Saturday, 21 July 2012

Logic, Poetry and Revolution

I know I’m a week late...

Bastille Day was last Saturday but I wanted to write about some of the things I absolutely love about the French Revolution. Not the guillotine and the years of Terror, the burning of chateaux, massacres and terrible abuses of power, of course. I just love the revolutionaries’ enthusiasm for change, their thirst for reform and their sometimes completely crazy ideas.

Take the calendar which came into effect in 1792 and remained in place until Napoleon abolished it in 1806.

It wasn’t enough to make a break with the old Gregorian calendar and its references to the birth of Jesus Christ and to turn 1792 into the Year 1 (An I) of the new era. In the republican calendar, months and days were renamed and rearranged in a more ‘logical’ manner so that there were twelve months which were each divided into three exact periods of ten days.

Forget the old lundi (Monday), mardi (Tuesday) and so on… The new days were called primidi, duodi, tridi, quartidi, quintidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nonidi and decadi! Decadi was the day of rest. However, many people protested that they were losing out under the new regime since they only had a day of rest in ten days whereas before there was a Sunday every seven days!

The new republican year didn’t start on January 1st but at the time of the autumn equinox, around 22nd September.

To make the break with the ‘Ancien Régime’ even more drastic and erase any mention of Catholic saints and festivals, each day was placed under the sign of a plant, an animal or an agricultural implement. Some days sound wonderfully poetic (Reseda, olive, pistachio, basil, peach), others very down to earth (water can, manure, shovel) and others just a little weird (salt, lead, zinc, pig, donkey!).

The poet Fabre d’Eglantine was given the task to find new names for the months which would evoke the power and the beauty of nature. I must say I think he did a good job.

For autumn, he chose Vendémiaire (from the word 'vendanges' which means grape picking), Brumaire (mist) and Frimaire (wintry weather). In winter, we had Nivôse (snow), Pluviôse (rain) and Ventôse (wind). The spring months were Germinal (germination), Floréal (flowers) and Prairial (meadows). Finally Fabre d’Eglantine named the summer months Messidor (from the summer 'moissons' or harvests), Thermidor (heat) and Fructidor (fruit).

As there were five days left at the end of the year (from 16th to 22nd September) Fabre d’Eglantine decided there would be celebrations of republican values such as Virtue, Engineering and Work. A most peculiar celebration was the ‘Fête de l’Opinion’ during which French people were allowed to make fun of civil servants and public figures any way they liked – be it caricatures, songs or pamphlets. According to Fabre d’Eglantine, the ‘Fête de l’Opinion’ would make sure there could be no abuse of power from the men in charge of public affairs. Was he a little naive? Poor Fabre d'Eglantine was guillotined on 17th Germinal, Year II (6 April 1794). I wonder if it was because the civil servants didn’t like his idea of the ‘Fête de l’Opinion’!

But that’s not all!

Obsessed with mathematical rigour and scientific reasoning, the revolutionaries also decided to change the way time was measured and divide the day into 10 hours, themselves divided into 10 parts, each one divided in a further 10 measures! The new time system didn’t however go down very well and confused people too much. It was abolished in 1795 (Year III). 


  1. Marie, this is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea such nonsense ever existed. But then, on the other hand, it's quite logical too. Thanks for enlightening me.
    Suzanne de Montigny

    1. Thanks Suzanne! This period of history is full of incredible facts and stories!

  2. Marie, History was one class where I wasn't paying attention as a kid -- clearly I missed some fascinating stuff. Thanks for the post.

    1. Thank you for your comment Margaret. I'm glad you found it interesting!

  3. Interesting, well-researched blog, Marie. The musical 'Les Miserables' really brings home the enthusiasm and the ideals of the revolutionaries.

    1. Thank you for dropping by and for your comment, Kristal!