Book of Centuries, History, Practical Application
Comments 35

The Book of Centuries Revisited by Laurie Bestvater

If I could go back to the early days of my cm discoveries, I think this would be the quote I would most like someone to have impressed upon me: “…there is no part of a child’s work at school which some philosophic principle does not underlie.” (Home Education, 240)  In which case, one thing is not as good as another.  It took me too long to learn that if Charlotte Mason said it or did it, there was a particular reason.  If I looked closely enough, I wouldn’t see a cobbled together hodgepodge of educational practice and ideas but a cohesive philosophy, unity and elegant practice that supported human learning in the most profound ways.  In passing seemingly unimportant phrases in her works or in reading others about her rather than Mason herself, I have often missed treasures.
A case in point: I shared at the recent Charlotte Mason Education Centre’s conference my research on the Book of Centuries.  I had read many times in the programmes  that she desired children* to keep a “Book of Centuries” but was content to take definitions wrought by others rather than follow the trail through her writings to discover exactly what she meant by a Book of Centuries.  What I had thought was essentially a timeline compressed into a book, was actually so much more.   Briefly, here are some of the things I’ve learned.
(*form I does not seem to have used Books of Centuries probably because their handwriting, drawing ability, and understanding of time was still developing. I hope to show how the P.N.E.U used increasingly complex and specific timelines to build a concept of time in a later article.)

Clues from the archive

Of the programmes we have access to, (thanks to Ambleside Online) many say
“Keep a Book of Centuries putting in Illustrations from all History Studied”
In A Philosophy of Education, (175) we get the clear notion that, by 1923 at least, the Book of Centuries is a particular book produced and sold by the P.N.E.U which Mason recommended highly.
“Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies (history) 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….”
Essex Chomondley mentions the Book of Centuries in The Story of Charlotte Mason (15) clarifying that Miss Bernau was herself a student of the Charlotte Mason College and perfected the Book of Centuries as originally suggested by Miss Epp in The British Museum for Children.
So we have good reason to listen carefully to this Miss Bernau as she takes us step by step through creating a Book of Centuries in her article published in The Parents‘Review entitled The Book of Centuries. Volume 34 1923 720-724.

  • The Book of Centuries began as a museum notebook (1906) and is for drawing essentially.
  • The drawings were mainly of artifacts such as could be found in museums or from line drawings or photographs.
  • The entries on the lined pages were mainly events by date and selected by the child as “most characteristic.”
  • Pictures were glued in only occasionally. The value was is in the careful observation and consideration required in drawing and inserting pictures made the book too “bulky.”
  • P.N.E.U. sold it as a specific design consisting of 96 pages.
  • Each two page spread consisted of a lined and a blank page and represented  a century.
  • The last 10 pages were kept for small drawings of maps & descriptions of history of the child’s choice.
  • It began with the prehistoric periods and ran chronologically through the 20th century.
  • Keeping this book was noted as “A keen delight” to the students.
  • The books were to be neat &accurate but it was not thought necessary to be an artist to make one.
  • Each lined page has 20 lines in five (implied rather than demarcated) columns making 100 years in an almost mnemonic chart (n.b. The years’ positions reverse from A.D. to B.C)
  • Entries were always done in Indian ink, occasionally colours were used.
  • Since this was to be a “life-long interest,” difficult subjects could be drawn once there was more ability.
  • Original and unique like the nature notebooks, the children chose what would be entered by their personal connection to the material of their studies.
  • Over and above the drawings proceeding from their history reading, children were encouraged to continue a personal study of one particular thing or artifact to appear in the same place on each page throughout the centuries. e.g. An early violin and the modifications that ensued if the child played violin or an article of clothing…such as shoes in each century.


I do not know if I am the only one who missed this important phrase “Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies (history) by producing a ‘Book of Centuries….”  Though it may be just me with a case of misery loves company, I suspect that this particular notebook may be one of Mason’s most misunderstood. Many home school supply companies sell some kind of timeline book or bloggers include instructions for a “Book of Centuries” that very often are not these. My own children had an ignorant mother in this respect and I instructed them in a type of amalgam of the timeline/book of centuries that once begun was not easily redirected.  We did do a wall time chart in certain years but I wish I had understood the specifics of what Mason was getting at here, with both the Book of Centuries and her use of timelines and charts because I think the end would have been  a brilliant scaffolding of the child’s history understanding. –enlarging what Mason calls the “pageant of history.”(Philosophy of Education, 175)  Even though keeping our timeline book was a good thing (and my children do value theirs) what I now see Mason did is much simpler and at the same time more structured than what we did. My children’s books tried to do too much and were hence not as fruitful, I think, as this plan with time charts and the Book of Centuries would be.
The drawings of artifacts and household objects (as opposed to events or personages or maps willy nilly) seem to me now significant for several reasons:
a) observation and drawing skills are enhanced
b) the child forms a relationship in a different way than with story or biography…it is the   relationship with things as “ hooks “ for history knowledge. Something from each century drawn provides that extra hook…and once studied carefully enough to copy, was yours for life.
c) the child would naturally and easily grow a personal and deep interest and even affection for  art, museums and archaeology that was similar to the purpose of the nature notebook
d) respect for the child’s abilities and personhood are enhanced by allowing for choice, relationship and the gradual increase in difficulty of the drawing task.
The particular format of the lined pages– twenty lines with five years represented in each seems to me to echo Mason’s adherence (Philosophy of Education, 177) to the time charts explicated by Dorothy Beale. It is clear that one way is not as good as another.  Bernau says,

