La fête de la vertu

An explanation of the French Republican calendar

La fête de la vertu
Photo by Nicola Fioravanti / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is the festival of virtue. We celebrate what's in your heart.

Today's suit: Hearts (cups)

The hearts suit. From the Bicycle Stargazer deck.
From the Bicycle Stargazer deck.

Hearts represent the spiritual energy you put into the universe.

  • Love
  • Relationships
  • Attitude
  • Personality
  • Intentions

Cups are likewise associated with emotions, and are considered the water suit.

Let's explain the French Republican Calendar

The revolutionaries who overthrew the ancient monarchy were angry, to be sure, and since the revolution segued into a recriminatory regime that was free with the death penalty, it's the anger that sticks in people's minds. But the revolution, to me, represents a moment in history when the battle between faith and reason was the most pitched, and no artifact more explicitly puts up an enduring middle finger to the Catholic Church than the First Republic's brand new calendar.

Coming from the same impulse that led to decimal measurement (hello, metric system), all French rationalists wanted to do was organize time itself into more neatly digital units. By doing so, they could shed all the pesky pagan and religious and Roman naming artifacts that litter the Gregorian calendar and impose something (almost) everyone could enjoy. Then, after putting that math into a grid, they went one better and replaced every single saint's day imposed by the Catholic church with an earthy object: plants, animals, minerals, and tools. In forgoing Catholic splendor, the French stumbled into a proto-transcendentalist worship of nature. In addition to booting the church out of Time Itself, the move also may have been a propaganda attempt to win over rural hearts for what had been, in many ways, a Parisian uprising.

But enough background, let's dig into how it works.

For starters, Year I (they went with roman numerals for years) starts with the founding of the French Republic. Fair, although I'm not sure how they were going to do negative roman numerals for everything that came before.

There are still 12 months, but instead of being named haphazardly for gods and emperors and mismatching numbers, the French named them after French weather.

The year begins on the autumnal equinox with Vendémiaire (grape harvest) followed by Brumaire (fog) and Frimaire (ice). Wintertime brings the trio of Nivôse (snow), Pluviôse (rain), and Ventôse (wind, the freshmaker). By now, you might have noticed the months in each season rhyme because they share a suffix. What a great idea! Next comes spring with Germinal (seeds), Floréal (flowers), and Prairial (grasses) just to warn anyone with allergies what's in store. The year wraps up with summer: Messidor (harvest), Thermidor (heat), and Fructidor (fruit).

Almost immediately upon publication, the English made fun of it by translating the month names as Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, and Poppy.

A revolution-to-normie converter for people who couldn't get used to the new system.

Each month was given exactly 30 days (yay!) which were broken into 10-day work weeks (boo!) known as decades. The names of the days of the week were changed to just literally say their number in order: Primidi, Duodi, Tridi, Quartidi, Quintidi, Sextidi (ooh lala), Septidi, Octidi, Nonidi (needs work), and Décadi. Aside from sounding extremely Italian, the names had the benefit of telling workers when their next day off is coming just by counting up to ten. I assume that in a post-Marxist world, they would have gone for six five-day weeks instead with four days on for every one day off. I could live with that.

For math wizards, you'll notice that 12 months times 30 days equals 360 days. They're five days short, six in leap years! Well, that's what we're doing right now. Between the end of one year and the beginning of the next, the French tossed in five straight "festival" or "compensatory" days that became known as the sans-culottides, after the revolutionaries who wore pants instead of tights. These days did not have days of the week or a month or even a year truly assigned. They just sort of float there. I love the idea of a relaxing five- or six-day holiday stretch for ... everyone but essential workers? Not really sure how that would work.

To be honest, there's a lot of "not really sure how that would work" with the French Republican calendar, starting with the problem of beginning each year on the autumnal equinox. The equinox is orbital, and the day is rotational, and the two are only kind of sort of loosely linked together, which is why we have leap years and leap seconds and all sorts of hard-coded fixes in our calendar to "re-sync" the days with the seasons. In the Gregorian calendar, we can be chill about whether autumn starts on this September day or that September day. But this floating problem broke the French Republican calendar. Or it would have, had it lasted longer than the 12 years it was in place.

Napoleon killed it right as Year XII was wrapping up, and right before his military conquests could have spread the calendar across Europe and given it a fighting chance to become a real boy.

But the doom was probably baked in by an overzealous attempt – what? overzealous and French Revolutionaries? never! – to also make hours, minutes, and seconds decimal.

Each day got exactly 10 hours, with each hour getting 100 minutes, and each minute having 100 seconds. The net result of this: hours that were 240% longer, minutes that were 44% longer, and seconds that were 14% shorter. Nobody liked this. It ceased to be mandated after Year III, though some die-hards (who had probably invested in the new clocks and watches that resulted) kept decimal time alive as late as Year X.

This watch says it's French 3:38, which is regular 8:07 AM. Time to get up!

The failure of the clocks made the permanence of the calendar less certain. And the objects assigned to each day were so adamantly anti-church that they really didn't line up with the saint feasts people were used to. Christmas day was given to dogs, for example.

The Revolutionaries also forgot about the Empire, conveniently. Everything being set to French seasons and vegetables and weather made it very hard for the calendar to make sense in, say, equatorial French Guiana – then and to this day a literal part of French soil in South America.

While the math didn't really pan out as neatly as decimal-crazy rationalists wanted it to, the poetic imagination to assign each day an object of natural or rural life has continued to capture imaginations. For the purposes of this newsletter, I find the seemingly random (but thoroughly seasonal) objects a useful jumping off point for intuitive reading and meditation.

And you know what? Their hearts were in the right place.

Today's video: Kids doing news broadcasts on all this nonsense (3mins)

Frankly, they do a better job than I just did, pronunciation aside.