Germinal, Floréal, Prairial: The Re-Imagined Spring of the French Revolutionary Calendar

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ah, the first day of spring. As snows begin to trickle away and green slowly reappears, spring brings with it the perennial promise of longer, warmer days. If you happened to live during the heady days of the French revolution, today would also mark the start of a spring month: Happy first day of Germinal!

Following the unseating of the French monarchy and the institution of the French Republic in 1792, cultural revisionism was all the rage. Those newly in power methodically stripped away the relics of France’s ancien régime and sought ways to modernize. During this era, the metric system and a decimal clock were introduced as more rational, symmetrical measures befitting a new era of progress. In 1793, after the revolutionaries rejiggered the calendar into 36 décades, or 10-day weeks (and 5 or 6 Sansculottides to keep the calendar in line with the sun), poet Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine was tasked with revising the names and designations of the Gregorian calendar for the French Republic. Revealing his revisions to the French National Convention that year, the poet presented the new calendar as “substituting for visions of ignorance the realities of reason, and for the sacred ... the truth of nature.”

A self-professed nature-lover, Fabre longed to bring France back to her agricultural roots, and he drew inspiration from natural and rural life for the new calendar. The 12 months were re-aligned to the year's natural intervals—the solstices and equinoxes (hence the arrival of spring ushering in a new month). Each season was subdivided into three months, and Fabre played on French and Latin roots to coin new names that evoked each month’s moment in the natural cycle. Painter Louis Lafitte was commissioned to provide illustrations for each month, and they beautifully display the pastoral symbols and themes.

Spring arrived with Germinal, a name that calls to mind sprouts, buds, and the germination of plant life.

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It was followed by Floréal, named for flowering blossoms.

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The next month, Prairial, was named for the cultivation of meadows.

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The months of the other seasons were given names like Messidor (from the Latin messis, meaning grain harvest), Vendémiaire (from an old Occitan word associated with the vineyard harvest), and Nivôse (drawing on the Latin nivosus, meaning snowy).

The new names didn't evoke positive images for everyone. When the rival British wrote their own translation of Fabre’s new names—“Messrs. Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy, Wheezy, Sneezy, and Freezy”—they were unmistakably poking fun at his creations. Even more problematic was a glaring bias toward the region in and around Paris. Nivôse may have drawn light-hearted mockery in the French Mediterranean, but in the overseas territories, the calendar was downright chauvinistic. For a government proclaiming liberté and égalité, the calendar was a glaring insult to fellow citizens scattered among France’s holdings as far afield as Haiti and Mauritius. And even if Fabre’s ode to farm-life were received quaintly in France, the décades’ longer workweek and fewer rest days drew the ire of the country’s laborers. Add in a lasting discrepancy over the reckoning of leap year, and the calendar could hardly be considered a success.

In the end, the calendar suffered the same fate as the Republic. Having been crowned Emperor by the Catholic Pope, Napoleon swept the calendar to the wayside in 1806. Fabre wasn't around to see his revolutionary creation’s fate: Like many of his comrades, Fabre lost his head to the guillotine in 1794 as the revolution crumbled into the “reign of terror.”

Like Fabre, France’s new Emperor recognized the power of symbols in reinforcing systems of thought. The calendar was resigned to the footnotes of history. Ironically, one of its most lasting vestiges is in 18 Brumaire, the notorious date historians agree ended the republic and marked the ascension of Napoleon as head of state.