The Republican Calendar

On the morning of August 11th 1792, the Coup d'Etat which had been brewing for weeks was seen to have succeeded. Georges Danton, appointed Minister of Justice and Head of the Executive, was woken and told the news by two minor poets, members of his party; Camille Desmoulins and Fabre d'Eglantine. Camille immediately became his private Secretary, Fabre was made Guardian of the State Seals. This latter appointment, one of Danton's first actions in power, was to cause his downfall and death less than two years later.

Fabre d'Eglantine was essentially a second-rater. Born Philippe Fabre, he won, as a teenager, a poetry competition and a crown of eglantine, whose name he attached to his own. He was a very minor poet, an unsuccessful tragedian, an unsubtle politician and a transparent crook. In his new post he could get his hands on the wealth of the French East India Company, which he happily plundered for eighteen months.
Meanwhile, everything was to be new. A new Legislative Assembly was elected, known as the Convention. The King was deposed, the Republic was declared. Old Provinces were replaced with new Départements. The Church was nationalised, its property confiscated. Every aspect of French life was to be republicanised, rationalised, secularised. The metric system and decimal coinage are among the reforms retained to this day. Even the Calendar came under fire.

Advanced thinkers had been grumbling about the Gregorian Calendar for a number of years. It was untidy, illogical and priest-ridden; all those feasts and saints' days, all those months of different lengths; imagine, the first of a month could be any day of the week, when in strict logic it ought always to be Monday! The old Calendar had to go.

Its replacement was entrusted to two mathematicians, Lagrange and Monge, under the supervision of Charles-Gilbert Romme, the new Minister of Education. Its use began in October 1793, but the Start Date, point zero, the beginning of Year I, was September 22, 1792, date of the proclamation of the French Republic; so New Year was at the Autumn Equinox.

The new Calendar was strictly logical, with the occasional amusing twist. There were still twelve months, but each of these was of thirty days. The week was replaced by the décade of ten days, the last day being a holiday. The original plan was for decimal subdivision of the day as well, but this proved unworkable.
'Ah but', you say, 'that only gives us 360 days. What about the other five and a quarter?' You do well to ask. At the end of the year, between what would have been September 17 and 22, came five days' holiday – six in a leap-year. These extra days, named after the Common People who wore trousers instead of breeches, were called Les Sansculottides – translated into English by at least one satirist as 'Saint Knickerless' Days'. The period of four years between leap-years, called by the Ancient Greeks an Olympiad, was now to be known as a Franciade, and the extra day at the end of each Franciade was a special celebration, the Feast of the Revolution.

Fabre d'Eglantine was one of the few members of the Government with pretensions to poetry, and he was given the job of naming the months. Fabre threw himself into his task with enthusiasm, knowing in his heart that this was his sole chance of immortality.

The days, being decimal, were simply called primidi, duodi, tridi, quartidi and so on up to décadi.
Fabre named each month after its salient feature. The first Republican month, from September 22 to October 21, he called Vendémiaire – Wine-harvest. Next came Brumaire – misty and Frimaire – Frosty. The month including old-fashioned Christmas was Nivose – snowy. After that came Pluviose (rainy), Ventose (windy), and a truly poetic sequence of Germinal (seedtime), Floréal (blossom time), Prairial (the month of meadows), Messidor (harvest-time), Thermidor (summer heat), and finally Fructidor fruit-bringer.
Which is why the events of succeeding years have such strange names. It was on 17 Floréal, Year II, that Fabre, along with Danton and a dozen friends, went to the guillotine for the corruption proved against them by Robespierre. It was on 9 Thermidor that Robespierre himself followed them; and it was the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, Year VIII, that brought to power Napoleon Bonaparte, who as Emperor in 1806 finally returned France to the Gregorian Calendar, in line with the rest of Europe which he had conquered.

Footnote: in England at the same time George Ellis, writing as 'Sir Gregory Gander', suggested a similar renaming of the months. His list made a little rhyme which children used to learn. Starting, naturally, in January, it goes:

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,
Showery, Flowery, Bowery,
Hoppy, croppy, droppy,
Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.