R.I.P. Louis XIV, Long Live Louis 14?

Last month, my favorite Paris museum revealed that it is reducing its use of Roman numerals on exhibit plaques. The Musée Carnavalet, housed in a stunning Renaissance-period mansion, offers visitors the fascinating history of Paris for free. Its doors have been closed for the last 4 years—first for remodeling and second due to the pandemic. As part of their grand re-opening announcement, they slipped in the fact that some of the signage has been simplified in an effort to inform a wider audience. This seemingly minor detail is creating quite a stir.

Note: I’ve quoted the French press several times below. If you hover your cursor above the text, an English translation appears.

Musée Carnavalet
Musée Carnavalet, photo by Francisco Anzola.

Kings, Queens, and Centuries

Louis (XIV) 14

When the Musée Carnavalet announced that they would be replacing Roman numbers with Arabic numbers, critics ranging from historians to journalists to linguists threw up their hands in despair. They weren’t buying the museum’s explanation that les chiffres romains seraient un obstacle à la compréhension. Some of the descriptors I came across to characterize the museum’s decision are: catastrophe culturelle, stupide, and fléau du politiquement correct.

In addition to simplifying placards that name kings or queens, signs designating centuries have also been altered. In English, we typically use Arabic numerals for this—”the 19th century” rather than “the XIXth century”. However, in France, it has traditionally been more common to see Roman numerals—le XIXe siècle.

Four years ago, the Louvre came under attack after switching to Arabic numbers for naming the centuries. However, the Louvre still uses Roman numerals for the kings and queens.

I personally think “Louis 14” just looks bad. Yet, I imagine a fair number of people can’t tell the difference between “Louis XIV” and “Louis XVI”. To be fair, however, using Arabic numbers might not clear things up much. Those same people may still remain ignorant of the characteristics that define the two famous Louies—other than knowing which one came first.

A Critical Press

The European headlines are taking a rather extreme view of the situation. Le Monde writes, “Must We Put An End to Roman Numbers?” and La Dépèche prints, “Many French Museums are Giving Up on the Use of Roman Numbers”.

Unsurprisingly, the Italians seem to be the most scandalized by the whole affair. Three major Italian papers have denounced the decision. The front page of Rome’s most popular daily, Il Messaggero leads off with, “Roman numbers are forbidden in Paris museums, historians rebel.”

Front page news in Italy
Frontpage News in Italy

Italian editorialist, Massimo Gramellini, writes, “First we stop teaching things, then we eliminate them to avoid making those that aren’t familiar with them uncomfortable.”

Greater Accessibility

The museums argue that they’re simply making their collections more accessible to a public that has increasing difficulty deciphering the Roman notation. They point to children as well as parents who are too often overheard misreading the signs to their kids. They also claim that Asian tourists, as well as people with learning disabilities, are more likely to consume the Arabic numbers than the Roman ones.

The Louvre
Courtyard of the Museum of Louvre, and its pyramid, by Benh LIEU SONG.

But wait…

François Martin, president of the Organization of Teachers of Ancient Languages estimates that “moins les gens verront les chiffres romains, moins ils sauront les lire”.

Adversaries of the new policy point out that in the United States we just witnessed Super Bowl LV and American citizens (who tend to know very little about European history) have flocked to theaters to watch Star Wars Episodes I thru IX. Is it possible that Roman culture is embraced more in America than in the streets of Paris?

Some worry that changes such as this are leading to the slow death of “l’enseignement de la culture classique” in France. Meanwhile, the British publisher, Bloomsbury, offers a Latin translation of Harry Potter. In Spain, replacing Fernando II (King Ferdinand II) with Fernando 2 is considered a spelling error. Mon Dieu!

Louvre, Main Hall
Main Hall of Louvre, by Ulemas7

Hardly a Revolution

Noémie Giard, in charge of the Musée Carnavalet’s public service department, reassures the public that only a small portion of the museum’s signs have been modified.

