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No. 2134:
Time in the Revolution

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, historian Rob Zaretsky tells time in the Revolution. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Governments tamper with calendars, like constitutions, at their own risk. Even though a three-day weekend would suit us all, the fourth of July always falls on the fourth of July, no matter how inconvenient for vacations and barbecues. Certain dates are sacred, especially in secular republics.

The year 2006 marks the 200th anniversary of the demise of an ambitious experiment in date fixing: the French revolutionary calendar. The change boiled up from below. After the storming of the Bastille, many Frenchmen and women spontaneously began to date letters as the "second day of freedom." 

Legislators soon sought to institutionalize the change. Debate quickly rose over beginnings. For many, it was hard to ignore the traditional appeal of January first: could the year actually start on any other day? It must, replied the champions of the 14th of July -- the day the Bastille fell. They were challenged, though, by those who wanted to remain on the same page with the rest of Europe. 

Yet, as the revolution grew more radical, so too did the views of the reformers. By 1793, the Republic was born, the Terror was brewing, and the king had quite literally lost his head. Since politics and society had changed so dramatically, shouldn't the calendar change as well? In fact, shouldn't time be reset to zero? The time of kings, after all, had passed; the time of citizens had arrived. 

1792, the year Louis XVI was deposed, thus became Year One. And the first day of the year was no longer January first. Nor was it the 14th of July. Instead, it was September 22nd, the day on which the Republic was declared. It also happened to mark the autumn equinox -- hardly coincidental in the revolutionaries' eyes. "Equality of day and night was marked in the sky, declared one deputy," on the same day that "civil and moral equality were proclaimed by the representatives of the people."

The marriage of nature and history was reinforced by new names for the months. Thermidor (the time of heat) fell in summer, Germinal (or sprouting) in spring, Pluviose (the wet month) in winter, and Vendémiaire (from vendange, or harvest) in fall. The spirit of rationalism was also cultivated: the months were now divided into three ten-day components: the decimal system, based on the number of fingers, simply seemed more logical than a seven day week. 

But it was also less practical: the new calendar left five days unaccounted for. The calendar's inventor, Fabre d'Eglantine, thus proposed that these loose ends be given over to festivals celebSaint Justrating industry, heroism, genius and the like.

Yet reason could not trump tradition in the end, especially when reason caused Sunday, the day of rest, to disappear. While economists were delighted by the change, the people were not: one revolutionary extremist Saint Just proved no match for Saint Gregory. In Year 14, better known as 1806, Napoleon re-established the Gregorian calendar, acknowledging a reality to which the revolution was blind: governments propose, but tradition disposes.

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001). With John Scott, he is co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding, to be published by Yale University Press in 2007.

S. Simon: Citizens. (Knopf, New York, 1989).

M. Ozouf, Revolutionary Calendar. The Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, F. Furet and M. Ozouf, eds., trans. A. Goldhammer (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1989).

Images from F. Hamel, A Woman of the Revolution: Thèroigne de Méricourt.(London: Stanley Paul & Co., ca. 1911).

The Fall of the Bastille