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French Republican Calendar

Published: August 12, 2011 at 7:09 am
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This week's comedy tale is brought to you, as usual, by author and journalist Eugene Byrne who tells the story of the French Republican Calendar. Introduced by the French government in 1793, it was rather a short-lived experiment that formed part of a number of changes introduced after the revolution


The story

In 1793 the French government, as part of an ongoing programme of reforms following the revolution, introduced a new calendar. Each day was divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, each minute into 100 seconds. Each month was of 30 days, divided into three ten-day weeks. The remaining five days of the year (six in leap years) were special national holidays.

The system was devised by a high-powered committee of politicians and scientists. The names of the new months were devised by the poet and playwright Fabre d'Églantine (1750–94). Starting in the autumn, the new months were:

Vendémiaire – from the Latin for grape harvest
Brumaire – from the French for fog
Frimaire – from the French for frost
Nivôse – from the Latin for snow
Pluviôse – from the Latin for rain
Ventôse – from the Latin for wind
Germinal – from the Latin for germination
Floréal – from the Latin for flower
Prairial – from the French for prairie or grazing land
Messidor – from the Latin for corn harvest
Thermidor – from the Greek for the sun's heat
Fructidor – from the Latin for fruit

Back in cynical old England, some wag quickly translated these as: Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy; Slippy, Drippy, Nippy; Showery, Flowery, Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety

The truth

The 'Republican Calendar' was a short-lived experiment, lasting from 1793 to 1805, when it was done away with by Napoleon. It was also briefly revived in the 1848 revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune. The modern French navy's six Floréal-class frigates are also named after months in the calendar. Apparently, a handful of French folks, including historical re-enactors, still informally use the calendar to this day.

It's also remembered by historians who still usually refer to major events during this period by their Republican dates, e.g. Napoleon's 'Coup of 18 Brumaire'.

Calendar reform was one of the least successful planks in the programme of changes unleashed by the revolution. The same Enlightenment-era thinking also gave France (and later much of Europe) a new legal code, and of course, the metric system.

You'd think it would be comparatively easy to identify the British joker who so efficiently sent up the ideals (or pretensions, if you prefer) of the Republic's new calendar, but it turns out not to be that easy. One 19th-century book tentatively attributes it to author and wit Sydney Smith.

Meanwhile, another Briton had a go at translating the new month names, too. Thomas Carlyle, in his vivid (some would say histrionic) three-volume account of the French Revolution called them: Vintagearious, Fogarious, Frostarious, Snowous, Rainous, Windous, Buddal, Floweral, Meadowal, Reapidor, Heatidor, and Fruitidor.

The trouble with Carlyle and his daft made-up words, though, is that he wasn't joking! Frostarious, indeed.

Meanwhile, if you would like to go over to the Republican Calendar, either permanently, or just to temporarily get on everyone's nerves, here's a website where you can calculate each day's Republican date.

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You can read more of Eugene's historical jokes and stories at www.historyextra.com


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