The calendar vs. enlightenment

SUN JOURNAL

Months: The rationalists of the French Revolution sought a time-keeping system free of arbitrariness, but tradition ultimately carried the day.

January 01, 2000|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,SUN STAFF

If Reason and Science had prevailed, there would be no foolishness about whether the millennium begins today or a year from now. It began a little more than 207 years ago on the First of Vendemiaire, Year I of the Republic.

Alas, Superstition and Clericalism triumphed instead -- or perhaps it was the human resistance to change -- and so we continue to be enslaved by a time-keeping system associated with pagan and Christian supernaturalism. Rare is the child of the Enlightenment whose calendar marks today as 9 Nivose CCVIII.

The men who made the French Revolution, storming the Bastille and beheading the king, intended to create a new epoch in human history, characterized, as they said, by Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Reason and Science should rule, and that meant the creation of logical systems like metric measurement.

Above all, mankind should be liberated from the obscurantist tyranny of religion. And that meant, among other things, a rational calendar, purged of its religious and festival associations.

It would not be enough just to rename months and days. To change the way people thought about the calendar would entail a new system. A metric calendar would be ideal, based like the measuring system on 10s and 100s.

Unfortunately, sun and earth are intractable to French logic, and it proved necessary to acknowledge the awkward, non-metrical number 365 for the days in a year (366 in leap years).

So there was no getting around some scheme on the order of 12 months of 30 days each. The five extra days (six in leap years) could be given over to holidays. Not so different, alas, from the existing 12-month calendar.

Dividing the months offered more scope for creative radicalism. Instead of four seven-day weeks that never evened out from one month to the next (except in February, another offense to logic), the new calendar's months would be composed of three 10-day periods called decades.

And of course, the new calendar needed a new origin. Past calendars had been pretty much arbitrary. Lately, Jan. 1 marked the New Year, but for a time in the Christian era it fell on Lady Day, March 25 -- nine months before Christ's birth on Dec. 25 -- when the Angel Gabriel broke the news to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Savior.

Was there not, the French revolutionaries asked themselves, a more important date for the foundation of human reckoning than some ancient superstition?

Of course there was. Enthusiasts were already referring to the beginning of the Revolution in 1789 as "Year One of Liberty." The reformers would begin their calendar from the proclamation of the Republic, Sept. 21, 1792. The next day became the first of Year One. In today's shorthand it would be written 01/01/01.

Beautiful. Logical. But in fact there was no Year I of the Republic, for it wasn't until Year II -- what we call 1793 -- that the calendar was adopted and back-dated.

Happily, the calendar began with the autumn equinox. Thus the republican calendar was aligned with the heavens, as well as with the dawn of human happiness. The months would track the seasons, beginning and ending them on an accurate schedule. The five or six extra days needed to align the calendar with the solar year were inserted at the end of the twelvemonth.

To name the months, the revolutionaries turned to the poet and man of letters P. F. N. Fabre d'Eglantine. His guiding principles were that the names should describe the characters of the months and also ennoble the human soul by conveying the harmonies of the French language.

Thus in autumn, the months were Vendemiaire (vintage), Brumaire (fog) and Frimaire (frost). These have a grave sound and a medium measure.

The winter months were Nivose (snow), Pluviose (rain) and Ventose (wind) -- with heavy sounds and long measure.

Spring months have a lively sound and short measure: Germinal (seed-time), Floreal (blossom) and Prairial (meadow).

And summer -- Messidor (harvest), Thermidor (heat) and Fructidor (fruit) -- provides sonorous sounds and broad measure.

Sonority and harmony these names may have had, but not universality. In the Southern Hemisphere, for example, Thermidor would be the coldest month.

Nevertheless, the plan satisfied the rationalist's thirst for tidiness. More important, it severed the link with the old calendar. Which month corresponds to Germinal? None precisely; otherwise, people could just make mental substitutions and keep thinking in old calendar terms. But Germinal is part March and rather more of April.

And when is Lady Day, March 25? Is it the 5th of Germinal, or the 4th? And when is the Feast of the Assumption, which used to be on Aug. 15? Now it's the 28th of Fructidor, except in leap years, when it's the 27th. Or is it the other way around? Wait a minute, whose leap years, the new calendar's -- which come before the third, seventh, 11th years -- or the old calendar's, which are in years divisible by four?

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