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The French Republican Calendar

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The French Revolution is often considered to have begun on 14 July, 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. However, the period of radical change associated with Robespierre's terror and the guillotine did not begin until after the tumultuous summer of 1792, when the new, largely Jacobin legislative assembly called the National Convention sat for the first time and immediately proclaimed France a republic. One year after that proclamation, on 20 September, 1793, a mathematician named Gilbert Romme presented his proposal for a completely new calendar. It was a period marked by a strong sense of new beginnings and radical reform in many areas of public and private life in France. The Catholic church that had been such a dominant force in pre-revolutionary France had come to be seen as 'anti-revolutionary' and the Gregorian Calendar, with its saints' days and religious holidays, was a powerful symbol of that church's underlying influence. Romme had been commissioned to provide 'a more scientific division [of the year], more in phase with the movements of the heavens, the seasons and tradition'. The result was implemented for 13 years between 1792 and 18051 and is known to history as The French Revolutionary Calendar.

A 'Rational' Calendar

The year would no longer begin on 1 January, but at the autumn equinox and anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic: 21 September. Each month was thirty days long, divided into three 'decades' of ten days each. Each 'metric' day was divided into ten hours of a hundred minutes of a hundred seconds.

The ten days of the decade were called: primidi, duodi, tridi, quartidi, quintidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nonidi and décadi. Every décadi was a rest-day for workers. Each individual date was also given a name - replacing the Catholic saints' days - with the quintidi and décadi being named after animals and agricultural tools respectively, and the remaining days after trees, bushes and plants. At the end of the year, the five remaining days of the solar year (16 - 22 September) were proclaimed holidays2: les Fêtes de la Vertu (Virtue), de la Génie (Talent), du Travail (Work), de l'Opinion (Opinion) and des Récompenses (Rewards). In leap years an additional Fête de la Révolution was celebrated.

The poet Fabre d'Églantine was given the task of naming Romme's months, choosing appelations intended to evoke the seasonal changes and the beauty of nature.

Traditional Calendar3Republican CalendarRough Translation4
July/AugustThermidorHot season

The new calendar was adopted by the National Convention on 5 October, 1793, and all documents back-dated to regard the proclamation of the republic - 21 September, 1792 - as the first day of Year I. Thus, September, 1792 - September, 1793 was Year I, 1793/4 was Year II, 1794/5 Year III, and so on. Ordinary people had difficulty adapting to the new calendar, especially the ten-day week, which meant three more working days without a break, and threw the established conventions of trade, such as markets and trade fairs, into disarray. Nonetheless, it endured beyond the revolutionary period5, continuing to be used for several years after Napoleon took power. In 1801, while still First Consul and not yet Emperor, he negotiated a Concordat with Pope Pius VII, which included among its terms that France was to return to the Gregorian Calendar. It is, however, debatable as to whether this or the system's widespread unpopularity or some other administrative motive was the real reason for the abolition of the radical new calendar, as the changeover did not take place until midnight of 31 December, 1805 (10 Nivôse, Year XIV), by which time Napoleon had annexed the Papal states and been excommunicated by Pius VII, who was consequently imprisoned by Napoleon.

1Although it was briefly re-introduced during the 1871 Paris Commune.2These holidays were initially called the 'Sans-culottides' after the radical working-class revolutionary partisans nicknamed the Sans-culottes because they wore trousers instead of knee-length breeches. After the abolition of the Convention and the creation of the Directory in year III (1795) the holidays were re-termed the Jours Complémentaires.3The days on which the new months begin vary, but are all on or around the 21st of the traditional calendar equivalent.4Some contemporary wit in England came up with these rather good satirical translations for the new monthly monickers: Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety.5Generally considered to have ended with the coup that brought Napoleon to power, interestingly known to posterity as the Coup d'Etat du 18 Brumaire.

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