A French Revolutionary Calendar: J. F. Lefevre's Calendrier national

On 22 September 1793, the day of the autumn equinox, the first day of the new calendar was proclaimed. At nine o’clock, eighteen minutes
and thirty seconds in the morning, the sun reached its true equinox. According to revolutionary gospel, the very moment when day and night
occurred in equal duration was the moment when the French people buried for good their feudal past to be reborn as free and equal citizens of
the new Republic.

 


J.F. Lefevre. Calendrier national calculé pour 30 ans et présenté à las Convention Nationale en décembre 1792. Photothèque des musées de la ville de Paris. Museum Carnavalet, Estampe Collection.

 

This calendar, which celebrated the Revolution
as a return to natural time, counted Year One
from 1792 and remained in place until 11 nivôse
Year XIV (1806). Its major reforms include naming
the months after the seasons – Brumaire, Germinal,
Thermidor
– and replacing the saints of the old
calendar with the names of flowers, vegetables and
farming utensils. St. Francis of Assisi became the
day of the pumpkin while St. Ignatius was dedicated
to the aubergine.

It also imposed a decimal division onto time. The weeks
were divided into ten day units called the décade, while
the days of the weeks were renamed Primodi, Duodi,
Tridi
, Quartidi with the tenth day, the Décadi, as the
official day of rest. Ten hour days divided into one hundred
minute hours were also decreed, but with little practical
success.

Accompanying this new division of time into twelve months
of thirty days each, were the five or six days added to the
end of the year. Called sanculottides these days were dedicated
to the new public festivals that were to replace the rituals
of the Christian Church. These include the festivals of Virtue,
Genius, Work, Opinion and Reward with, every fourth year,
an extra day dedicated to celebrating the Revolution itself.


In the above version of the calendar, offered to the Convention by J.F. Lefevre on December 1792, the origins of the calendar in an encyclopedic universe, are quite evident. The calendar, like the Encyclopédie itself, was to serve at once as a new ordering of human knowledge as well as a new model of social relations. Its aim was a rationalization that was also a secularization of time, a way of taking the power of representation away from the king and his priests. In this image, the new calendar is heralded with scrolls describing the destruction of the old regime, a chronology of the world from creation to the end of royalty, the celebrated events of the Revolution, the division of the French territory into départements, the Copernican planetary system, astrology and a compass. The prominent place given to the description of the French forces indicates to what extent a new division of time was linked with a new sense of the French nation as defined by natural boundaries and no longer the body of the King.


As depicted in this image, the revolutionary calendar stands at the heart of a Revolution that claimed to be making universal history. At the same time, the contradictions of the new calendar – is it nature or history? a patriotic memorial for the French people or a universal standard of time? – indicate the conflicting representations of time that simultaneously lay claim to represent the new public sphere.


Sanja Perovic, Stanford University
10-27-03

SER Home | About the Archive | Contact