Main contributor: Dr. David Heffernan

The French Republican calendar, also known as the French Revolutionary calendar, was devised in the early 1790s by the government of Revolutionary France. The revolutionaries in France held a belief that they were not just overthrowing the old regime of king, aristocracy and church, but were building an entirely new kind of society, one based on the highest ideals of the European Enlightenment. One small prong of this was the creation of a new calendar. The calendar consisted of twelve months of 30 days each, with names like Germinal (late March/early-to-mid-April) which indicated that this was a month for seed ‘germination’. The leftover five days (six in a leap year) were referred to as 'Complementary Days'. Additionally, the month was divided into three even weeks of ten days each. The calendar was adopted by the revolutionary government in 1793, but it was only used for twelve years, having been abandoned at the end of 1805 on the orders of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as the new calendar had failed to catch on and many French men and women continued to live according to the specifics of the old Gregorian Calendar.[1]

Historical context

The French Revolutionary Calendar was introduced in the context of the French Revolution. This began in 1789 after King Louis XVI of France called the Estates General, the French parliament, to meet for the first time since 1614 as his government tried to pull the country out of a major economic crisis. Matters soon spun out of control though and the parliamentarians seized power and launched a revolution. At first, they attempted to create a constitutional monarchy, but, eventually, Louis was dethroned and a republic was declared.[2]

The French Republican Calendar (1794) by Philibert-Louis Debucourt

The revolutionaries perceived that they were not only fashioning a new political system, but were creating a brand new society, one based on rational thought and grounded in the ideals of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. To this end, they introduced a vast array of social and cultural reforms. For instance, the metric system was first devised and introduced by the revolutionary government to replace the old system of imperial weights and measures which had predominated across Europe for centuries. Similarly, the first modern public museum was set up in Paris in the shape of the Louvre, while new innovations in everything from public health to education were also introduced by the new government.[3]

Another element of this program of social and cultural reform was the introduction of a new calendar. There were extensive reasons for doing so. France, like nearly all of Europe and the Americas, used the Gregorian Calendar in the late eighteenth century. This had been introduced to Europe in 1582 on the orders of Pope Gregory XIII. The revolutionaries were rabidly opposed to the Roman Catholic Church and its immense power and as part of their drive to destroy the church’s influence over French society they determined to replace this Papal-sanctioned calendar with an entirely new calendar. A commission headed by figures like the mathematician and astrologer, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, and the poet and playwright, Fabre d’Églantine, was formed and in 1793 they presented the new calendar they had devised to the revolutionary government. The government adopted it in October 1793, but backdated its use to mid-September 1792 when the monarchy had been abolished and the First French Republic was established.[4]

Details of the calendar

The new calendar was divided into twelve months, like the Gregorian Calendar that had preceded it. These, however, consisted of an even thirty days each, with the extra five or six days being referred to as 'Complementary Days', a system which mirrored the five epagomenal days which had been used in the ancient Egyptian calendar. The twelve months were divided into three weeks of ten days each, rather mundanely called primidi (first day), duodi (second day), etc. The months were given names that reflected the seasonal weather of France and the agricultural activities that were pursued at different times of the year. Thus, the summer months were referred to as Messidor (June/July), Thermidor (July/August) and Fructidor (August/September), referring broadly to the harvest (messis), the summer heat (thermon) and the fruit season (fructus).[5]

The first day of the new year was 1 Vendémiaire, the first day of autumn in the new calendar and one which fell between 22 and 24 September each year. The name of the month came from the French vendage for ‘vintage’, indicating the centrality of wine to French society at the time as the grape harvest was transformed into the alcoholic beverage. The calendar was adopted in France in the autumn of 1793. It would subsequently be extended to other parts of Europe as the French Revolutionary government and then the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte conquered more and more territory, establishing sister republics in places like Switzerland, the Low Countries and much of northern and central Italy.[6]

Relevance in modern times

The Coup of 18 Brumaire by Francois Bouchot

The French Revolutionary Calendar was abandoned on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte, the recently crowned Emperor of the French, in 1805, with the old Gregorian Calendar re-entering use from 1 January 1806. Few French people had adopted the calendar unequivocally and unlike other innovations of the revolutionaries, such as the introduction of the metric system of weights and measures, it was decided the calendar had failed and it was dropped. The only time that it was used again was in 1871 when it was briefly adopted by the Paris Commune government for 18 days during a period of revolutionary fervor in the French capital after the Franco-Prussian War.[7]

Today the calendar is most often cited when discussing some of the major political events of the French Revolution and imperial periods that followed between 1793 and 1805, notably the events in Paris on the 5th of October 1795, when a young Bonaparte intervened militarily to prevent the overthrow of the revolutionary government by a counter-revolutionary plot. The events of that day are referred to as 13 Vendémiaire, the date of it in the French Revolutionary Calendar.[8] Similarly, the coup d’état through which Bonaparte effectively seized power in France on the 9th of November 1799 is generally referred to as the coup of 19 Brumaire. Hence, while it was never popular in the 1790s and 1800s and was quickly abandoned, the French Revolutionary Calendar still has a residual appearance in the histories of the French Revolution and Napoleonic France.[9]

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