13 Nov 2008

Our Book of Centuries

The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn 'outlines,' or a baby edition of the whole history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of all the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age. Let him spend a year of happy intimacy with Alfred, 'the truth-teller,' with the Conqueror, with Richard and Saladin, or with Henry V - Shakespeare's Henry V - and his victorious army. Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus. If he come to think that the people of another age were truer, larger-hearted, simpler-minded than ourselves, that the people of some other land were, at one time, at any rate, better than we, why, so much the better for him.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education pp 279
When you homeschool the Charlotte Mason way, history becomes a study of people’s lives, not of dates and events.

You read a biography about a person who lived in the time period you are studying. You use primary sources of information like the diaries, journals or letters he wrote or the speeches that he made. You examine the maps he drew and the journeys he took. You investigate what was happening while he was alive - both at home and abroad. You discover what would have been important in his life, and you learn to "think his thoughts". In this way it is not long before you have a firm grasp of that period in history, no dates, no date, no reigns, no kings, no outlines, no drudgery.

In order to give definiteness to what may soon become a pretty wide knowledge of history - mount a sheet of cartridge-paper and divide it into twenty columns, letting the first century of the Christian era come in the middle, and let each remaining column represent a century BC or AD, as the case may be. Then let the child himself write, or print, as he is able, the names of the people he comes upon in due order, in their proper century.

We need not trouble ourselves at present with more exact dates, but this simple table of the centuries will suggest a graphic panorama to the child's mind, and he will see events in their time-order.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education p292

In the first couple of years Miss Mason suggested charting the people that we meet pictorially on a poster or simple timeline. This chronological record of history is an important tool in helping our kids assimilate and recall the major people and events in history.

Later - at about ten years of age - she recommended a Book of Centuries. In her schools this same book was kept throughout the remainder of the child's education and was added to as each year progressed. It began with prehistoric times, had divisions for major time periods and also a space at the end for maps. Each two-page spread represented a century. The child added small, hand-drawn sketches of items from that time period. It was not a complicated work of art.

Young children who are still struggling to understand tens, hundred and thousands during their maths lessons will never comprehend the eras of history - even with a Book of Centuries. Time is an abstract concept, and a while young child can see the parts in isolation, she cannot make sense of the big picture. That is why Miss Mason recommended that we not trouble ourselves with exact dates at this time.

It is for this reason that many AOers choose to use a wall mounted timeline as a pictorial record of history during the first few years of school moving to the Book of Centuries only at Y4 or Y5. A timeline allows the child to see history as a whole. They can visualise what came earlier and what was more recent even if they can't quite grasp the number of years in between two events. It's a great idea.

We didn't do it. We're just not the type of family that sticks a timeline along the passage way. (not wabi sabi at all...)

We struggled with this. It seemed such a shame to exclude the history learned during the first few years from a book that would chart history throughout the child's education...but we weren't going to do the timeline. No way.

After much research we decided on a compromise. We use the beautiful Record of Time timeline notebook designed by Homeschool in the Woods and available in Australia from the wonderful Mary at Homeschool Favourites, but we use it as a family book.

This was first suggested by the woman whom, I believe, introduced the Book of Centuries into Charlotte Mason's schools, Mrs Bernau. In her PR Article on the subject, which is well worth reading, she says this:

As few boys are able to continue a Book of Centuries after leaving the home schoolroom, I would suggest that they should keep a Book of Periods only, giving a page to the Egyptian, Assyrian, Ancient Briton, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, etc.

I often wonder whether it would answer to keep a Family Book of Centuries while most of the children are away at boarding school, letting each add his or her contribution while they are at home for the holidays, initialing and dating it.

The Book of Centuries, is a great joy to the owner, and even in these busy days it is possible to find some time, however short, to add an illustration from time to time. Children always take a keen delight in their books. There is no need to be an artist in order to have quite an interesting book - neatness and accuracy are essential though. Museums will be clothed with fresh interest to keepers of these books, who will be able to recognise objects which have already become familiar old friends through their Books of Centuries.

Now Mrs Bernau is suggesting the family book so that those boys who are sent away to boarding school at 9 or 10 are able to contribute to a book throughout their education, but we use this same principle for the littlies as well. As she says, the books give great joy to the owner - I know I would have loved one - and children take great delight in them.

So. Down to practicalities.

We record in our beautiful Book of Centuries every Friday afternoon and we record everybody we learn about, but at this stage we only record those characters who we can easily find figures to illustrate. It takes about 30 minutes. In most cases these are the figures contained on our History Through the Ages CD ROMs, which are also available in Australia through Homeschool Publishers.

At the family book stage this is a parent lead activity. Using the Placement Guide, I decide where to place the figures; I decide which figures to complete, and I cut them out. Jemimah colours them using good quality Derwent coloured pencils and sticks them in place. When the book becomes hers in AO4, she will do all of this herself.

We do not do illustrations at this stage either. I have read of many children who plead to be able to begin a new book when they begin secondary school because they are ashamed of their childish illustrations. How much more likely that would be if the child had drawn from the beginning!

Our book is not limited to history. We include authors, musicians, artists (we print out a tiny copy of their favourite piece of art for this one) and figures from the New Testament.

Because of the difficulty in dating Old Testament events we have chosen not to include these until now, but may do so in the future using the timelines included in The Story of the Bible written by one of the lecturers at our Church's Theological College. Once you are content that your dating is fairly accurate, it would be wonderful to include Biblical history with World history to see how they fit together to make the Big Picture.

Here are some resources that we use. They may make your life easier too!!


This excellent article by Amy Pak from Homeschool in the Woods answers many questions about timelines and Books of Centuries. Near the bottom of the article she gives tips for colouring the figures. We use pencil like she recommends.

A link will also take you to the notebook page so you can see more pictures of this wonderful book and get ordering info if you live in the US!


Janette Cassey has produced some wonderful timeline figures with narratives for important events in our own country's history. These look wonderful, but we haven't purchased our own CD yet because we have this wonderful book:

Take a look inside!

From the preface:

Portraying facts in pictures rather than by the written word, is the world's oldest method of imparting information. It is direct, it simplifies the message, and leaves a lasting impression, for 'seeing is believing.'...
...This pictorial history gives complete cover of Australia's eventful first century and a half, yet it must be recognised that the confined scope of such a small book would not permit of us availing ourselves of all the interesting and colourful details our research disclosed. This fast moving and dramatic material will be treated fully in a projected series of sectional histories we now have in contemplation.

We found this small book packed full of wonderful figures at a second hand bookshop for $6.50. It is well worth hunting out and I thoroughly recommend it. Perhaps I could convince the wonderful Michelle from Downunder Literature to republish it! (hint, hint!)

If you decide to go the timeline road, take a look at the one Angie convinced her husband to make for her family here:


She discusses how it's working here:


Linda Faye talks about her family's timeline here:


Apart from the wonderful timeline figures from Homeschool in the Woods, we also love these for the Kings and Queens of England:

http://www.cidadevirtual.pt/poge/kings/index.html and these for all sorts of people:


These timelines are great too...


Whether you go the timeline route or join us in a family Book of Centuries, I hope you have as much fun doing it as we do!

History CM style is just great!!


  1. Wow! I love that you linked to so many other families' ideas for timelines, too! This is one of those things I WANT to do, know how beneficial it will be once we start doing it, but I just haven't figured out a way that will work for us. I like your book; I'll look into that, and although I've probably read most of those other families ideas, I need to reread them and just start doing it!!!

  2. Great post! I really, really want to be consistent with a time line. So far, I can't seem to make it part of our routine.


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