The French Revolutionary Calendar

In the Oxford Austen online class I have just completed, I discovered a number of websites relating to the British Navy that we studied for the units on Mansfield Park and Persuasion.  The Historical Maritime Society has a wealth of information and is worth a look-see – I append here one bit of interesting revolutionary-era history that was new to me, and quite a good chuckle as well, so prepare for a belly-laugh!:

The French Revolutionary Calendar

One of the peculiar manifestations of the French Revolution was the adoption of a totally new calendar, ‘The Calendar of Reason’, which was based on the system used by the Ancient Egyptians. From time to time anyone reading contemporary documents will be aware of this system and a brief explanation is included here.

In the build-up to the Revolution it was not just the aristocratic class that was despised by the new ‘thinkers’ but also the Roman Catholic church with its all-pervading influence on the lives of ordinary people, its feasts and fasts, coupled with its reactionary support of the hated ‘aristos’. Consequently one of the aims of the 1789 Revolution was the rejection of the relatively new Gregorian calendar (promulgated by Pope Gregory) adopted by France in December 1582 (although not in Britain until 1752).

In 1792 the revolutionary Committee of Public Instruction began to investigate the possibilities of this change and formed a subcommittee to do this. It contained Astronomers, Mathematicians and also Poets and Dramatists and finally published the results of its deliberations in September 1793. This was followed by a decree in October bringing in the new calendar.

The start date for this was 22nd September 1792, the date which marked the start of the French Republic, a date which, it was claimed, marked the beginning of equality for all Frenchmen. The calendar consisted of 12 months, each with 30 days. On top of this there were to be 5 ‘jours complémentaires’ (originally called ‘sansculottides’ after the practice of common non-aristocrats of wearing trousers, not breeches) and leap years were to have an extra jour complémentaire. This was based on the Ancient Egyptian calendar, still used by some Eastern Orthodox Christian churches.

The poets among the committee chose the names of the new months and in particular this task fell to Philip François Nazaire Fabre d’Eglantine, whose nomenclature reflected the character of each particular month. These are presented below with an explanation (mine) of the word’s root. Remember when reading these that the calendar began in late September (Gregorian).

  • Vendémiaire Wine-harvesting
  • Brumaire  Foggy 
  • Frimaire  Frosty 
  • Nivose Snowy
  • Pluviôse  Rainy
  • Ventose  Windy
  • Germinal  Plant germination 
  • Floréal  Flowering season
  • Prairial  Meadows
  • Messidor Reaping and harvesting 
  • Thermidor  Heat
  • Fructidor  Fruit harvest 

 Predictably the furiously anti-French literary establishment across the Channel in Britain made fun of this by christening the months, Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety!!


[text from Historical Maritime Society – click here for more information:  when at the home page, click on “Nelson and his Navy” and follow the various links]

Further Reading:

[Posted by Deb]

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