17 Oct 2012

The Chronology of Time

It is a phenomenon that must have fallen under the notice of all who have the happiness of being brought into close relations with young children, that their idea of time is a very narrow one; that hardly even with the utmost difficulty can they be brought to grasp the distinction of time recent and remote. Time is a conception, whose development is matured but slowly: perhaps it is even the latest condition of existence to be fully grasped by the human intellect; it is, therefore, not to be wondered at that any complete idea of time should be entirely beyond the apprehension of a child of tender years. Systematic time relations then--at least relations more definite than the familiar "a long time ago," "when I was young," and similar phrases--may, for the most part, be wisely left out of account in the earliest teaching of little children. We shall then, in the main, direct our efforts to store the mind with a wealth of vivid impressions of times, places, and customs varying from our own.

H. B. The Parents' Review Volume 4, (1893/4) pp 890-6
 For some time recently I have been researching what Charlotte Mason had to say about visualising time. The concept has intrigued me for quite a while, as this post written a couple of years ago attests, mainly because I struggled with how to impart this knowledge to Jemimah in a way that worked.  It was with some relief that I discovered the above quote, which put my mind to rest as I was reassured that what I had believed about the abstract concept of time in young people was in fact correct.

What I have learned is that Charlotte Mason and her colleagues wrote a considerable amount about how to visualise time.  She mentions not only timelines, but also their close cousins, books of centuries and century charts, and I thought it would be interesting to link to some of these and to discuss a little what we find, and what the differences are between them.  Firstly, what did Mason herself say?

In Volume 1 Mason writes about keeping a Timeline Chart with children up to about 8:
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 (1886) p292
In Form II, ages 9-12, Miss Mason talks about the children using a Book of Centuries  in Volume 6:
Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies by producing a 'Book of Centuries' in which children draw such illustrations as they come across of objects of domestic use, of art, etc., connected with the century they are reading about. This slight study of the British Museum we find very valuable; whether the children have or have not the opportunity of visiting the Museum itself, they have the hope of doing so, and, besides, their minds are awakened to the treasures of local museums.

Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education (1923) pp 175-6
Later she states that children in Forms III & IV continue these Books of Centuries.

Older children in Forms V and VI, aged 15-18 make History Charts as described here:
The pupils make history charts for every hundred years on the plan either adapted or invented by the late Miss Beale of Cheltenham, a square ruled into a hundred spaces ten in each direction with the symbol in each square showing an event which lends itself to illustration during that particular ten years. Thus crossed battle axes represent a war.

Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education (1923) p 177

Book of Centuries

Of these three, the one we are most familiar with is the Book of Centuries, owing mainly to the work of Laurie Bestvater based on an article written by Mrs Bernau herself in The Parents‘Review Volume 34 (1923) pp 720-4 entitled The Book of Centuries. Laurie wrote two terrific articles on the Book of Centuries, here and here, and went on to republish a pretty impressive facsimile of the books, which she makes available on her website, Keeping a Book of Centuries.

This pamphlet entitled The Book of Centuries and How to Keep One , also by Mrs Bernau has wonderful illustrations of the book and further information on how to implement its use.

History Charts

The history charts kept by older children ages 15-18 is described in this article by Miss Beale in The Parents' Review Volume 2 (1891/92) pp81-90 entitled The Teaching of Chronology. Dorothea Beale was the Principal of the Cheltenham Ladies' College, and she describes her charts in significant detail.  Interestingly, although Miss Beale used these charts in a modified form even for very young children, it is apparent that Miss Mason, at least by 1923 only advocated using them in the upper Forms, V and VI.


Timelines are not spoken of in Miss Mason's own writings, however do appear to have been used in her schools as well as in homeschools, according to this pamphlet by Winifred Irving entitled Notes on Making a Time-Line. It is worth noting that this timeline was to be used in conjunction with a time-chart (later in the same pamphlet it is called a history chart). Events and developments were to be noted on both. This timeline was advocated for use in the junior classes, and it was presumed that initially entries would be made by the parent or teacher, and only later by the child.

It would be interesting to know when this pamphlet was first written, since it appears that the timeline to which Ms Irving refers is that of Miss Beale.  In 1923 it appears that Beale's chart was only used by older students.  Perhaps at the time this pamphlet was first written, younger children also used the Beale Chart. (Some of the other pamphlets of this type were written in the 1950s perhaps by that time the PNEU schools had diverged somewhat from CM's original teachings.  Who knows?)

Ms Irving mentions that more comprehensive, larger scale timelines might be kept by older children in order to clarify a particular period of time, however in this article she advocates beginning at the earliest recorded time periods and carrying it on through the various periods studied.

Timeline Chart

The simple timeline chart mentioned by Miss Mason in Vol 1 is not mentioned again that I can discover.  It appears to be a simple chart divided into columns covering the whole pageant of history for the young child.

Why is it that so many differing methods are used to visualise time?  Why do these appear in only one writing?  I believe that in order to study the chronology of time in CM's philosophy, we also need to study the chronology of the writing.  Almost 40 years have passed between Volume 1 and Volume 4.  37 years of students; 37 years of classes; 37 years of new ideas and opinions; 37 years of exposure to new teachers, thoughts and lessons.  I'm going to look at this chronology more in a further post.  I'm also going to consider further what Mason and her colleagues wrote about visualising time and the teaching of history.

I've enjoyed this study of the teaching of history and time very much.  I hope you'll indulge me as I turn this interest into a series.  Stay tuned for installment 2 in coming days.  I hope you'll share your thoughts with me as well.


  1. Thanks so much Jeanne.
    Although I have had to give up homeschooling Lucy and I still do some of the AO readings. We have kept all of the history selections and the practice of a timeline /BOC.
    Your summary is very helpful.
    Looking forward to the arrival of the BOC.

  2. The BoCs are here. I'll organise a time to catch up over our hols if that suits?

  3. This has been an on going question in my mind in how to help my children retain the time we are learning in our history reads. Your information is very helpful, thank you. :)

  4. Great news about the BOCs. Looking forward to seeing you.

  5. Hi Jeanne,

    I look forward to your next installment. :) It is nice to see all the bits tied together to give us a picture of the whole in this area. I have never been good at keeping up with timelines and century notebooks - perhaps I should have tried harder?

    Hope you have a lovely week. xo

  6. Hi Jeanne
    Yes, I spent some time a while ago trying to work out what exactly Rebekah was supposed to be doing and decided on a simple timeline with columns for each century.
    I look forward to hearing more on this subject which I'm sure will become a 'go to' place for other CM'ers in time to come:)


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