In 1792, the people of France overthrew their monarchy and established the French Republic.
The leaders of the French Revolution didn’t just want to change the French political system, they wanted to radically overhaul French culture and society as well.
That extended all the way to the very calendar which was used to keep track of time.
Learn more about the French Republican Calendar, how it worked and why no one uses it today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The French Revolution was about a lot more than putting the king in a guillotine…..although to be fair, that was a big part of it.
Changing the political system in France was only the start of the things which the revolutionaries wanted to change.
The government took control of the church. All members of the clergy became state employees and all church property was confiscated.
They desecrated the graves of former French kings and queens in the cathedral of St. Denis.
They also wanted to make basic changes to everyday life. Many of these changes fell under the broad category of decimalization.
I don’t want to downplay the idea of decimalization because many decimalization schemes actually made a lot of sense.
In 1795, the French Republic introduced a new decimalized currency called the Franc, which replaced the Livre. They were following the lead of the United States which had recently become one of the first countries to decimalize its currency.
The movement for decimalization also led to the creation of the metric system. A system of weights and measures entirely divided into units of base-10, with a universal standard of measure.
Despite the reluctance of the United States to embrace the metric system, I think most people would say that the metric system and decimalized currencies have been a good thing.
But not every decimalization effort was a success. In particular, the attempts to decimalize time.
Before I get into the French proposals to change how we track time, I want to give a brief overview of how we measure time.
At first glance, it is understandable why someone could find our system of timekeeping to be very strange.
There are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour, but 24 hours in a day.
There are 7 days in a week, 28 to 31 days each month, and 12 months in a year.
This isn’t the sort of system that you would probably create if you were starting from scratch.
The number of seconds in a minute and the number of minutes in an hour have ancient roots. It probably came from the Babylonians who had a base 60 counting system.
Day and night were divided into units of 12, probably by the Sumerians and the Egyptians, which when put together, make 24.
Grouping days together in units of 7 to make a week was probably started by the Assyrians and their king Sargon of Akkad in 2350 BC. The days of the week come from the ancient Norse, as did the word “week” itself.
I’ve done episodes in the past on the creation of the calendar and the development of the Julian calendar and the related Gregorian reforms. Prior to the Julian Calendar, the Roman calendar was a huge mess, and other countries with lunar or lunisolar calendars have dates that can float all over the place.
On top of all that, the dating of years in the western world is based on what they thought was the birth of Jesus, which didn’t sit well with the French Revolutionaries.
So, given all these odd systems of time measurement, it is easy to understand why someone might want to try to simplify the system.
In addition to the complexity of the time system, in the French religious calendar, every single day of the year was dedicated to at least one saint. So, calendar reform wasn’t just a matter of simplicity, it was also a matter of secularization.
The National Convention, which was basically the French parliament once the republic was established, created a committee to create a new calendar for the new republic. The person who was appointed to head the committee was a mathematician by the name of Gilbert Romme.
Romme and his committee, which consisted of several scientists and at least one poet, came back with a proposal for a total overhaul of the French calendar. It was proposed to the National Convention on September 23, 1793, and adopted one month later.
Here I should note that Gilbert Romme, like so many others in the French Revolution, later became one of its victims. Just two years later he was sentenced to the guillotine but stabbed himself to death on his way out of the courtroom after he was sentenced.
At this point, you are probably wondering “so what exactly was this new calendar adopted by the French Republic”?
For starters, they picked a new date from which to start this new epoch. There was a great deal of debate about what date should be used, and even what year. Some thought it should start with the French Revolution in 1789, and others that it should start with the founding of the Republic in 1792.
Then there was debate about if January 1 should be continued to be used as the start of the new year.
Eventually, they settled on year 1 of the new calendar beginning on September 22, 1792, the establishment of the Republic. However, the actual start of the year was pinned to the autumnal equinox, which often did fall on September 22.
This was done retroactively as the new calendar was proposed and approved the year 1793.
So according to the new calendar, it was adopted in year 2. According to the convention used, the year number was to be expressed in Roman Numerals.
The months were a much bigger change. There were now to be 12 months in each year, with each month being exactly 30 days.
Weeks were to be replaced by a set of 10 days known as a “decade”. People would be expected to work for 9 days and then get the 10th day off, and a half day off on the 5th day.
The names for the days of the week would simply be “first day”, “second day”, “third day”, etc.
Each month would have exactly 3 decades.
