One thing we take for granted, especially in the industrial era, is the keeping of time– and a stable, standardized way to measure its passage. Yet in the France of the 1790s, the calendar itself was temporarily abolished and replaced with a whole new one. In its place, a French revolutionary calendar, or calendrier républicain (Republican calendar) was widely used, both in France and other countries then under French rule (including the Netherlands and Belgium) that is strikingly different from the Gregorian one we again use today.
Keep reading to learn why and how the “Republican calendar” was instituted by French revolutionaries in 1793, and scroll down for the names and basic meanings behind each of the months and days of the week.
A Bit of History
By 1792, the French revolutionary government that had ruled in various forms since 1789 had decidedly rejected the option of a constitutional monarchy– one it had initially celebrated with great fanfare. The monarchy was abolished that year and King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were sentenced for treason (alongside many prominent figures who opposed what would later be called the revolutionary “Reign of Terror”).
The leaders of this staunchly Republican revolutionary government held that toppling the monarchy and draining political power from the Catholic church wasn’t enough. To create an enduring Republic, they believed it was necessary to do away with customs and norms associated with these formidable religious and royal institutions. That included ditching the Gregorian calendar, replete as it was with Christian and other traditional references.
In October 1793, mere days after Queen Marie Antoinette was executed and a few months after King Louis XVI met the same fate, a new “Republican” calendar was introduced. It retroactively named what had been formerly known as 1792 “Year 1 of Liberty”. While the calendar is often referred to in shorthand as “the revolutionary calendar” (including here), it commemorates not the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, but the later date at which the first Republic was formally declared.
Used (and replicated in various formats) between late 1793 and January 1, 1806, when the Emperor Napoleon I ordered its scrapping and the restoration of the Gregorian calendar, the Republican Calendar was briefly taken up again by the leaders of the short-lived Paris Commune revolt in 1871.
Main Features of the Calendar: Time Comes Unhinged
The authors of the calendar changed the names of months and the days of the week, eliminating all Judeo-Christian religious references and replacing these with Latin-based names that most frequently referred to plants and other natural phenomena.
Replacing “Saint’s Days” in the Gregorian calendar, each day of the year was assigned a seasonally appropriate plant, flower, fruit, or other food/food preparation item (for example, October 4th corresponds to Potiron (winter squash or pumpkin); May 25th is Mélisse (lemon balm); etc).
And since all twelve months were assigned 30 days and none 31, the calendar allowed for five or six “complementary days” at the end of the year. Call them “bonus days”, if you will.
Weeks were accorded 10 days each and divided into three “decades” to compose a full month of 30 days. None were assigned 31. There were only 10 hours assigned in a day, each lasting over two Gregorian hours; these were then divided into much smaller units expressed by decimals.
Many clocks and watches from the period reflecting this odd decimal-based system for expressing the time (as in the image of the vintage pocket watch shown just above).
Meanwhile,.the 10 days of the week were named as follows (and also feature on the pocket watch above:
- primidi (first day)
- duodi (second day)
- tridi (third day)
- quartidi (fourth day)
- quintidi (fifth day)
- sextidi (sixth day)
- septidi (seventh day)
- octidi (eighth day)
- nonidi (ninth day)
- décadi (tenth day)
From our current vantage point, the French revolutionary calendar might appear to be a bit of an imaginative folly, or a quaint relic from a feverish and often-violent period in the nation’s history. Yet its charming re-imagining of annual cycles and rhythms, and particularly its references to natural elements, plant and animal life, are enduringly intriguing.
The Republican Calendar, Month by Month
1. Germinal (March 21 or 22 to April 19th or 20th)
Marking the first month of spring, Germinal refers to budding plants. Its name derives from the Latin word “germen”, meaning bud or sprout. The French novelist Emile Zola would later give the name to his famous novel of 1885.
