IMPOSSIBLE TO separate last month's competition winners, Eileen Hobson of England and Janice Linhares of New York, both of whom got the answers absolutely right simultaneously and very commendably managed to reduce the following spiel to about 4 l
IMPOSSIBLE TO separate last month's competition winners, Eileen Hobson of England and Janice Linhares of New York, both of whom got the answers absolutely right simultaneously and very commendably managed to reduce the following spiel to about 4 lines of e-mail text.
The competition was about the French Revolutionary calendar, a short-lived attempt to start the clock again from midnight on September 21st, 1792. You may well ask what was so special about this date, but if you'd lived in Paris then you too might have been swept up in a mighty wave of excitement and patriotic fervour. 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive' wrote Wordsworth the poet, who was taking a kind of year out in Paris at the time, 'but to be young was very heaven.' If you'd been there you might even have met him, with Annette Vallon, pregnant with his child, on his arm. Like him, and like all France, you might have been quivering with excitement over the red-hot news galloped in overnight from Valmy, a tiny village in the Champagne region: the day before the tremendous cannonade of a scratch force recruited to some extent from the streets of Paris had seen off a seasoned and disciplined Prussian army.
Those heady times gave birth not only to Wordsworth's daughter. On September 22nd the French Republic was declared, with the famous motto LibertÃ©, EgalitÃ©, FraternitÃ©, as though henceforth the entire French people were being invited to take their destiny into their own hands, monarchy abolished, page turned, a fresh start. A fresh start, too, in the knowledge that after the Thunder of Valmy there wasn't much to fear from old Europe across the Rhine.
Some of that fresh start is with us still, and we forget where it came from. Decimal coinage. Centimetres, metres, kilometres. Litres, kilograms . . . but alas! for the new calendar.
Under the Revolutionary calendar I would be writing this on 30th Prairial, 211. (In fact it's Waterloo Day, the anniversary of the great 1815 battle that put paid to that enfant terrible of the Revolution, Napoleon.). The calendar had a certain agreeable rationality to it. It consisted of 12 months each of 30 days, each month sub-divided into three ten-day weeks. New Year's Day was September 22nd, by chance close enough to the autumn equinox for each set of three months to correspond to a season of the year. A committee of intellectuals worked it out, the names of the new months being chosen by the poet Fabre d'Eglantine: Here goes:
|VendÃ©miaire||vintage||22 September - 21 October|
|Brumaire||mists||22 October - 20 November|
|Frimaire||frost||21 November - 20 December|
|NivÃ´se||snow||21 December - 19 January|
|PluviÃ´se||rain||20 January - 18 February|
|VentÃ´se||wind||19 February - 20 March|
|Germinal||buds||21 March - 19 April|
|FlorÃ©al||flowers||20 April - 19 May|
|Prairial||meadows||20 May - 18 June|
|Messidor||reaping||19th June - 18 July|
|Thermidor||heat||19 July - 17 August|
|Fructidor||fruit||18 August - 16 September|
And there you are. Another year gone. But . . . hold on a moment: shouldn't the year end on September 21st, the new New Year's Eve? We're five days short, aren't we?
Quite right. Well observed. Those five days - six in a leap year - were designated as a national holiday and festival period. And who better to name them after than the heroic ragged-trousered sons of the Revolution who had manned the guns at Valmy and had driven off the Prussians marching on Paris to restore the old order? They were known as Sans-culottes: although culotte later came mean drawers or knickers, the old meaning was knee-breeches, exactly the wear that characterised the ancien rÃ©gime. So the sans-culottes, those without culottes, took on that aura of heroism shared by great against-the-odds teams like Leonidas' Spartans at Thermopylae, Garibaldi's Thousand or The Few during the Battle of Britain, and with the French genius for coining adjectives from nouns gave their nickname to the national holidays from 17th - 21st September: Les Sans-culottides.
The calendar didn't catch on. It lasted barely long enough to record itself. It struggled to survive alongside the internationally recognised Gregorian calendar. In 1806 (or Year 14) Napoleon, an occasional wearer of culottes, put it to sleep by imperial decree. I daresay some diehards still use it. My birthday is on 30 PlÃ»viose, if anyone's interested.
An evening or two before la fÃªte des pÃ¨res, the French Fathers' Day, we arrived in Albi. Like most people who visit this rose-red city on the banks of the Tarn we made for the square beside one of the world's most extraordinary cathedrals, the giant symbol of Catholic power and domination, which must have seemed alarmingly futuristic to the 13th-century Albigeois watching it rise brick by brick.
Josephine discovered a GeneviÃ¨ve Lethu shop on the square. GeneviÃ¨ve Lethu is a national franchise for up-market-ish small domestic goods, a sort of French Habitat with the corners rubbed off. She came out with a gift-wrapped package, which she presented to me as an early Fathers' Day present. Agog, I opened it when we sat down on the terrasse of the Le Grand PontiÃ© for a pre-dinner drink. It turned out to be a pepper mill, just the very thing that every father has always wanted for Father's Day. True, our old one had worn out - to quote from the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes (Chapter 12 Verse 3, if you want the full monty) 'the grinders cease because they are few' - and needed replacing. What struck me as remarkable was the maker's name: Peugeot, and no, it wasn't a promotional gimmick from the car manufacturers.
Josephine had the story. In 1806, the year Napoleon abolished the Revolutionary calendar, the Peugeots from MontbÃ©liard, almost on the Swiss frontier, started a factory making metal goods. 80 years or so later two brothers inherited the family works. One tinkered about trying to produce a self-propelled vehicle. The other, disdaining his brother's view that the horseless carriage was here to stay, saw a rosier future in kitchenware. It isn't recorded what the Peugeot brothers' children felt about their various inheritances. Just as well, probably.
THIS MONTH'S competition: How would you associate Aristide Bruand and a dancer nicknamed La Goulue, late 19th-century cabaret artistes, with Albi? First correct e-mail wins. A vos claviers! To your keyboards!