Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Daisy Ventôse: The Strange Ecology of the French Revolutionary Calendar

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I am in the midst of listening to a long series of podcasts on the French Revolution in the Revolutions Podcast which focuses on important revolutions around the world. One of the things that has always struck me about the French Revolution is that it is arguably the apotheosis of the enlightenment. Many scientists were deeply involved in the revolution. Plus, many scientists and public intellectuals lost their heads as the revolution navigated the choppy waters of the late 18th century.

One of the oddest outcomes of the revolution was the French Revolutionary Calendar, more commonly called the Republican Calendar. It is a strange mix of math and science that ended up being impractical. Year 1 started when the monarchy was abolished.  It continued for 12 years. It died out with the radicalism of the revolution.

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The math aspect of the calendar is based on the decimal system. The architects of the calendar still kept 12 months, but divided each month into three ten-day weeks with the last day of the week being a rest day. This new day, called, logically, décadi, was distinctly not a religious day--after all, the revolutionaries were getting rid of religion along with the monarchy. Each day was divided into 10 hours and the hours into 100 minutes which of course were different from our current definition of a minute. In other words, it was a sharp departure from the past. This unique composition of time fit the era of scientific discovery and anti-traditionalism.

While the break down of time was based on simple math, the naming of the months and days were based on science and nature.

The year started in spring. The months, which do not translate exactly to our current months, consist of the following seasonal names (hopefully I translated correctly):

Grape Harvest

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The months corresponded to either agricultural activities or natural conditions that could be expected during that time period. For example, the current month we are in is Ventôse (wind). This makes sense since this time period is very windy.

The names for the days of the week were not all that colorful. They were called first day, second day, third day...all the way up to tenth day. Spock would have loved the day names.

However, things get very interesting when one delves deeper. To counteract the various saint days and feast days of the church, the revolutionaries named each day of the year using some incredibly unusual rules. Each tenth day was a named for a tool. For example, our February 28th was called Axe in the revolutionary calendar. Each fifth day was named for an animal that provided food or labor. Our February 3rd was Cow. December 25th, another fifth day, was Dog (remember the revolutionaries were anti-religious). All other days, except for the month of Snow, were named for plants. Today is Daisy Ventôse (March 14th). Tomorrow is Tuna because it is a fifth day. The non-fifth or -tenth days in Snow were all named for rocks or minerals. January 7th, for example, is Limestone.

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The choices of the revolutionaries are fascinating. Why did they have a day name for slate and not for sandstone? Broccoli gets a day, but not okra. Crocus, but not tulip. Violet but not lilac. Perhaps tulips and lilacs were too royalist? Is sandstone counterrevolutionary? Did the person who suggested schist get the guillotine?

The revolutionary calendar was an attempt to develop a rural approach to time keeping. While the revolution was popular in Paris, it was not entirely supported by rural regions and provincial cities. Most of those killed in the Reign of Terror were from outside Paris and sought to put the brakes on the radicalism perpetuated in the capital. The calendar celebrated ruralism over urbanism to try to unify the revolutionary image.

I cannot think of another invention quite like the French Revolutionary Calendar. By using a unique mix of math and science, along with a bit of cultural realism, the revolutionaries attempted to transform how we interpret time. While it didn't last, it provides a lovely cherry on top of the sundae of enlightenment.

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