“Je confirme que tous les visiteurs qui viendront au musée Carnavalet au moment de la réouverture, pourront bien lire Louis XIV, XV, ou Henri IV en chiffres romains, sur tous les cartels et même pour les enfants, et c’est uniquement, sur 170 textes, sur un ensemble de 3 000 contenus, qui ont été produits pour le nouveau parcours dans le musée, que nous avons choisi d’appliquer cette mesure d’accessibilité universelle.”

“I’m confirming that when we reopen, all of the visitors that come to the Carnavalet Museum will be able to read Louis XIV, XV, or Henri IV in Roman numbers, on all of the information plates, even those for children. And, that [the new Arabic numbers] only appear in 170 texts out of a total of 3000 new labels that have been produced for new routes through the museum that are handicap accessible.”

For now, most museums in France are steadfastly sticking to the Roman system. The director of the Musée des beaux-arts in Rouen stated that a “museum is without a doubt one of the places where we continue to encourage [Roman numbers] and explain them.”

Le Musée des beaux arts de Rouen
Le Musée des beaux arts de Rouen, by Валерий Дед

An Overreaction?

From where I sit, on the other side of the Atlantic, the reaction of the European press seems overly distraught. I’m hoping that the Arabic numbers are either short-lived or continue to persist as a minuscule minority. I tend to agree with Le Figaro, however, which described the modernized annotation as ce qui pique aux yeux.

Vive le roi Louis XIV!

What do you think? Is this much ado about nothing or one step down a slippery slope to ignorance?

Other Resources

  • France inter, Non, les chiffres romains ne sont pas bannis au musée Carnavalet à Paris
  • France Inter, Louis XIV ou Louis 14 ? L’Italie défend ses chiffres romains
  • LaDepeche.fr, Plusieurs musées français renoncent à l’utilisation des chiffres romains
  • l’Obs, Des musées français abandonnent les chiffres romains
  • Courrier international, Vu d’Italie. Louis XIV devient Louis 14
  • Le Figaro, Louvre, Carnavalet… Quand les musées renoncent aux chiffres romains
  • Europe 1, Le Louvre et le musée Carnavalet revoient l’usage des chiffres romains

Image Credits

  • Wikimedia Commons
  • WikiArt

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

33 Comments

  1. Got to study this post more carefully, Carol. But thank you for calling attention to this, so well and thoroughly. It is deplorable. I remember learning Roman numerals in grade school. Think they are taught any more? This goes along with the fact that cursive script is not being taught any more, which boggles the mind.

    • Thanks for your comment Roger. I think Roman numerals are still taught in most U S schools and certainly in France. When you study the situation, you may come to the conclusion that the press has blown the Carnavalet situation out of proportion. That said, I personally prefer retaining the Roman notation in all of the traditional contexts.

    • Cursive is being reintroduced in school districts in many areas.
      I suspect the use of Arabic numerals will continue. Anyone smart enough to count to 100 in French can certainly handle fewer than 20 Kings and 21 centuries.

  2. Oh, no.
    Yet another thing people do not need to stretch their brains on…

  3. The real fun and games will start once the campaign for gender neutral nouns gathers more momentum 😉

  4. In my blog I continue to use Roman numerals, but I have sometimes added a ‘translation’ in brackets, either in the form of Arabic numerals or by writing out the words. As an American, I am not so proficient in reading Roman numerals that I can understand at a glance what MCMXXXIX means, for example, even though it is the year I was born. Fortunately there are some that are fairly obvious, like MMXXI.

  5. Another sad example of trying to cancel culture, instead of developing education. And yes, Louis 14 loses all his majesty, lol

  6. Interesting question. I see their point about making the signs easier to understand for a wider range of people. But Roman numerals aren’t that difficult to learn, and they’re still widely used enough that it’s not unreasonable to consider them part of general education.

    The point about Asian tourists sounds like a good one. But several Asian countries use writing systems like Chinese characters which are far more complex and difficult than Roman numerals, and Asians who have enough interest in Western culture to visit a museum probably know about Roman numerals and wouldn’t find them much of a barrier — Western writing in general is very simple compared with what they’re used to. If this is an issue, they’d do better to just have the signs in major Asian languages as well as in French.