2. Floréal (April 20th or 21st to May 19th or 20th)
The second spring month is Floréal, referring to the blossoming of seasonal flowers. It marks the beginning of the sign of Taurus (interestingly, many calendars associate each month with corresponding western astrological sun signs, which suggests they weren’t as purely secular as they claimed to be. A sort of “New Age” counterculture avant la lettre flourished during the 1790s, one might argue…
3. Prairial (May 20th or 21st to June 19th or 20th)
The third and final spring month under the calendrier républicain is Prairial, which makes me immediately think of swaying summer grasses. It comes from the French prairie, or meadow. While it has a pleasant sound to it, one of the most brutal laws of the revolutionary reign of terror was enacted on 22 Prairial An 2 (June 10th, 1794): one that deemed “enemies of the people” less deserving of certain basic rights.
4. Messidor (June 19th or 20th to August 17th or 18th)
The summer begins with Messidor, often depicted and described as a time of relaxation, rest and enjoyment (especially outdoors) after a period of labor.
Frequently symbolized by wheat, it refers to a period of harvest. The first three days of the month correspond to three crops important in France at the time: rye, oat, and onion.
5. Thermidor (July 19th or 20th to August 17th or 18th)
Midsummer in the revolutionary calendar corresponds to Thermidor, or “month of warmth”. The month has since become associated with the events of the so-called “Thermidorian reaction”, which refers to the ousting of the ruthless Robespierre in Thermidor Year 2 (July 1794) and the waning of the “Reign of Terror”. The term still appears in reference to other moments of revolutionary excess and their subsequent demise through counterrevolutionary tactics.
6. Fructidor (August 18 or 19 to to 21 or 22 September)
Late summer marks Fructidor, or the time of fruitfulness. This is traditionally the moment when many fresh fruits and nuts would be ripe and harvested, which is why several days in the month pays tribute to plums, barberry, lemons, watermelons, walnuts, etc.
7. Vendémaire (September 22nd, 23rd or 24th to October 21st, 22nd or 23rd)
Referring to the vendanges, or wine harvests, late summer turns to early autumn with Vendémaire. This is traditionally the period of the year when France harvest the year’s grapes to produce wines, hence the celebration of events such as the Vendanges de Montmartre in Paris each October.
8. Brumaire (October, 22, 23 or 34 to November 20, 21 or 22)
As fall deepens and the days grow darker, we reach Brumaire, from the French brume or brumeux for fog/foggy. As in our own calendar, late October and November are associated with reflection and darkness, death and the promise of renewal.
In terms of key events during the month of Brumaire, the 18th of the month marks the anniversary of General Napoleon Bonaparte’s successful 1799 coup, which would lead to the end of the first revolutionary period in France and help usher in the First Empire in 1804 (with Napoleon crowning himself Emperor.)
9. Frimaire (November 21, 22 or 23 to 20, 21 or 22 December)
Moving closer to the solstice, Frimaire marks the beginning of winter and its dark nights. The word comes from the French frimas (frost). On the 11th day of this month in 1804 (when the calendar was still in use), Napoleon was crowned as France’s first Emperor.
10. Nivôse (December 21, 22 or 23 to January 19, 20 or 21)
On or directly following the winter solstice comes Nivôse, the month of ice and snow (from the Latin word nivosus, or “snowy”). Of course, while traditional winter religious holidays including Christmas were no doubt quietly celebrated by many during the 1790s, they would likely have been de-emphasized during the early years of anticlerical revolutionary fervor. Christmas services in churches were banned for many years, during the time when a “Cult of Reason” took the ceremonial place of Christian rituals.
11. Pluviôse (January 20, 21 or 22 to February 18, 19 or 20)
The end of the winter in the Republican calendar was dubbed Pluviôse or the rainy season. Its name derives from French pluvieux, or rainy. One is left wondering whether temperatures and climatic in France during the 1790s were milder and wetter at this time of year than they are now, since February is typically a cold and relatively dry month in our era (at least in Paris).
12. Ventôse (Starting February 19, 20 or 21)
Finally, a thaw is around the corner as we reach Ventôse, or the windy month (from the French venteux, or windy). It is conceived, as it is in our own calendar, as a period when hopeful hints of spring begin appearing in the form of early blooms and the return of certain birds.