The Month of the Grape Harvester: Vendemiaire and the French Revolutionary Calendar

Introduction – 22 September 1792

22 September 1792 was a very unusual day in European calendar history. While time is generally measured in historical terms according to the advent of a messiah of one kind or another, this was the first day of the first year in the new French revolutionary conception of time. 

An entirely new calendar began that day in France, one which would have twelve new months and also days defined according to new concepts. As we will see, while the Julian Calendar which has so influenced Western history was named after gods and rulers (March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war, and July is named after Julius Caesar), the new French revolutionary calendar would be all about practical elements of French life, wine and the grape harvest chief amongst them. [1]

Calendar Changes in Early Modern Europe

It may seem peculiar to the modern Western mind, but the annual calendar was not always as set in stone as it is today. Early modern Europe, in particular, saw a large number of changes to how the year was calibrated. Most of Europe coming out of the late middle ages was still reliant on the Julian calendar which had been devised in the mid-first century BC by the government of Julius Caesar at Rome. 

This Julian Calendar, though, was not based on a perfect lunar and solar calendar and over the centuries had begun to lose a small amount of time every year. This was only a few minutes here and there but over a millennium and a half, it eventually amounted to several days of lost time. [2]

In order to correct this, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the new Gregorian Calendar in 1582, a move which was as much designed as a power play within the world of Reformation Europe as anything else. While this new Gregorian Calendar was theoretically more accurate, it did not gain universal acceptance, particularly in England where the Protestant government of Queen Elizabeth I was unwilling to accept a new calendar devised by a Protestant regime. England didn’t finally adopt the Gregorian system until 1752. 

The same applied in Eastern Europe where the Orthodox Church reigned supreme. What all of this meant was that Europe operated on different calendars throughout the early modern period. For instance, in England, Lady Day (the 25th of March) was New Year’s Day. 

In Moscow, the calendar day was twelve days behind what it was in Rome, Paris, or Madrid, a factor which had the curious distinction of ensuring that the October Revolution which ushered in the Soviet Union in 1917 actually occurred in November for the rest of the world. Given these contradictions, by the eighteenth century, things were ripe for a uniform calendar to be established and this would have an impact on the history of wine in Europe. [3]

The French Revolution

French Revolutionary Calendar

The French Revolutionary Calendar of 1793 | Image Source

First, very briefly, let’s just recap on what the French Revolution was and how this new calendar, to which wine was such a central element, came into being in the first place. 

The French Revolution came about in response to a wide range of political, social, and economic problems which were plaguing France in the 1780s. It broke out when the French estates (for which read parliament, congress, etc.) were convened in the early summer of 1789 for the first time in 175 years in France, as King Louis XVI sought to get an extraordinary grant of money from the political community of France. 

Matters soon spun out of control for the king and his advisors and within a matter of weeks, the estates had side-lined the king and were increasingly in control of the French government. Thereafter they tried for two and more years to find a way to establish a constitutional monarchy in the vein of Britain, but the ideological distance between the revolutionaries and the monarchists grew ever greater, leading eventually to the declaration of a French republic in 1792 and the trial and execution of King Louis XVI in 1793. [4]

The French Revolutionary Calendar

All major revolutions come along with a large number of ideas about how society should be restructured socially, economically, and culturally, as well as politically. The French Revolution was no exception. Most of these new ideas came from the concepts of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment.

Amongst its major innovations which still resonate today was the adoption of the metric system of weights and measures, the simplicity and accuracy of which has ensured that it spread across the world in the century that followed. 

Less successful, in the long run at least, was the adoption of the new French revolutionary calendar. The revolutionary movement was generally disdainful of ancient traditions and of the role of religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, in French life. As such, a new calendar to their mind would invoke a clean break from the past. 

The result was the French revolutionary calendar, one which the National Constituent Assembly, one of several parliaments in Paris from 1789 onwards, originally intended to date from the first Bastille Day, the 14th of July 1789, but which eventually ended up being dated from the 22nd of September 1792, the day after the First French Republic came into existence. 