At this point you might be wondering, “but Gary, 12 x 30 is equal to 360, and there are 365 days in a year. What happened to the other 5 days?”
That….is an excellent question.
At the end of each year, there would be a period of five days known as les sans-culottides, named after the common people in France called the sans-culottes, which translated literally means “without underwear”.
It was later changed to the much more generic les jours complémentaires, which just means ‘additional days’.
There would be a sixth additional day every fourth year for the leap year. These additional days would be holidays in France. Each day would honor some noble attribute. They would be virtue, talent, labor, convictions, honors, and the leap year day would celebrate the revolution.
The names of the months were all totally changed. Instead of Roman names, they adopted new names which reflected the seasons.
The first month, again beginning on the autumnal equinox, was Vendémiaire. This was named after the grape harvest.
The second month was Brumaire, which comes from the word mist.
The third month was Frimaire, which comes from the word for frost.
You’ll notice that all three months in a season have the same ending.
The fourth month was Nivôse, which comes from the word for snowy.
The fifth month was Pluviôse, which comes from the word for rainy.
The sixth month was Ventôse, which comes from the word for windy.
The seventh month was Germinal, which comes from the word for germinate.
The eighth month was Floréal which comes from the word for flower.
The ninth month was Prairial, which comes from the word for prairie.
The tenth month was Messidor, which comes from the word for harvest.
The eleventh month was Thermidor, which comes from the Greek word for heat.
And the twelfth month was Fructidor, which came from the word for fruit.
So far, this was a whole lot for the average person to wrap their head around.
…but wait, there’s more.
They also changed how time was kept within a single day.
Each day was to be divided into 10 decimal hours. Each decimal hour was to be divided into 100 decimal minutes. Finally, each decimal minute was divided into 100 decimal seconds.
So the decimal hours were actually 144 minutes, each decimal minute was 86.4 seconds, and each decimal second was .86 seconds.
There were decimal time pocket watches created, which are today highly prized because they are so rare.
On top of all of this, the calendar of saint’s days was replaced with each day representing some sort of plant or mineral. So instead of referencing the Feast of Saint Agnes, for example, you would now reference the day of broccoli….and yes, that was a real day.
So, if we fast forward 230 years, we find most of the world using decimalized weights and measures, as well as decimalized currencies. However, no one uses decimalized time or the French Republic calendar.
What went wrong?
Well, there was a whole bunch that went wrong.
For starters, selecting the beginning of the year to always begin on the autumnal equinox didn’t fit with the leap year pattern. It sounded good on paper, but it didn’t quite work out.
In our Gregorian calendar, the equinoxes and solstices happen when they happen, and we don’t schedule anything around them.
Another problem was that no one else used this calendar. Whereas something like the metric system could be adopted universally, no other country was going to set their calendar to the start of the French Revolution. It simply made everything confusing with dealing with anyone outside of France.
Also, people are just stuck in their ways, and once you are old enough to read a clock, the time system we have really isn’t that confusing. It was more confusing to adopt something new than it was to keep using the old system.
Also, a system of 10-day weeks where you get one day off is far worse than having one day off every 7 days.
Mostly, the common people just never bought into it and kept using the old calendar.
The entire Republican Calendar system as well as decimal timekeeping was abandoned when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1805. It lasted for all of 12 years.
It did make a very brief comeback for 18 days during the Paris Commune in 1871.
There has never been any grassroots movement to bring it back.
There are a few historical events that occurred during the French Republic which are referred to by their Republican Calendar dates. For example, the coup which brought Napoleon to power is still known as the coup of 18 Brumaire.
If you want to mess around with it just to be cheeky, there are online calendars that will convert Gregorian Calendar dates to French Republican dates.
For example, the day I am publishing this podcast is 20 Messidor CCXXX.
There have been many attempts at creating alternative calendar system, which I know because I’ve researched the heck out of them for other episodes.
The fact is, no other calendar is really going to be much better than what we have. That is because our days, months, and years do not evenly divide into each other nicely, which means we will always have some sort of mess leftovers to deal with.
The French Republican Calendar ultimately failed because it was trying to solve a problem that was never really a problem, and provided an alternative that wasn’t really any better than what it was replacing.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Gman Brad, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write,
So glad I found this podcast!
How this podcast can be so consistently fascinating is a testament to its creator! I look forward to every new episode!
Thanks, Gman! The key to making episodes that are fascinating is that I just pick topics that I find fascinating. It has worked so far and I figure that there are lots of inquisitive people out there just like me.
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