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Father Time Discovers Truth Trampling Feudalism (French School, circa 1792-93, intaglio print)

Today is December 1, 2010.  It is now the last month of the last year of this decade (and good riddance to the “aughts”).  As the calendar winds down, one’s thoughts invariably turn to timekeeping.  Although the dominant calendars of history–the Jewish calendar, the Chinese calendar, the Moslem calendar, the Aztec calendar (!)–are each fascinating in their own right, I thought today I might feature a calendar which I admire for its tremendous poetry.  It is also remarkable for its epic stupidity.  I mean of course the calendar of the French Revolution aka “the Republican Calendar”.

This calendar was introduced in 1793 to bring rigorous standardization to what the leaders of the Revolution regarded as a slipshod artifact of the aristocracy. The makers of the new calendar wanted to purge the year of its religious associations and bring an enlightenment (and Roman classicist) frame of reference to the months and days.  They did this by reinventing everything wholesale.

To quote a whole page from Wikipedia:

The Republican calendar year began at the autumn equinox and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris.

  • Autumn:
    • Vendémiaire in French (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
    • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August

(Thanks Wikipedia! Good luck with your donation drive!)

All of this was rightfully pilloried by the English who (somewhat brilliantly) characterized the Republican months as “Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety”.  Of course years are longer than 360 days, so each Republican year ended with five holidays (or six, on leap years) dedicated to heroes of the revolution.  The calendar abolished the Babylonian week in favor a ten day week confusingly known as a “decade.”  Familiar 24 hour chronology was replaced with decimal time–concerning which, the least said, the better (if you really want to know about this abomination click here).  The years were recorded with Roman numbers.  By Republican reckoning today would therefore be 11 Frimaire an CCXIX.

This is all baffling to good Gregorian thinkers like ourselves.  In fact it was always confusing to everyone–even the most dedicated Jacobins.  After 12 years, during which the French did not know what day, or month, or year, it was, Napoleon finally abolished the Republican calendar on 1 January 1806 (aka the day after 10 Nivôse an XIV).

The brilliant and beautiful part of the Republican calendar lay in the agrarian poetry of the individual days.  During the Ancien Régime, the days of the year were each associated with a saint or a religious festival.  With Enlightenment zeal, the Republican calendar did away with this and each day was associated with either an animal (for days ending in “5”); a tool (for days ending in zero), or a plant/agricultural product (for all other days).  Today 11 Frimaire is “Cire” which means honeycomb.  Yesterday was “Pioche” (Pickaxe) and tomorrow will be “Raifort” (Horseradish).  The plants, animals, and items were all chosen to be synchronized with the rhythm of the year.  For example the animals characteristic of Floréal (which roughly corresponds to May) are the nightingale, the silkworm, and the carp.

Pickaxe, Beeswax, Horseradish: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (source: French Republican Calendar)

This all sounds goofy and it is, but just look over this chart of the days of the Republican year with their individual associations. If you bring a poet’s imagination I guarantee you will be charmed.

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