“Naturally one page is a very small space in which to illustrate the whole of a century, and yet it is a mistake to leave two pages for some centuries, as I have seen in some books, as it does away with the idea of the book; therefore each should choose what she considers the most characteristic events, planning out the arrangement of the page, as far as possible, before drawing. In this way no two books will be alike, and there is great interest in comparing them.” (Emphasis mine)

What do you think the idea of the book is? I think the same benefits Dorothy Beale lists of her mnemonic charts apply here:  (“The Teaching of Chronology” published in The Parents Review Vol. II, 1891/2, 81-90 )

a)    “Forms a framework, which from the first saves events from getting shaken into disorder in the memory…filled but scantily at first, and gradually expanded.”

b)    Unifies and reunites the separated subjects by adapting to much of the child’s reading—“political history, church history, literary history, the progress of scientific discovery”

c)    Shows a century at a glance and is not an overwhelming amount of material or dates.

d)    Respects the child as a historian and person by allowing his own choice of dates to remember and not another’s

e)    “compact form, so that it can be easily remembered.”

f)    “Even if the precise date of any event is not retained yet the general position becomes as familiar to the mind as the relative positions of places in a map of Europe.”

g)    Creates a community of learning as opposed to competition as children celebrate and respect each other’s individual approaches in comparing the unique books.

Making it practical

Below is my interpretation of the lined (left hand) pages drawn up to represent 100 years by 20 lines with 5 implied columns.  I have inserted a few events from the twentieth century so you may see how the actual date is inferred by position and not written, e.g. Victoria dies 1901, the A-bomb in 1945, Berlin Wall falls in 1989 etc.
The entries would be in the student’s own hand and mine here are in type obviously.  Space left below the chart on the page may have been used for a slight description of the century. The colours of the lines are simply for ease of reading—there is no suggestion of colour in Bernau’s description.
The page that follows contains my rough drawings of a few artifacts or inventions of the 2oth century. I did not plan my page carefully as Bernau recommends and my drawings are rather too big and hasty to truly represent what I think she was wanting done but were done to give a rough idea of what would be on the right hand page of the two page “spread.”

(Click on images to enlarge. You may need to use the “zoom” feature on your computer.)

Time chart and narrative on left-hand lined page

Drawings on the unlined right-hand page


Since Books of Centuries were called by Mrs. Bernau “life-long” and “a great joy to the owner” I am plunging in and making myself one. The more I look at this model the more eager I am to fill in the bits here and there that I know…my own history crossword puzzle.  My last student (at home at least) will be with me only three more years but we will make this new Book of Centuries as a reminder that understandings can grow and practice change.  Since on several of the programmes Book of Centuries was listed under the heading “Sunday Occupations,” trying not to lose that underlying principle, we too will save the Book of Centuries for that slower day anticipating time to ruminate and consider how faith and history intersect while we draw the things we’ve encountered and mark the stories we’ve been told over the last week.
Want to join me?   I am working on a readymade version.

© Laurie Bestvater 2010


  1. 4kiwigirls says

    I love this post. Thankyou so much. My girls and I love studying history, and this is a wonderful way of keeping a century book. I might give it a go myself!

  2. blue j says

    I have always seen the value in keeping a book of centuries, and have always had good intentions in keeping up with it. However, in the day to day working of our schooling, my girls and I would set this one area to the side as we could not develop or find a Book of Centuries – which in the end boiled down to a time line. I knew this wasn’t what it was really supposed to be, but couldn’t quite clarify the picture in my head, much to my frustration – not to mention my poor girls.

    After reading your article and **seeing** your example, THIS is what I’ve been striving to find. Thank you so very much for writing this and illustrating your meaning. I actually called my two oldest students in to see your examples, and now they are as excited as I am to utilize this with our schooling. It’s like a breath of fresh air for us.