The new calendar consisted of twelve months, the same as the Julian and Gregorian Calendars which had dominated European time structures up to the 1790s. These new months were as follows: 

Autumn

Vendémiaire: The month of the vintage, derived from the Latin ‘vindemia’, or Occitan for ‘grape harvest’. This was the first month of the year and generally lasted from 22 September through to 21 October, although the new calendar was not exact and the first day of the month was intended to change year to year. It is incredibly significant that the French government saw fit to create the first month in recognition of the grape harvest and the first day of the new month was also named in honor of the grape and the raisin, further affirming the centrality of wine and the grape to late eighteenth-century France. 

Brumaire: The month of fog, derived from the French word ‘brume’ or ‘mist’. This generally lasted from 22 October to 20 November.

Frimaire: The month of frost, a term derived from the French word ‘frimas’ or ‘frost’, typically lasting from 21 November to 20 December.

Winter

Nivôse: The month of snow, the name of this month being derived from the Latin term ‘nivosus’, meaning ‘snowy’. It lasted from 21 December to 19 January.

Pluviôse: The month of rain, the word itself being derived from the Latin term ‘pluviosus’, or ‘rainy’. This month lasted from 20 January to 18 February.

Ventôse: The sixth month of the revolutionary calendar was the month of wind, the word originating again from a Latin term, ‘ventosus’, or ‘windy’. It lasted from 19 February to 20 March, generally speaking. 

Spring 

Germinal: The month of sprouting buds. The term is familiar to us today from ‘germination’. It usually lasted from 21 March to 19 April.

Floréal: The flower month, the word coming from the French ‘fleur’ and indicating the blooming of flowers and crops. It lasted from 20 April to 19 May.

Prairial: The month of the meadow. The term comes from the French for meadow (‘prairie’) which has been absorbed into the English language. The month lasted from 20 May to 18 June.

Summer 

Messidor: Messidor was the month of the harvest, though the more general grain and vegetable harvest, rather than the grape harvest involved in Vendemiaire. The name was derived, like so many others in the French revolutionary calendar, from a Latin word, ‘messis’, meaning ‘corn harvest’ effectively, although it was also something of a lingual portmanteau involving the Greek word ‘doron’ or ‘gift’ at the end. This month, generally speaking, lasted from 19 June to 18 July.

Thermidor: This was the month of warm weather in France, the name being taken from the ancient Greek word ‘thermon’ or ‘summer heat’. This month lasted, roughly, though not always, from 19 July to 17 August.

Fructidor: Finally, the last month before Vendemiaire and the beginning of the latest grape harvest, was Fructidor, meaning roughly ‘the month of fruits’, when apples and such were at their most plentiful. It lasted from 18 August to 16 September.[5]

What should be evident from a close reading of this list is that there was a gap between the end of Fructidor and the beginning of Vendemiaire. This involved five extra days (six in a leap year) which were national holidays at the end of the year. 

The method of doing so was modeled on the ancient Egyptian calendar which thousands of years earlier had included five epagomenal days at its end. The result was that Vendemiaire, the month of the grape harvest, began the year after a sustained break, one which the revolutionaries had imagined would become a new kind of Christmas, the better to rest before several weeks of work in the vineyards. [6]

Abandonment of the Calendar Under Napoleon and Revival by the Paris Commune

Ruins of the Paris Commune, 1871. The castle of Montereau

The castle of Montereau, Ruins of the Paris Commune in 1871.

It was hoped that the calendar would be embraced by the French population and would in turn become the new standard of calendar delineation across early nineteenth-century Europe. But this was not the case. 

At the heart of the problem was that the new calendar also involved breaking the month into three weeks of ten days, with every tenth day serving as a day of rest. This, it was imagined, would break the Catholic Church’s hold on the minds of French religionists, but few agreed to go along with it. A review of the success of the calendar in 1798/9 found that Sundays and Catholic holidays were still being widely adhered to as days of rest in France. 

