A royal family deposed, the eradication of royal and religious references, people power, a Queen who almost escaped to America, the start of the Napoleonic era – the French Revolution was a period of terror and of turmoil, of civil war and neighbour versus neighbour. It also led to new legal and social reforms, the unification of France and a metric system. And, it led to a new calendar structure.
History of the French Republican Calendar
At the beginning of the year a friend who lives in the far south of France emailed me a picture of a calendar left as a gift in his post box by the mayor who had in fact given one out to everyone in the very small village. Nothing odd about that you might think. But – it was a reproduction of a French Republican Calendar and it bears little resemblance to today’s calendars.
The French Republic was established in 1792, three years after the start of the French Revolution. The members of the new Republican Government didn’t just deal with wiping out the royal family and as many nobles as they could, it was also about establishing a new order of equality and unity.
You were no longer Monsieur or Madame, but Citoyen or Citoyenne. Regional divisions were reorganised. And the traditional Gregorian calendar with its seven day week and Saints Days and Christian festivals was eliminated.
A revolutionary calendar
A secular calendar was established. And it had a ten day week: primidi (first day), duodi (second day), tridi (third day), quartidi (fourth day etc.), quintidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nonidi and décadi.
Months were three weeks long. The end of the year was Fructidor which had 5 supplementary days to make the total add up to 365 days (as per the old calendar).
Poet Philippe François Nazaire Fabre, known as Fabre d’Eglantine (1750-1794) was given the honour of naming the months. Inspired by nature he called them:
Vendémiaire from the Latin ‘vindemia’, grape harvest was when the new year started – in September
Brumaire from the French ‘brume’, fog
Frimaire from the French ‘frimas’, hoarfrost
Nivôse from the Latin ‘nivosus’, snowy
Pluviôse from the Latin ‘pluviosus’, rainy
Ventôse from the Latin ‘ventosus’, windy
Germinal from the Latin ‘germen, germinis’, bud
Floréal (from the Latin ‘floreus’, flowery
Prairial from the French ‘prairie’, meadow
Messidor from the Latin ‘messis’, corn harvest
Thermidor from the Greek ‘thermon’ heat
Fructidor from the Latin ‘fructus’, fruit
If you’re thinking that sounds like something from a Disney film, you’re not wrong. In England, the French months were referred to as: Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, Breezy, Sneezy and Freezy.
Names were given to every day of the year too, based on trees, flowers, plants, animals and farm tools. For instance 12 June was Caille-lait which means bed straw, and 2 July was Lavande (Lavender).
A day had 10 hours. There were 100 minutes in an hour. 100 seconds in a minute.
Confused? Yes so was your average Citoyen and Citoyenne. And worse, whereas before they had one day off in seven, now they only had one day off in ten.
It was an unwieldy and complicated system. In less than two years the new time system became optional.
When Napoleon was elected Emperor he abolished the calendar. From 1 January 1806 normality resumed. And everyone returned to the Gregorian calendar and knew what day it was again.