    The human mind has an affinity for the dignity which classicism lends. Our official legal and scientific terminology (and religious, in some cases) is still mostly in Latin. We still often draw on Greek roots in creating words for new things. It just “sounds better”. And Roman numerals just “look right” in certain situations.

    That Musée Carnavalet building is awesome. It’s a work of art in itself.

    • Yes, I agree with Roman numerals just looking right. My husband reminded me that he has a II after his name on official documents. His parents named him after his grandfather who died when my father-in-law was a young adolescent. My father-in-law wanted to especially commemorate his father’s memory. A “2” instead of “II” just doesn’t have the same quality.

      The Musée Carnavalet is a jewel. Most of the plaques are only in French (unlike the Louvre) but it’s still worth visiting. Since admission is free, you can wander in and enjoy a picnic lunch in the inner courtyard, then continue on your way. The main hall beyond the entry is filled with Parisian signs for businesses and advertisements dating back to medieval times. Absolutely spellbinding.

      I love the place and have learned so much in my visits there.

  7. It’s hard to say how much of a big deal this may turn out to be. To me, the Roman numerals “look right.” I hope if accommodations are made by including the Arabic numerals as well, that will end the matter. I think we’re caught between the legitimate fear of dumbing down and a variation of the “living language” transition to more common usage, though I haven’t heard of this numerical transition in any other context.

    I very much regret not knowing about the Musee Carnavalet
    on my two visits to Paris.

    • True enough. I’m eager to get back to France for many reasons but added to my list of things to check out is visiting the Carnavalet and seeing the new signs firsthand.

      Here’s to a return trip to Paris in both of our futures!

  8. Carnavalet is a great museum. I used to go almost every year or every other year.
    Now don’t get me started on the Roma numerals. Just another example of “Since the Education Nationale” is producing more illiterate morons every year, we must adapt. My mother taught me Roman numerals (she did not speak Latin, I took it for a coupla years). Teachers correcting the baccalauréat are now encouraged to be more lenient on spelling so as not to give a bad grade to the poor students. “Correct spelling” will soon be called “discriminant”.
    (there were already spelling mistakes in Carnavalet, if I recall)
    Bon Dimanche

    • Well, there’s an awful lot about the U S education system that I haven’t appreciated as I’ve watched my kids go through school. Except for the arts. The public schools that my kids attended did a super job in that area.

      In the end, regardless of subject matter, the teacher makes it or breaks it. That much has always been true.

  9. Why not use binary numbers? Then, even robots could understand the placards…

  10. Howdy Carol!

    I enjoy your blog every time I visit. I LOVE Paris and its many museums, but I must confess I didn’t know about this one. I will visit next time I’m there. I have two thoughts that I must share.

    First, I blame the switch to Arabic numerals on social media, smart phones, and texting. It is simplifying the language because trying to type on those tiny keypads is a pain in the keister. Abbreviations, short cuts, and simplifications are cropping up everywhere. Not to mention the many learners of English that codify country specific idiomatic expressions. Such is life. But, it is painful to watch some of the beauty of the language pass.

    Second, you refer to Super Bowl LC. Not to nitpick but LC is not a Roman number. CL is, however. Sadly, we have not witnessed 150 Super Bowls. I fear we won’t reach that tally in my lifetime, either. The last Super Bowl played was LI. I thought for sure some other eagle-eyed reader would’ve tipped you off to it, but I got lucky and am the first?

    Huzzah!
    Jack

    • Thanks for visiting Jack. Crazy that I missed the LC mistake. I think I lifted it from another article but no longer recall. I just checked, however, and apparently, the last SB was SB LV. You still win the eagle eye prize!

      You’re right, minuscule keypads, sound bytes, tweets, and now the 10 second videos on Tick Tock, are reducing our attention spans as well as our abilities to express ourselves. I personally find it exhausting to swap subjects that rapidly.

      Museums are indeed keeping up with the times. I visited the International Spy Museum with my daughter on Sunday. There’s a lot of information on the walls but most signs are 1-3 sentences of info. I just don’t find that satisfying. Such is life!

