New Worlds, New Calendars

The French Revolutionaries of the 18th century and their 19th compatriot Auguste Comte wanted society to live not only by new rules but by a new calendar too. This blog post explores collections in which History Day – Thursday 19th November 2020 – might have been Revolutionary Decade III, du Nonidi (9) Brumaire, An 229  (Cormier) or the Positivist Frederic 16, 232 in the Twelfth month dedicated to Modern Policy, commemorating Ximenes – or Oxenstiern in a leap year.

Items from the 15th century onwards in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections show how changes to the calendar have been used to signify a desire to reform, regularise or personalise the world as represented by the Julian, and later the Gregorian calendar. The irregularities in the calendar have long required a mnemonic to keep track of the varying lengths of the 12 months:

Image of mnemonic rhyme for length of months
Calendar mnemonic from Anianus, Computus 1496. SPEC Inc.Ryl.02

With its precise to the day publication date of 25 October 1496, this edition of the Computus, or manual of Arithmetic by the astronomer Anianus is unique to Liverpool’s Special Collections. The earliest edition was 1488. The mnemonic appears in English a century later in variant forms in several works of the 1570s, including the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1577 (SPEC Ryl.N.3.23).

text of mnemonic of months from Holinshed's Chronicle (1577)

Its appearance in many popular Children’s books such as Mother Goose Rhymes, and R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, suggests it remains useful.

Contemporary with Anianus’s Latin version of the mnemonic, the Catholic calendars in 15th century manuscript and printed Books of Hours were counted out in Saint’s Days, looking forward to another kind of New World, removed from the repeating cycles of the constellations of the zodiac and the labours of the seasons which provided earthly decoration for these calendars.

image of calendar showing November zodiac sign
MS.F.2.22: November calendar zodiac sign (Sagittarius)
image of November calendar of saints and labours
Calendar for November

Calendars for November in late 15th century Book of Hours: MS F.2.22 and 1508 printed Book of Hours: SPEC EP.Ryl.B30

Names in these calendars signify places as well as dates – the names of the local saints indicating its place of production or use, or special devotions. The calendar for November in a late 15th century manuscript Book of Hours and another in a Book of Hours printed in Paris in 1508 both include St Maclou, or Malo, a Welsh monk who became the first bishop of St Aleth in Brittany.

The 1508 printed Book of Hours belongs to the new world of the printing press, although the continuities with the manuscript tradition are more obvious than the changes. Nearly 300 years later, this volume apparently acted as a witness to the sweeping changes of the French Revolution.

image of a bloody hand from the Terror pasted on the endpaper of a 1508 printed Book of Hours (SPEC EP.Ryl.B30)

Printing at the time of the French Revolution was dated from the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, “l’an de la liberté”. This radical overhaul of the calendar swept away Roman gods and emperors, and Catholic saints, brought in new nature-based names for the 12 months, and rationalised their duration: each month was strictly 30 days long, divided into three decades (the left over days, “Sansculottides”, were not assigned to a month). A later English parody of these names, with many subsequent variants, acts as another mnemonic: Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy; Slippy, Drippy, Nippy; Showery, Flowery, Bowery; Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy.

Title page of French Revolution pamphlet showing date
Pamphlet showing French Revolutionary date

French Revolutionary pamphlets with dates from 1788 and 1793 – before and after the foundation of the Republic

But the new world dated by liberty was quickly overtaken by another new world, dated from the foundation of the French Republic, beginning on 22 September 1792 (1 Vendémiaire, an 1). A fully digitised volume of French Revolutionary pamphlets from the Knowsley Hall collection can be found on JSTOR: SPEC Knows. pamph 655(3) is the closest in date to History Day 2020 – it is dated

le 27 Brumaire, l’an 2 de la République [17 novembre 1793]

Other material relating to the French Revolution in Special Collections – more than 200 books and about 100 pamphlets – was collected by Sir Benjamin Sands Johnson (1865-1937), a descendant of the founder of a Liverpool silk dyeing firm (1817); the firm survives today as Johnsons dry cleaners. The pamphlets were donated to the Library in 1938 by his daughter, Mrs Pyemont.

Sixty years after the French Revolution, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the founder of Positivism and the secular Religion of Humanity, created a new, rational calendar: with 13 months of exactly 28 days divided into 4 weeks, every month begins on Monday. It was dated from the ‘new era’ of the French Revolution. Each day in the year is dedicated to the memory of a historical person or movement. The 365th day is “The Festival of All the Dead,” held annually, and “The Festival of Holy Women,” is held in leap years.

Calendar of Humanity showing 19 November
Calendar of Humanity SPEC Comte B2254.G68.2

The Church of Humanity in England had churches in London, Newcastle and Liverpool – Special Collections has the library of the Liverpool radical, John Fraser (1836-1902), an active member of the Liverpool congregation. An obituary notice describes Fraser as “a Socialist, a Fabian, a zealous member of the Church of Humanity” but notes that “these extreme opinions were always held with moderation and courtesy.” The John Fraser collection at Liverpool includes about 150 books, pamphlets, journals and ephemera related to Positivism, including a ticket for the opening service of the Liverpool Church of Humanity on December 31, 1882, and a handy ready reckoner to convert dates from the Civil to the Positivist Calendar.

civil and positivist calendar comparison
SPEC Fraser 587

The Positivists attracted many adherents from its heyday in the 1860s through to the early 20th century, including Liverpool-born shipowner and social investigator Charles Booth (1840–1916), artist Walter Crane (1845–1915) barrister Henry Crompton (1836–1904), and Crompton’s sister, Caroline Anna Croom Robertson ( 1837/8–1892 ), college administrator and bursar. The Positivist calendar charts human progress from Moses onwards, aimimg, over the course of the year, to, “step through the stages of human history with a global perspective”. Despite dating the modern era from the French Revolution, there is no day commemorating Napoleon, but the month of Frederic does include the revolutionary figures of Simon Bolivar (and Toussaint L’Ouverture in leap years).