Accordingly, from the late 1790s the calendar was increasingly ignored within France itself, let alone its republican cousins in other parts of Western Europe. When the Concordat of 1801 re-established the Roman Catholic Church as an institution within France the way was set for the re-adoption of the old calendar and finally Napoleon Bonaparte, who had become Emperor of France in 1804, declared the end of the revolutionary calendar from 1 January 1806. 

It was briefly re-adopted by the Paris Commune in 1871, but for the most part history had forgotten about the French revolutionary calendar. Nevertheless, its role in immortalizing exactly how central the grape harvest and wine culture was to live in eighteenth-century France ought to be remembered. [7]

Further Reading:

George Gordon Andrews, ‘Making the Revolutionary Calendar’, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Apr., 1931), pp. 515–532. 

Nicholas H. Battey, ‘Plant culture: thirteen seasonal pieces: September – ideas of nature’, in Journal of Experimental Botany, Vol. 54, No. 390 (September 2003), pp. 2003–2006.

George Lefebvre, The French Revolution, from its Origins to 1793 (Columbia, Ohio, 1962). 

Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Second edition, New York, 2004). 

Mathew Shaw, Time and the French Revolution: The Republican Calendar, 1789–Year XIV (Woodbridge, 2011). 

Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787–1799: From the storming of the Bastille to Napoleon (New York, 1975). 

Eviatar Zerubavel, ‘The French Republican Calendar: A Case Study in the Sociology of Time’, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 42, No. 6 (Dec., 1977), pp. 868–877. 

On this Day

22 September 1792 – On in this day in 1792 the French revolutionary government commenced its new revolutionary calendar. This was divided up into twelve new months, each of which were meant to symbolise elements of the year. Thus, one of the new months was referred to as ‘Thermidor’. In the heart of the summer this effectively was making reference to the fact that this was the hottest time of the year in France. More relevantly, in terms of wine history, and the month which began the year in late September 1792, in what subsequently became known as Year I of the new French state, the month was known as Vendemiaire. This was derived from an Occitan (southern French dialect) word for ‘grape harvester’, symbolising the significance of the grape harvest to French life in the late eighteenth century. Moreover, the first day of the month of Vendemiaire was named for the grape or raisin, attesting to the extraordinary significance which the revolutionaries viewed grapes and wine as holding within French society. The revolutionary calendar only held firm though for just over twelve years before being abolished by Napoleon in 1805. [9]

Want to read more? try these books!

Twelve Who Ruled- The Year of Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton Classics, 28) The Calendar in Revolutionary France- Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics

References:

[1] Eviatar Zerubavel, ‘The French Republican Calendar: A Case Study in the Sociology of Time’, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 42, No. 6 (Dec., 1977), pp. 868–877.

[2] https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/julian-calendar.html [accessed 9/4/23].

[3] Gordon Moyer, ‘The Gregorian Calendar’, in Scientific American, Vol. 246, No. 5 (May 1982), pp. 144-153.

[4] Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Second edition, New York, 2004); Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787–1799: From the storming of the Bastille to Napoleon (New York, 1975).

[5] https://www.worldhistory.org/French_Republican_Calendar/ [accessed 10/4/23]; Mathew Shaw, Time and the French Revolution: The Republican Calendar, 1789–Year XIV (Woodbridge, 2011); Eviatar Zerubavel, ‘The French Republican Calendar: A Case Study in the Sociology of Time’, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 42, No. 6 (Dec., 1977), pp. 868–877.

[6] Anthony Spalinger, ‘Some Remarks on the Epagomenal Days in Ancient Egypt’, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 33–47.

[7] https://www.worldhistory.org/French_Republican_Calendar/ [accessed 10/4/23].

[8] Frederick Artz, The Enlightenment in France (Ohio, 1968); Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1951); Johnathan Israel, ‘Enlightenment!: What Enlightenment’, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 67, No. 3 (July, 2006) pp. 523–545.

[9] George Gordon Andrews, ‘Making the Revolutionary Calendar’, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Apr., 1931), pp. 515–532; Nicholas H. Battey, ‘Plant culture: thirteen seasonal pieces: September – ideas of nature’, in Journal of Experimental Botany, Vol. 54, No. 390 (September 2003), pp. 2003–2006

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: July 14, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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