End of a Revolution – the French Republican Calendar

Two hundred and five years ago today, 31st December 2010, the French Republican Calendar was abolished by Napoleaon. It had come into being in late 1793. (It was briefly revived for 18 days in 1871!)

The new Republican Government that came into power after the Revolution wanted to sweep away as much of the Ancien Régime as possible, and this included the calendar. So Charles Gilbert Romme got together a team to work one out. The team included chemists, mathematicians, astronomers poets and gardeners!

The calendar was brought in retrospectively. It became active on 24 October 1793, and this was declared to be Year II of the Republic. If it’s all starting to sound complicated already, you’re right! This is French bureaucracy after all! Anyway, bear with me. Here are the main points.

Years were written in Roman numerals. The first year began 22 September 1792. The autumn equinox was New Year’s Day effectively.

There were twelve months each divided into three ten-day weeks called decades. The tenth day, the décadi, replaced Sunday as the day of rest. The extra five or six days to keep in line with the solar calendar were placed after the months at the end of the year.

Leap years were called sextiles and the extra leap day every four years marked the end of the ‘franciade’, four year period.

Each day in the calendar was divided into ten hours of 100 minutes consisting of 100 seconds. So an hour was actually 144 conventional minutes long. However, this decimal time didn’t really catch on and was suspended in 1795 although a few places kept using it until 1801.

The twelve months were given names based on nature, and from French or Latin roots mainly, and they predominantly reflected the weather conditions around Paris! They were: Autumn – Vendémiaire (starting around the 22nd Sept, and meaning ‘grape harvest’); Brumaire (fog); Frimaire (frost). Winter – Nivôse (snowy); Pluviôse (rainy); Ventôse (windy). We’re now up to Spring, so starting around 20th March was Germinal (germination); Floréal (flower);  Prairial (prairie, hay field). Finally Summer – Messidor (harvest); Thermidor (summer heat); Fructidor (fruit).

The ten days of the week were much less imaginatively named. They were primidi (first day), duodi (second day), tridi, quartidi, quntidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nontidi and décadi.

Instead of days having a patron saint associated with them, days ending in 5 had an animal connected with them, days ending in 0 had a tool, and other days had a plant or mineral. For example, the 1st ten days of Vendémaire had the following assocations: 1st – grape, 2nd – saffron, 3rd – chestnut, 4th – crocus, 5th – horse, 6th – impatiens (bizzie lizzie), 7th – carrot, 8th – amaranth, 9th – parsnip, 10th – vat.

The five (or six, in a leap year) complementary days were national holidays at the end of each year. Originally called sans-culottides (without trousers!) they became known less imaginatively as jours complémentaires after year III (1795).

So there are the bare bones of the Republican Calendar. I think it is utterly fascinating! There are various conversion sites on the web, a couple being http://www.windhorst.org/calendar/ and http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/calendar/.

So why not go Republican in 2011 and use a different method of marking time!

0 Replies to “End of a Revolution – the French Republican Calendar”

  1. The clearest explanation I’ve read, but I think I’ll be sticking with the Gregorian calendar! As you say, typically French. No doubt administering all this provided jobs for more than a few bureaucrats.
    Happy New Year and happy blogging in 2011.

  2. Like Vanessa, I’m going to stick with the Gregorian calendar! When I read the title of this post on Twitter, I thought that it was going to be about the different Republics in France because I had just finished writing about the Second and Third Republics. With so many different Republics and now the French Republican Calendar, my head is swirling, but thanks for introducing me to it. You’re right – it’s a fascinating subject.

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