We’re halfway through Nivôse, the fourth month in the French Republican Calendar. I’ve mentioned now and again in various blogs how interested I am in the French Republican Calendar. “The what?” you may be wondering. Let me explain.
The new Republican Government that came into power after the Revolution wanted to sweep away as much of the Ancien Régime as possible, and this included the calendar. So Charles Gilbert Romme got together a team to create one. The team included chemists, mathematicians, astronomers, poets – key amongst whom was Fabre d’Eglantine – and gardeners.
The calendar was brought in retrospectively. It became active on 24 October 1793, and this was declared to be Year II of the Republic. Years were written in Roman numerals. The first year began 22 September 1792. The autumn equinox was New Year’s Day effectively. We are now in year CCXXVIII, or 228.
There were twelve months each divided into three ten-day weeks called decades. The tenth day, the décadi, replaced Sunday as the day of rest. The extra five or six days of the year to keep in line with the solar calendar were placed after the last month of the year, which is Fructidor. Each day in the calendar was divided into ten hours of 100 minutes consisting of 100 seconds. So an hour was actually 144 conventional minutes long. However, this decimal time didn’t really catch on and was suspended in 1795, although a few places kept using it until 1801.
This French revolutionary pocket watch shows the months and days, but has stayed with the duodecimal time. Photograph by Ludo29 & Rama, Wikimedia Commons
The twelve months were given names based on nature, and from French or Latin roots mainly, and they predominantly reflected the weather conditions around Paris. They were: Autumn – Vendémiaire (starting around 22 Sept, and meaning ‘grape harvest’); Brumaire (fog); Frimaire (frost). Winter – Nivôse (snowy); Pluviôse (rainy); Ventôse (windy). We’re now up to Spring, so starting around 20th March was Germinal (germination); Floréal (flower); Prairial (prairie, hay field). Finally Summer – Messidor (harvest); Thermidor (summer heat); Fructidor (fruit).
An English satirist, George Ellis, nicknamed these (following the January-December order) rather wittily as ‘Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.’ Other versions have ‘Nippy, Slippy, Drippy’ for the winter months and ‘Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety’ for summer! Thomas Carlyle also had a rather more serious go at renaming the months. He opted for the grandiose-sounding Vintagearious, Fogarious, Frostarious, Snowous, Rainous, Windous, Buddal, Floweral, Meadowal, Reapidor, Heatidor, and Fruitidor.
The French Revolutionary Calendar of 1794 illustrated by Philibert-Louis Debucourt
The ten days of the week were much less imaginatively named. They were primidi (first day), duodi (second day), tridi, quartidi, quntidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nontidi and décadi.
Instead of days having a patron saint associated with them, days ending in 5 had an animal connected with them, days ending in 0 had a tool, and other days had a plant or mineral. For example, the 1st ten days of Vendémaire had the following assocations: 1st – grape, 2nd – saffron, 3rd – chestnut, 4th – crocus, 5th – horse, 6th – impatiens (bizzie lizzie), 7th – carrot, 8th – amaranth, 9th – parsnip, 10th – vat. Currently we’re in wintry, snowy Nivôse. The days, with the exception of the usual animal and tool ones, are, as explained by Fabre d’Eglantine in 1793, based on “mineral substances of agricultural use” because “at this time the earth is resting and there are no herbal agricultural products to characterise this month” (Fabre d’Eglantine). The days’ names thus include peat, coal, iron, sandstone, lava, manure and zinc, to give just a few examples.
The five (or six, in a leap year) complementary days were national holidays at the end of each year. Originally called sans-culottides (without trousers!), they became known less imaginatively as jours complémentaires after year III (1795). I’ll tell you more about them another time.
I’ll conclude with the full list of day names for Nivôse in order. (The month began on our 21st December.) Peat, coal, asphalt, sulphur, DOG (this was Christmas Day), lava, humus, manure, nitrate, FLAIL, granite, clay (New Year’s Day), slate, sandstone, RABBIT, flint, marl, limestone, marble, WINNOWING BASKET, gypsum, salt, iron, copper, CAT, tin, lead, zinc, mercury, SIEVE.