In 1793, the French had a revolution – and they decided they needed a new calendar to go with it. The below explains a little bit about how it worked – no knowledge of French history needed — or given for that matter.
The French Revolutionary calendar is comprised of 10 months. One month was comprised of three ten-day weeks. Days were 10 hours long and hours were made up of 100 minutes. A minute lasted 100 seconds. French radicals, drunk on that certain je ne sais quoi of enlightenment rationality, we’re totally into the metric system. They were so drunk, in fact, that their new system actually modified the fundamental length of a second. Seconds got shorter precisely because hours got longer. 10 hours in a day with one hundred one-hundred-second-minutes each, meant that an hour would have taken about 145 “normal” minutes while a second was just .864 times the length of a conventional second. New clocks were manufactured to display decimal time, but weirdly, did not sell well.
Moreover, the revolutionaries decided that the old system of naming months for Greek gods and days for Catholic saints smacked of the Ancien Régime and religious superstition and simply would not do. Instead, they named each month after the environmental condition with which it most corresponds (Snowy! Hot! Harvest Time!). They then designated each day a particular fruit, vegetable, herb or mineral – unless the numerical date ended with a five or a zero, in which case it was named for an animal or a tool. If you’re imagining that life under the French revolutionary calendar was sort of like a never-ending game of 20 questions, you’re probably right.* Imagine trying to make plans…
Pierre: Bonjour Jacques!
Jacques: Bonjour Pierre!
Pierre: I am sorry to hear that your cousin Françoise was beheaded.
Jacques: Oui. But to be fair, he was not a friend of the people.
Pierre: Oui c’est vrai.
Jacques: I do wish I had gotten his recipe for Coq au Vin, though. He made a great Coq au Vin.
Pierre: Yes that is too bad….Speaking of Coq au Vin, we should have lunch next week!
Jacques: Is that in two days or in five days?
Pierre: Next week starts in 3 days.
Jacques: Ah ok. Are you busy on Dandelion day?
Pierre: I am. But I’m totally open on Goat day!
Jacques: Excellent! Goat day lunch in the snowy month it is.
Pierre: Goat day is in the windy month.
Jacques: Right! …. I really need to get one of those page a day calendars.
Pierre: Oui. I recommend it. Also flashcards help. Anyway, I really must go. We’ve been chatting for nearly 100 seconds!
Jacques: A whole minute! Ok – see you next week! Au revoir!
Pierre: Au revoir!
(*Some dramatic license taken here. People actually referred to the days by their decimal names — ie., Second Day or Ninth Day — but that’s still confusing.)
Also, years were reset to one. So for example, today’s date would be Parsley day in the 220th year of the 3rd French Century. I’m not even going to bother figuring out what time it is.
Of course, you can’t actually tinker with lengths of time (even seconds) and not expect things to get a bit thrown off. Or hugely thrown off, in this case. If the system were still in use, there would have been periods where wintery conditions (like, real world January) corresponded with months with names meaning “Summer Heat” or “Flowering.” Moreover, the fact that there were 12 months with 30 days each meant that there were five or six extra days at the end of each year that had to be dealt with. This “intercalary” period was known as the sanculottides – though not because it was pants-optional or even business casual. These “complementary days” were named for the radical peasantry without whom the revolution would never have happened and each day was named for a romantic aspect of this class – virtue, labor, genius, honor, conviction and of course, revolution. Appropriately, workers were to be given these days off. Which was nice, especially considering that under the new calendar everyone had far less free time than they had prior to the revolution (one day of rest for every ten days worked – before the day of rest occurred every 7th day, aka Sunday). Per Robespierre, “Hey Sanscoulottes, just our little way of saying merci!”
In sum, the whole grand experiment was a total mess and no one took to it at all. In fact, Napolean abolished the system entirely in 1805 (or in the 12th year of the first French century). The calendar was revived briefly in 1871 during the Paris commune where it was used for a brief, and no doubt frustrating, 18 days. The legacy of the calendar is also pretty slim. Students of political theory are familiar with the month of Brumaire, of course, and according to wikipedia, the dish Lobster Thermidor is at least indirectly related to the month of the same name (Thermidor — not lobster).
Below see the original decree making that made the new calendar law. If you don’t really care about the history but just want to know what crazy day it is, go here: www.twitter.com/JacobinCalendar.