Enlightened Timekeeping

Almanach des bergers pour la Seconde Année Républicaine… (Paris: 1793) / QB807 .A46 1793

The vibrant covers of the Almanach des bergers stand out among the Rare Book Collection’s acquisitions of the year so far. This almanac dates from the second year of the French Revolutionary Calendar (1793–1794), which would mark time for the French Republic through the end of 1805.

Almanacs like the Almanach des bergers were marketed to the lower and middle classes, especially farmers who relied on the books’ predictions of meteorological events for planting and harvesting crops. When the National Convention created a completely new calendric system during the French Revolution, almanacs replicated and explained the new calendar. These almanacs were then printed in a large number and made widely accessible.

The Revolutionary Calendar was devised methodically, with a focus on the marking of time as it relates to the movement of the earth around the sun. This kind of organized structuring of the natural world was typical of the Age of Enlightenment (ca. 1650-1780). Months were renamed corresponding to the harvest cycle and were reformatted to contain three weeks of ten days each (décades). Five feast days occurred at the end of the year, and a leap day was observed once every four years. The Revolutionary calendar omitted the excessive feast days of the Gregorian calendar (see our earlier post) and strictly regulated the French citizen’s work week.

Page 35 of the Almanach des bergers showing the phases of the moon during Pluviôse, the fifth month of the revolutionary year, which started around January 20 and ended around February 20

Besides delineating the past—the ère vulgaire—from the present, the new calendar also incorporated contemporary values into the measurement of time. The calendar was based on the natural world, dividing time into even segments of ten, and it created a more rigorous work schedule. The author of the Almanach des bergers, thought to be  one Taillardat, draws many parallels to the ancient Greek calendar, and suggests that perhaps the ancient Greek calendar was the inspiration for beginning the revolutionary calendar year in autumn. The new calendric system was regarded as politically neutral, as it was based on reason and the natural world, even though it was established by a very political group and acted as a tool to control the citizen’s schedule. The wide distribution of almanacs could even be compared to the distribution of political propaganda.

The Revolutionary Calendar was short lived. It fell out of favor during the reign of Napoleon, when concerns of inconvenience to international commerce prevailed. The Gregorian calendar, still in use today, was reinstated on January 1, 1806. The Almanach des bergers is an artifact of a brief but important period in the history of French culture, a sign of the French Revolution’s impact on the daily lives of French citizens.