150 years since the end of time (briefly)

May 6, 2021

Paris brought in 1871 under siege from German troops as the Franco-Prussian war moved towards its conclusion. That meant defeat for the French, unification of independent German states and the transfer of much of Alsace (including my family – Kevin) to German rule.

The Paris Commune

Amidst the ensuing chaos, disruption and desperation, National Guard soldiers took control of Paris, rejecting the authority of the national government then based in Versailles. Instead they set up a progressive socialist administration. The Paris Commune. And the revolutionaries were the Communards.

Among their aims was secularisation including separation of Church from state.

And one thing that the Church controlled was time itself. Life revolved around a calendar adopted first by Catholics under Pope Gregory. With religious festivals. And a Sabbath founded on a religious narrative of creation.

Thus 150 years ago today, the Communards rejected this calendar, restoring the French Republican calendar created and implemented during the French Revolution for about 12 years from late 1793. In rejecting religious and royalist influences, it took on the mantle of decimalisation of currency, metrication and even time.

Yes, this was a decimal calendar, used in government records in France and other areas under French rule, including Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of Italy, Germany, Malta, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Decadi’s child is restive and festive

The calendar consisted of twelve months, each divided into three ten-day weeks (décades). The tenth day, décadi, replaced Sunday as the day of rest and festivity. Twelve months of 30 days gives 360. Control didn’t extend to the sun, which meant that leap days were needed to avoid the calendar “slipping” against the 365/366 day solar year. Each of these days was a festival. Together they were initially known as sansculottides (and yes, if you think this means wearing no underwear, you’re not far off – they were named after the urban labourer revolutionary sans-culottes who wore trousers instead of the culottes shorts of the nobility), and thereafter as complementary days.

In decimal time, a second is shorter, a minute is longer, and you’ll definitely want to avoid a decimal hour-long Zoom meeting

Even more interesting was decimal time. Each day – as we know it now – was divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds. Thus an hour was 144 conventional minutes (2.4 times as long as a conventional hour), a minute was 86.4 conventional seconds (44% longer than a conventional minute), and a second was 0.864 conventional seconds (13.6% shorter than a conventional second). Clocks were manufactured to display this decimal time, but it did not catch on. Mandatory use of decimal time was officially suspended on 7 April 1795, although some cities continued to use decimal time as late as 1801.

Napoleon has his way

Despite the demise of decimal time, the calendar kept going before being abolished by Napoleon on 1 January 1806.

Before a revival

Which brings us to the anniversary. The Paris Commune resurrected the calendar this week in 1871 for a grand total of 18 days. It means they didn’t even make it to the second weekend.

While decimalisation has certainly made finance easier, this innovation was not one that endured.

Never can say goodbye

As a post-script, calendar reform does come up from time to time – in the 1920s the League of Nations created a Special Committee of Enquiry into the Reform of the Calendar – you can find the minutes of their second meeting here.