of rest. That seven-day rhythm would keep the people of France rooted in superstition. So the calendar tried to break the habit, which is why they were more interested in a 10-day week than a 10-month year. And in case you’re wondering what the single least popular aspect of the Republican calendar was, well here you go. Because good luck getting the peasants not to resent the heck out of you telling them that they get a day off now every 10 days, rather than every seven days.


Getting deeper into the decimalization of everything, the new Republican day would be divided into 10 hours, and each hour would be divided into 100 minutes, and each minute would be divided into 100 seconds, and so on into infinity. A Republican hour was thus 144 old-style minutes, and a Republican minute was 86.4 old-style minutes. Now, if all of this seems like a really difficult thing to actually implement, you are right. And though it was all mandated, no one really tried to enforce it, and it would be quietly dropped in 1795. There was, however, a little time where watches were manufactured on this decimal-time system. And you can see some of them on display at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Paris, though I don’t think that translation is really right, I think it’s more like the Museum of Science and Industry.


Anyway I am going to try to pop in and go check some out when I’m in Paris. No one bought them though, except for French revolutionary science nerds, so there aren’t actually that many of them left.


Okay, so we’ve got our 12 months, each divided into three weeks of 10 days each. But our science nerds on the committee forgot that they were handing this off to real people who would actually have to use it in the real world. So dating things the first day of the third decade of the seventh month of year two might be accurate, but it was clunky as hell. So that’s when Fabre de Glantina steps into the picture and makes his other great contribution to the French Revolution. De Glantina said, let’s give this cold math a little bit of romance. So he set his imagination to work on a naming scheme for all the months.


Now since the calendar was built around the natural rhythms of the year, De Glantina used that as the basis for his new naming scheme. The months would be grouped by season and given names to invoke a relevant aspect of that season. Since the calendar starts with the autumnal equinox, the first three months of the year are the autumn months, starting with Vendimere for the grape harvest, then Prémer for fog, Frémer for frost. And just so you know, De Glantina is making these words up by mashing together Greek or Latin with French to get something that just kind of sounded cool. Okay, so moving on to winter, you have Nivos for snow, Pluvios for rain, and Ventos for wind. I’m probably butchering the pronunciation of all these, but what can you do? Then in the spring is Germinal for germination, Florial for flower, and Prairial for pasture. And then finally in the summer you get Messidor for harvest, Thermidor for heat, and Fructidor for fruit.


But wait, there’s more. Though they ultimately kept the names of the days simply first day, second day, third day, etc., De Glantina decided to riff on the old Catholic idea where every day of the year has a designated saint. So in keeping with the natural pastoral romance of his naming scheme, De Glantina decided to use designated days to celebrate the wonders of agriculture. Every day was assigned a different object of reflection or contemplation. Most of these objects of reflection were vegetables or plants, you know, apple, spinach, rose. The only exception was the month of Nivos, the first month of winter corresponding roughly with January. In that month, the plants were replaced by minerals, so like flint and granite, things like that. But interspersed with all these plants were two other classes of objects. Every fifth day of the week was reserved for a common animal like a dog or a pig or a goose. And then the tenth days were always dedicated to an agricultural tool like the plow or the cart or the pitchfork. And I’m not sure if this was on purpose, but there’s something kind of obnoxious about reserving the day of rest for a work tool. I mean, you finally get a day where you don’t have to plow anything, and Fabra De Glantina wants you to sit around contemplating your plow. That just doesn’t seem right.


So now we can finally get back around to those extra five days at the end of the year, since 12 times 30 only equals 360, not 365. Those extra days were originally called simply complementary days. But the poetic De Glantina said no, we will call them the sanculotides, because what’s a little naked political pandering between friends? Each day of the sanculotide would be dedicated to a different trait worthy of admiration. So the first complementary day would be given over to genius or talent, depending on the translation, and celebrate the great inventions or innovations of the year. The second day would be for labor, celebrate industry and production. The third day would be to policy, to celebrate all the best laws and decrees that the people had found most beneficial over the previous year. The fourth would be for honors or rewards, where the best exemplars of the previous three days’ aspects would get like blue ribbons and stuff for their good work. The fifth day would be given over to opinion or conviction, which De Glantina thought would be a day you could get together and criticize the government, make fun of leaders, ironically mock whatever you liked with perfect freedom from punishment. And this fifth day of the sanculotide should tell you just about everything you need to know about how far civil rights have fallen on the revolution’s list of priorities. Because in a nation that respects freedom of speech, you don’t really need a special day where you can criticize the government without fear of reprisal.


Anyway, on designated leap years, there would be a sixth complimentary day dedicated to celebrating the revolution itself. Now after De Glantina presented this list of festivals, the incorruptible Robespierre made what he considered an essential alteration. The day of policy would be removed in favor of a day celebrating virtue. And virtue would be celebrated on the first day. When De Glantina protested a bit, Robespierre said virtue is more important than genius. Was not Cato a better man than Caesar? And random editorializing from the guy who brought you the history of Rome, I’m not really sure Cato was a better man than Caesar.


The French Republican calendar was introduced to the convention on September the 23rd, 1793, and officially sanctioned by the national convention on October the 24th. It would be in effect until Napoleon finally abolished it in 1805, aka year 14, as a part of his wide-ranging program to reconcile the old ways with the new ways. The period when the calendar is in effect, of course, causes all kinds of headaches for students, because from here on out, all the important dates in the history of the French Revolution will reference the Republican calendar. That’s why it’s called the Termidorian Reaction, and the coup of 18 Fructidor, and the coup of 30 Prairiel, and the coup of 18 Brumaire. FYI, there’s a lot of coups coming up. But just so you know, I am not going to start using the new calendar to do anything but point out why some event gets its name. So when Fabre De Glantina, for example, gets hauled off to the guillotine, I’ll still say that he dies April the 5th, 1794. But when Robespierre gets his face blown off, I’ll tell you that it happened on July the 27th, 1794, but I’ll also make sure to mention that it happened on 9 Thermidor year 2, because that’s how the event gets referenced in a lot of history books out there. And that’s where it gets its name, the Termidorian Reaction.


Okay, so that does it for the Republican calendar, and hopefully you now have a better idea of why things are going to be called what they will be called. And I will see you all next week, which according to that calendar, would be the 5th of Florial year 223, for a brief look back on the life and career of alleged revolutionary puppet master Philippe Egalité.

Episode Info

In Oct 1793 the French Revolution took a stab at reforming time itself.

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