La Revolution a retrempé les ames des Français; elle les forme chaque jour aux vertus républicaines. Le temps ouvre un nouveau livre à l’histoire ; & dans sa marche nouvelle, majestueuse & simple comme l’égalité, il doit graver d’un burin neuf & vigoureux les annales de la France régénérée.
(The Revolution has replenished the spirits of the French ; every day it forms them to republican virtues. The times open a new book to history, and in its new course—majestic and simple as equality—one must carve with a new and vigorous chisel the annals of a regenerated France. [Romme, Rapport sur l’ère républicaine, Case FRC 24687, p. 2.])
It’s early January, and the passage of time is very much on our minds as we hang new calendars and make resolutions. Just as a new year invites fresh beginnings, so, too, can fresh beginnings invite a new measure of time, resetting the clock.The authors of the French Revolution marked their epoch-making changes with a new Republican calendar, one that would commemorate the new republic’s Age-of-Reason ideals in both structure and taxonomy. The Gregorian calendar is untidy in its uneven months and septenary weeks, and its nomenclature is a palimpsest of religious and political accretions.
Chez tous les peuples, le calendrier a été un talisman puissant que les prêtres ont toujours su diriger avec succès, pour s’attacher la classe nombreuse des esprits foibles. Chaque mois, chaque jour, chaque heure offroient à leur crédulité de nouveaux mensonges. C’est aux Français de la nouvelle Ere qu’il appartient de faire servir le calendrier à propager le vrai, le juste, l’utile, en faisant aimer la patrie & tout ce qui peut assurer sa prospérité.
(For all peoples, the calendar has been a powerful talisman that priests have always used successfully to bind the multitude of weak minds. Each month, each day, each hour plied their gullibility with new lies. It is left to the French of the new era to make the calendar serve to spread the True, the Just, the Useful, in fostering a love of country and all that which can assure prosperity. [Romme, p. 14.])
Year one began on 22 September 1792 with the ratification of the Constitution; thenceforth the first of the year would coincide with the autumnal equinox. The French Republican Calendar, like other aspects of the metric system then being introduced, would be decimal: each month would consist of thirty days and be divided into three, ten-day weeks or “decades.” (So, too, would time be decimalized, with the alarming consequence of a day consisting of ten 144-minute hours.)
The result can be seen in Case FRC 1816, the first page of which shows the first month of year II of the French Republic. In this pocket calendar, the derivation of the month’s name is explained, then the days are arrayed: day of the month, day of the decade, object of commemoration, and finally—and from a practical standpoint, most importantly—the conversion to the “common era” (ere vulgair).
Romme envisioned a calendar that would be “useful above all to those who work the fields, since the calendar should be simple like nature, from which it is inseparable” (Nous avons cherché ce qui pouvoir convenir sur-tout à l’homme des champs, dont le calendrier doit être simple comme la nature, dont il ne se sépare jamais). To this end, the days of the decade are given straightforward numerical appellations: primidi, duodi, tridi. The names of the months reflect the season: vendemiaire, as the pamphlet explains, derives from vendemia, the grape harvest. (Romme suggested politically-charged names that were, in the end, not adopted.) Saints’ days are replaced with commemorations of natural things: grapes, saffron, chestnuts.
As the elimination of saints’ days attests, a calendar “simple like nature” must be free of religious connotations. The function of the Sabbath—rest and moral instruction—would be assumed by the decadi, and traditional feasts commemorating the lives or deeds of religious figures would be supplanted by new celebrations exalting secular virtues.
In one slate of proposed festivals (Case FRC 22157), for example, the decadi of nivôse (corresponding to late December and early January) would be dedicated to industry, to friendship, and “to winter and wisdom, fruit of the years.” The struggle between the old and the new systems is reflected in the satirical Combat sanglant entre le dimanche et le decadi (Case FRC 1814). The difficulty of the switch was perhaps less philosophical than practical: a ten-day week was very long, indeed.
The Republican Calendar, abolished in 1805, was relatively short-lived. Another alteration in how time was marked and experienced was longer lasting: the removal of church bells. In some Revolutionary quarters, bell-ringing was seen as an aural manifestation of the ancien régime, imposing the rhythms of the Catholic Church on the very soundscape of daily life. As church and state were uncoupled and monastic orders were suppressed, bells began to be removed. Thanks to the Republic’s pressing need for copper (and in an odd reversal of the swords to ploughshares principle), decrees of summer 1793 ordered church bells melted down and converted into cannon. Meanwhile, the aural fabric of cities was changed for good, as 80% of French bells were lost to the Revolution.
The question of bells, soundscapes, the ancien régime, and the experience of time and history in France is big news in 2012. As The New York Times recently reported, the mid-19th-century bells currently hung at Notre Dame in Paris are set to be replaced by 17th-century reproductions. This restoration project has sparked controversy, stirring up strong feelings about the bells being replaced and the political significance of reinstating this aspect of the ancien régime. The controversy betrays the talismanic quality of those things that help us mark time and serves as a reminder that the French Revolution is very much still with us.
Today is 17 nivôse, year 220 of the French Republic. This calendar converter is a handy tool for translating Gregorian dates into the Republican calendar, among others.