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French Revolution
French Revolution

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5 Enlightenment, universalism and revolution

5.1 Revolutionary calendar and metric system

We considered earlier the universalist principles of 1789 deriving from the Enlightenment that inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the redivision of France into departments. As the dominant group in the Convention by 1793, the Jacobins regarded themselves as mandated to enact the ‘general will’ of the people in a sense inspired by Rousseau: not as the aggregate weight of the individual aspirations of 28 million Frenchmen, but as the expression of that which, as virtuous men and citizens, Frenchmen ought to want. Always confident of their own understanding of the ‘general will’, the Jacobins aimed to shape public consciousness and to propel it in given directions through art and the media. At the lowest level came the distribution to the army of Le Père Duchesne to stimulate the fighting men's revolutionary ardour.

The Jacobins revolutionised time itself. In October 1793 the Convention decreed the introduction of the revolutionary calendar based on a 10-day week (and originally even a 10-hour day) and a year of 12 months of equal length (30 days each, to which extra days were added at the end of the year).

Exercise 9

Examine Plate 3 headed Calendrier pour l'an III de la République Française (Calendar for year III of the French Republic). Why do you suppose 1795 became ‘year III'?


The Convention sought to mark a clean break with the past by establishing a new revolutionary, republican era to replace the traditional Christian era. The use of Roman numerals also suggested a classical, pre-Christian epoch.

Click to view Plate 3: Calendar for Year III of the French Republic, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

The new calendar was introduced in 1793 after the replacement of the monarchy by the republic. The year 1792 was retrospectively renamed ‘year I’ to mark a new era in the evolution of mankind dating from the establishment of the republic, and the year began on 22 September, the date of the founding of the republic. Dates before 1792 – including 1789 itself – were expressed as, for example, ‘the year 1789 of the Old Regime (ancien régime)’. To a deputy who argued that year I should be 1789 rather than 1792, another deputy replied, to applause: ‘We have been free only since we have no longer had a king’ (Furet, 1996, p. 117). The cult of the republic, as Hampson puts it, was becoming ‘something of a religion in its own right’ (1981, p. 20).

Names for the new months were invented to correspond with natural phenomena, climatic and agricultural. Autumn consisted of the months Vendémiaire, Brumaire and Frimaire, to signify respectively harvest, mist and cold. The winter months were named Nivǒse, Pluviǒse and Ventǒse, months of snow, rain and wind. The three spring months signified seed time, flowering time and meadow – Germinal, Floréal and Prairial – followed by the summer months of Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor, or summer harvest, heat and summer fruit. Britons scorned the revolutionary calendar. A satirical contemporary translation ran: Slippy, Nippy, Drippy; Freezy, Wheezy, Sneezy; Showery, Flowery, Bowery; Heaty, Wheaty, Sweety (Doyle, 2001, pp. 116–17). The calendar was intended to be universal, but the names of the new months were inappropriate for the southern hemisphere, which is cold during the ‘hot’ month of Thermidor.

The new calendar lasted until 1806. The 10-hour day was particularly short-lived. The 10-day week, with a rest day occurring only on the tenth day (Décadi) instead of on the seventh, was not popular! Nor was the renaming of the weekdays popular (Primidi, Duodi, Tridi, i.e. first day, second day, third day), or the replacement of saints’ days by days named after agricultural and botanical terms (25 November, St Catherine's day, became the day of the pig).

What characterises these defiantly utopian reforms is the radical break with the past, the application of natural, mathematical and universal principles that would (in the words of the poet Fabre d'Eglantine, who devised the names of the months) ‘enlighten the entire human race’ (Kennedy, 1989, p. 348). Similar thinking lay behind the metric system of weights and measures, introduced by decree in 1795, with its divisions and subdivisions into units of ten. It was intended to replace the multiplicity of weights and measures current in Old Regime France, about which complaints were common in the cahiers de doléances of 1789, and to be based on concepts of universal, albeit Franco-centric, validity. The arc of the meridian from the North Pole to the equator, measured at the Paris Observatory, became the basis of the metre. Area and volume were fixed by squaring and cubing the metre, and weight was calculated in units of a cubic decimetre of water.

Like the new calendar, the metric system was hailed by one member of the Convention as a ‘benefit to humanity … worthy of the Great Nation (Grande Nation) to whom it belongs and of other civilised people, who are also probably destined to adopt it sooner or later’ (Kennedy, 1989, p. 79). The metric system was indeed spread by the revolutionary armies across most of continental Europe, where it has become standard.