Thursday, November 03, 2005

I wish you all a merry Jerusalem Artichoke Day!

You may not be aware of this, but according to the French Republican calendar, today, Tridi 13th Brumaire of the Year 214 of the Social, Universal and Indivisible Republic, is Jerusalem Artichoke Day. Accordingly, the Militant Pine Marten would like to congratulate all Jerusalem artichokes, and wish everyone else a very happy Jerusalem Artichoke Day.

The French Republican calendar is an interesting one, having been officially introduced on 6th October 1793, or in Republican parlance Vendémiaire 15th, Year II of the Social, Universal and Indivisible Republic. The idea behind the Republican calendar was to do away with the religious connotations of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to replace the less accurate Julian calendar. The Julian calendar had been introduced by none other than Caius Julius Caesar in 45 BC, however as the Julian year was about 11 minutes longer than the actual time between two consecutive Spring equinoxes. Therefore by 1582, the measurement of time was somewhat out of kilter, so on the 4th October of that year, the Pope announced that actually it was October 15th, and eleven days of everyone’s lives were wiped off the slate. General levels of numeracy and literacy weren’t great back then, and a lot of people resented the fact that their lives had been shortened in this way. But there was nothing for it: Gregory had taken the eleven days, he wasn’t going to give them back, and we still use his calendar today.

Except, that is, for France and its dominions between 6th October 1793 and September 9th 1805, or Fructidor 22nd Year XIII if you prefer. The Republican Calendar is not in fact physically very different from the Gregorian calendar, since it is also a solar calendar, however it differs in the ideas behind it. Essentially these are that it should be divided into nice, orderly units in base 10, and that all religious connotations should be replaced with proper reasonable Republican ones. In practice, it works like this. The year is 365 or 366 days long if it’s a leap year. This is divided into 12 months (a slight slip-up with respect to the base 10 agenda) of thirty days each exactly. No more of this messy, illogical 30, 31, 28 and 29 days every leap year malarkey! In the same way, the silly seven day weeks are replaced with three ten-day decades in every month. Days have ten hours, each hour being further subdivided into one hundred minutes, comprising one hundred seconds. That last bit never caught on and was quickly abandoned. You’ll notice that this adds up to only 360 days, so to make up for it there are five or six complementary days at the end of each year known as sansculottides in honour of the revolutionaries amongst the common people who didn’t wear culottes or pantaloons, and wore trousers instead. Apart from the Republican clock aspect, which is frankly taking a decent idea just a little too far down the path of decimal militancy, it’s a perfectly serviceable calendar.

More importantly, it is a fun calendar. The names of all the months were devised by the (bad) poet Fabre d’Eglantine, whose only lasting legacy is the lacklustre French folk song ”Il pleut, il pleut, bergère”. However on this occasion he surpassed himself, and the months are named after changes on the natural world associated with the time of year. The year starts on the Autumn equinox (mostly the 22nd September but variable, something of a shortcoming), on Vendémiaire 1st, which is the month of the grape harvest, the vendanges. This is followed by Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse, Germinal (yes, like the film with Gérard Depardieu and the novel by Emile Zola), Floréal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor. The days of the ten-day week however have pretty uninspired, arid names: Primidi, Duodi, Tridi and so on up to Decadi. You can spot the influence of the base 10 zealots there. Instead of all those backward Monarchist saints, the days are devoted to animals, plants and agricultural implements, hence today being Jerusalem artichoke day. Finally, the year ends with the five or six complementary days, which are the Festivals of Virtue*, Genius, Labour, Opinion (good inclusion, that one), Rewards and finally of the Revolution.

Assuming you’re still reading, you may be wondering what the point of all this is. The answer is simply that I think it was a fun calendar, and that in a way it’s a shame that Napoleon abolished it because he found it inconvenient and annoying. I’d like it if some enterprising printer decided to produce some up to date Republican calendars (it was New Year’s just over a month ago). And of course I wanted to celebrate the Jerusalem artichoke, a vegetable that doesn’t enjoy the spotlight very often, and that deserves more recognition.

If you’d like to experiment with the Republican calendar, or just have a bit of fun in your lost moments, you can download a free Gregorian/Republican converter by clicking here.

*The Festival of Virtue just happens to be the Militant Pine Marten’s birthday.

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