Saturday, June 7, 2008

Republican Calendar

French researchers in genealogy or local history inevitably run into a quaint but annoying thing (little known outside France) called the Republican Calendar. Shortly after the French Revolution of 1789, and for a period of fourteen years (from 1792 until 1805), France abandoned the ancient Church-inspired calendar, designated as Gregorian, and replaced it by a rapidly-contrived system with new names for years, months and days. For example, my birthday, on 24 September, is named Chestnut in the Republican Calendar, while Christine's, on 8 January, is Marble. [It's not hard to understand why our marriage couldn't possibly be harmonious!]

The inventor of the new names was a romantic author referred to as Fabre d’Églantine, who joined the revolutionary leaders as a secretary in 1792. [In this concocted name, Églantine designates a wild rose.] An egoistic scoundrel, he was guillotined with Georges Danton on the Republican date of 17 germinal an II [April 5, 1794]. These days, we remember Fabre d’Églantine as the poet who wrote the words of a famous lullaby: Il pleut, il pleut, bergère. It's a love song addressed to a girl who's minding her sheep out in the fields.

It's raining, raining, shepherdess! The singer tells the wet girl that rumbling thunder indicates an approaching storm, and he invites her into the warmth of his house. Recently, in a splendid TV saga entitled Voici venir l'orage [Look, a storm is coming! ], concerning the dramatic flight from Russia of the Jewish ancestors of the French movie directrice Nina Companeez, the words and music of this lullaby symbolized in a moving manner the trials they had to face, first in Bolshevik Russia, and later in Nazi-occupied France.

The revolutionaries of 1789 imagined that their cause and spirit were, not just French, but universal. It's amusing to discover that, in their eagerness to replace the old names of the Gregorian Calendar, they invented terms that are anything but universal, because they're based upon French seasons and agricultural activities. My birthday, for example, falls in the first month of the Republican Calendar, called vendémiaire, which is related to the word vendanges, meaning grape-picking. But Fabre d'Églantine and his friends forgot, or ignored, that, during the month of September in Australia, say, there's not much in the way of grape-picking. All the other names for months are similarly parochial in a naive fashion: October/November is brumaire, evoking autumn mist and fog; July/August is thermidor, evoking hot sunny days; etc. The revolutionaries would have surely been upset by the upside-down maps of the world in which tiny France looks as if it would be crushed if ever the giant African continent happened to "drop down" onto her.

Incidentally, my writer-hero Richard Dawkins refers to the kind of naming anomaly made by Fabre d'Églantine as a case of "unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism". Here's how he speaks about "consciousness-raisers" in our atheists' bible, The God Delusion:

It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that 'north' is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on 'up'. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents — and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow.

[If only Nicolas Sarkozy were to read Antipodes, if not the books of Dawkins, I'm sure he would promptly "invent" the idea of decreeing that upside-down maps of the world be pinned on the walls of every French classroom.]

Close the Dawkins parenthesis. The Republican Calendar dominates the decade that concerns me in my research about the origins of my property at Gamone. I've always believed that the place once belonged to the Chartreux monks at Bouvantes whose monastery and other possessions were auctioned off between December 1790 and March 1791. It's quite likely that their outlying properties in Choranche were sold during the years that followed, maybe at a time when the Republican Calendar was operational.

In the archives that I've examined already in Grenoble, I was astounded to discover that, in the notes on political events in the Isère department during the three or four years following the French Revolution, there's no serious mention whatsoever of Choranche or even Pont-en-Royans. A possible reason for this curious absence is the fact that, throughout the revolutionary period, this part of the Royans still remained, to a certain extent, under the influence of the ancient Bérenger family, lords of Sassenage. [In medieval times, there was a so-called prince of Pont-en-Royans!] I even came across a parliamentary note about a complaint lodged by the lord Bérenger of that epoch because the revolutionaries had not yet returned various documents that he had apparently lent them. In about 1793, the archives of the commune of Pont-en-Royans were deliberately burnt in the middle of the village. On the other hand, the good lord's precious Sassenage archives concerning the Royans "principality" were saved for posterity in his charming little castle on the outskirts of Grenoble... which means that we're able to consult them today on our computers.

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