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Germinal, Floréal, Prairial: The Re-Imagined Spring of the French Revolutionary Calendar

March 20, 2017
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ah, the first day of spring. As snows begin to trickle away and green slowly reappears, spring brings with it the perennial promise of longer, warmer days. If you happened to live during the heady days of the French revolution, today would also mark the start of a spring month: Happy first day of Germinal!

Following the unseating of the French monarchy and the institution of the French Republic in 1792, cultural revisionism was all the rage. Those newly in power methodically stripped away the relics of France’s ancien régime and sought ways to modernize. During this era, the metric system and a decimal clock were introduced as more rational, symmetrical measures befitting a new era of progress. In 1793, after the revolutionaries rejiggered the calendar into 36 décades, or 10-day weeks (and 5 or 6 Sansculottides to keep the calendar in line with the sun), poet Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine was tasked with revising the names and designations of the Gregorian calendar for the French Republic. Revealing his revisions to the French National Convention that year, the poet presented the new calendar as “substituting for visions of ignorance the realities of reason, and for the sacred ... the truth of nature.”

A self-professed nature-lover, Fabre longed to bring France back to her agricultural roots, and he drew inspiration from natural and rural life for the new calendar. The 12 months were re-aligned to the year's natural intervals—the solstices and equinoxes (hence the arrival of spring ushering in a new month). Each season was subdivided into three months, and Fabre played on French and Latin roots to coin new names that evoked each month’s moment in the natural cycle. Painter Louis Lafitte was commissioned to provide illustrations for each month, and they beautifully display the pastoral symbols and themes.

Spring arrived with Germinal, a name that calls to mind sprouts, buds, and the germination of plant life.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

It was followed by Floréal, named for flowering blossoms.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

The next month, Prairial, was named for the cultivation of meadows.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

The months of the other seasons were given names like Messidor (from the Latin messis, meaning grain harvest), Vendémiaire (from an old Occitan word associated with the vineyard harvest), and Nivôse (drawing on the Latin nivosus, meaning snowy).

The new names didn't evoke positive images for everyone. When the rival British wrote their own translation of Fabre’s new names—“Messrs. Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy, Wheezy, Sneezy, and Freezy”—they were unmistakably poking fun at his creations. Even more problematic was a glaring bias toward the region in and around Paris. Nivôse may have drawn light-hearted mockery in the French Mediterranean, but in the overseas territories, the calendar was downright chauvinistic. For a government proclaiming liberté and égalité, the calendar was a glaring insult to fellow citizens scattered among France’s holdings as far afield as Haiti and Mauritius. And even if Fabre’s ode to farm-life were received quaintly in France, the décades’ longer workweek and fewer rest days drew the ire of the country’s laborers. Add in a lasting discrepancy over the reckoning of leap year, and the calendar could hardly be considered a success.

In the end, the calendar suffered the same fate as the Republic. Having been crowned Emperor by the Catholic Pope, Napoleon swept the calendar to the wayside in 1806. Fabre wasn't around to see his revolutionary creation’s fate: Like many of his comrades, Fabre lost his head to the guillotine in 1794 as the revolution crumbled into the “reign of terror.”

Like Fabre, France’s new Emperor recognized the power of symbols in reinforcing systems of thought. The calendar was resigned to the footnotes of history. Ironically, one of its most lasting vestiges is in 18 Brumaire, the notorious date historians agree ended the republic and marked the ascension of Napoleon as head of state.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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Warner Bros., IStock
History
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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
Original image
Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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