It is of no surprise that the French Revolution was a turbulent time, not only for French history but for all the world. The events that occurred between 1789 (the revolutionary movements started earlier in 1787) and 1799 shaped the course history for the entire world. But it was not until 1792 that the French adopted a new way to measure time; the French Revolutionary Calendar or better known at the time as the French Republican Calendar. The first day of the first Republican year fell on September 22, 1792, 1 day after the monarchy in France had been abolished.
In short, it was a convoluted new way to measure time through months, weeks, days and hours to prevent royal and religious influence on the people. It is based on decimal time and it was mandatory in France from 1792 until 1795, but was in use for a total of 13 years. It was not completely abolished until 1805 (or year XIV) after Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor.
The long and short of it was that weeks, as of 1792 (or year 1), were no longer 7 days but a grueling 10 days in length. This meant that instead of 6 days between days of rest there were now 9 days to every day off.
The days were named as follows, starting with day 1 and ending with day 10: Primidi, Duodi, Tridi, Quartidi, Quintidi, Sextidi, Octidi, Nonidi, and Decadi.
Days were also changed from two 12 hour periods equaling 24 hours in a day to one 10 hour day.
The hours they used were not equivalent to how we measure time. Each hour consisted of 100 minutes that were each in turn 100 seconds long. Trying to determine how the 24 hour and 10 hour day match each other is complicated until you look at the clock as it were a math problem. Half a minute is no longer 30 seconds, it is .5 or 50 seconds (out of 100 seconds that constitute a minute). Forty-five seconds therefore is turned into .75 or 75 seconds, and so on.
Looking at a decimal clock you would see 10 at the top representing midnight, while 5 is at the bottom representing noon, as opposed to 6-o-clock. Five is half of 10 marking the halfway point of the day, which is noon. It’s complicated until it is learned and it begins to make sense, especially in terms of mathematics.
There were still 12 months to the year but every month had 30 days and was divided into 3 weeks (or as they called them, decades). The first month of the year always began on the autumn equinox, so their new years would have occurred during our fall. The day in which autumn equinox occurs varies from year to year falling either on September 22, 23 or 24.
Below are the names of the months, starting at the beginning of their year (all names are French so I have provided translations in parentheses for you):
Vendemiaire (grape harvest)
Germinal (from germination)
Thermidor (summer heat)
What is quite possibly the most confusing aspect of the calendar is that each and every day had its own unique name. Here are 3 random examples: November 30 in the Gregorian calendar was Frimaire 10: Pickaxe, May 24 in the Gregorian calendar was Prairial 5: Duck, and August 5 was Thermidor 15: Almond.
There was a system used in which the naming had a purpose. Every day of the year that ended in 0 was named after agricultural tools, days ending in 5 were named after common animals, while the rest of the days were named after grains, fruits, flowers, plants, trees and roots. The month Nivose, the first month of winter, was the exception to this rule where all days ending in numbers other than 5 and 0 were named after minerals. All the animals, tools and other items coincided with the season of the year they represent.
At the end of the year, every year in the French Revolutionary Calendar, there were 5 extra days between the last day of the year and the first. These 5 complimentary days, which is what they were called: les jours complementaires, were national holidays and each had its own purpose of celebration. Day 1 was the Celebration of Virtue, day 2 was the Celebration of Talent, 3 was Labor, 4 was Convictions, and 5 was Awards. Leap year would always present itself with one extra day giving one extra day of celebration for Revolution.
And yet it didn’t catch on…. I wonder why?