      • Howdy Carol!
        One of the outcomes of our computer-based lives is that fewer people are doing sustained reading. In fact, many people who once were avid readers complain that they just don’t enjoy reading as much, get frustrated when they have to read closely for specific information, and don’t read as long as they once did. All of that is science fact discovered by real live scientists doing sciencey things.

        Moreover, though, is that there are some of those wacky scientists who think it might be better for us since it more closely matches how we evolved to acquire and process information. Reading is unnatural, so sustained concentration is not required much outside of it. Now, that we don’t have to read as much anymore, people are losing the habit.

        One thing all that truncated more to the point writing does for us, though, is make it possible to access more information in a shorter amount of time.

        It’s a fascinating modern world we live in, isn’t it? But, I still prefer books to e-readers, newsprint to online papers, and sustained reading. I just wish there was more time for it.

        Huzzah!
        Jack

        • Yes, it is a fascinating world and I hope that my resistance to the sound-byte era is simply the expected grumbling of an older person.

          Regarding sustained concentration, however, there are plenty of tasks that require it other than reading. I’ve been slowly making my way through The Organized Mind, by Daniel Levitin. He might argue that our brains have not evolved to handle as many disparate pieces of information that we now face on a daily basis. Also, he claims that a major component of our brain function is dedicated to sustained, long-term focus. When we don’t utilize that capability, it degrades over time. That’s an oversimplified paraphrasing of dozens of pages, but it’s all I or you probably time for. 🙂

          • Howdy Carol!

            You know how science is. There are points on both sides of the issue. I read The Organized Mind many years ago. I’ll have to go back through it. It was a good read full of good information.

            Since most of our evolution occurred while we were hunter-gatherers and before, you’d have to be looking for areas where sustained concentration would be helpful. Perhaps tracking animals during the hunt, knapping flint (very difficult), processing various plants for eating or using them without injuring yourself with the sharpened flint. You know that kind of thing. Would that have resulted in sustained concentration evolving in our brains? Do chimpanzees and gorillas engage in anything resembling sustained concentration? I don’t know.

            Clearly, we are capable of sustained concentration and I think there is evidence that we do not sustain our concentration for as long as we used to.

            It is an interesting conundrum. I may look into it a little more carefully, write a blog post, and let you know.

            Huzzah!
            Jack

          • Reading is one of the best human actiivies I can think of to develop the intellect.

        • I hope I don’t sound snide. I too prefer print books to e-books — in fact, I don’t like e-books (my sons seem to). But I disagree with several points here, or their implications. Yes, reading is an acquired skill, but one that is acquired early by most children. To nitpick: To me, it is not “unnatural” (I may be misconstruing what you meant). It is very relaxing and pleasurable to curl up with a book. And, also for me, the main purpose of reading is not to ingest or process information — it is something else, basically, aesthetic enjoyment (often) of good writing and being able to immerse myself in thoughts of great minds. To me, the only kind of reading is “sustained reading” — page by page. It is by definiiton a slow process, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I am talking about the reading of BOOKS.

          • Howdy Roger!
            You don’t sound snide at all nor are you nitpicking. You are right, though, you have misconstrued something. Reading and writing are unnatural in the sense that we are born looking for language rules and prepared to decode auditory language and encode spoken language. Reading and writing are entirely artificial and have to be learned. We do learn reading so thoroughly, though, that when we see anything resembling letters, we try to read it automatically. We can’t help it.

            When I say that we ingest and process information, I mean that we have to decode the letters matching them to their sounds — reading is essentially an auditory experience even if done silently since the decoding happens mostly in the auditory cortex of the brain and parts of the visual cortex since letters are entering the brain visually. For a complex process that takes a fair amount of brain power, reading is oddly relaxing.

            It is ashame that many people young and old have lost the habit of sustained reading. You enter into a hypnotic state.when reading for pleasure. Without that sustained concentration, you don’t get into that zone where the rest of the world disappears and time seems suspended. There is a better psychological term for it, but I can’t quite come up with it. If I think of it, I’ll answer again.

            I think it is more difficult to enter into the suspended state when reading from electronic sources — there must be a study on that by now, surely. And, I pity anyone who has never experienced it. It is one of my favorite ways to while away an afternoon or evening.

            Huzzah!
            Jack

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