  3. mum2six says

    I really like this…I have tried to do this so many different ways with my four oldest children. They usually ended up with a huge binder-type notebook that could NOT be taken anywhere. Much too cumbersome. I am in search of something slim, portable, something that I and my children would love to just grab and take with them! For my last 2 children, and for ME!, I would love to have something more streamlined, also. I like your page, Laurie, with the 20th century at the top. However, with just one page/century, esp. for those that had a huge amount of history/science, etc., that might want to be broken down. I (personally) like to have the dates written in, but that could be just left open to the user!

    When will you have samples of your readymake version available?

  4. amberbenton says


    Thank you so much for your post and clearly laid out example. I have attended two sessions on the BOC at the conference and they were both very different. In neither of them did I come away with a clear picture in my head that went along with Mason’s writings.

    Very much look forward to more of your writing on concerning this.


  5. Thank you so much! Now I understand the BoC and I’m excited to start one for myself (and my oldest in a year or two). I’m looking forward to your ready-made version!


  6. I too, very much appreciated SEEING what a true Charlotte Mason Book of Centuries would look like! Thank you so much for posting this! I look forward to trying this myself and following your future posts concerning BOCs and seeing what you come up with for a ready-made book!

  7. reesecoli says

    We are just beginning our homeschooling journey and this post is extremely helpful! I am so drawn to Charlotte Mason’s ideas – especially the nature journal and the book of centuries. Thank you so much for sharing what you have learned and for posting your template – very cool!

    Question (since we are still new and I have only read the summaries of volume 1 – I am starting with the summaries and hoping to get to the real thing very soon): What ages are generally included in “Form 1” – you mentioned that they were not expected to do the book of centuries based on their developmental abilities. I am sure my son falls into this category and I don’t want to offer something that he isn’t ready for – I think I will do my own book (like you are – I LOVE this idea) and then offer for him to make his own when he is older….just wondering how much older would be appropriate. THANKS!

  8. Laurie, are you keeping your own as well as your student?

    I loved the post although I already had ours started. I think we will transition to your version in Year 7 when the new history cycle begins. You have clarified much as can be clarified among so much uncertainty due to buried archives, the distance of time, different versions resulting from a growing understanding, etc.

  9. I very much appreciate this post! I AM one of those bloggers who has ignorantly outlined how to do a book of centuries contrary to some of the principles here. (I had read what I could find and did catch the sketching of articles seen in museums, but not everyone has access to museums in their area… esp. here in Peru!)

    I absolutely agree with you that the way that the previously mentioned authors have written instructions and a pattern for a BoC, is obviously well thought through and that all the fine points are definitely for a purpose. I can totally see your points in the reasons why to make our books this way. I also see the benefit in starting out this way from the very introduction of BoC to our children!

    However, I don’t think that there is really a WRONG way to do Book of Centuries, though admittedly there are BETTER ways 🙂 We make a start and that’s how we all learn.

    We are all learning! I’m excited to introduce this idea to my kiddos when they start their own books next year in Year 7. I don’t think what we do is SUCH a far cry from this… especially as a way to get in the habit of becoming chroniclers of time.

    I look forward to your further posts on the subject, and am very grateful for your enlightening post based on some wonderful research. Thank you!

    amy in peru

    • amy in peru says

      OOPs. did I imply that you said there was a wrong way?! I offer my humble apologies. I do know that’s not what you intended… I meant only to assure myself and others that what we’ve been doing (something utterly different in timeline notebooks) wasn’t necessarily wasted (or wrong), but that the way you’ve pointed out that they did it in the CM schools is definitely BETTER!

      I should have been more careful.

      From your research, does it seem they may have used the timelines and charts in the earlier years at all before beginning to keep a BOC around age 10? Or were the timelines and charts for the older children as well?

  10. Savannah says

    Awesome! Thank you for sharing your research. This makes so much sense. I’m wondering if the left-hand rows could just be expanded to twice the height, leaving more room for entries and then not having extra space at the bottom? Or did you find in your research that the extra writing space on the bottom left is an important part of the book’s concept? Do you have a link yet to your ready-made pages you’d like to share?

  11. Georgia says

    I echo those who’ve begun with the cumbersome binder and printed figures. While my kids have enjoyed their boc’s, I’ve always felt they could be more concise and reasonable in size and scope and materials, and more unique for each maker. Your explanation and demonstration of the intent of the original boc clears it up for me. I’m picturing a pocket-sized boc for myself that can be close at hand while reading, ready for when inspiration strikes. Thanks for a well-articulated understanding of this wonderful tool for learning.

  12. Barbara says

    Hello everyone – Thank you for this great article! It has inspired me to make a “ready made” version. I modified this slightly and made a book that starts in the year 2099 BC. Can anyone tell me if it is correct to say 2099 – 2000 BC is the Twenty-First Century BC. I want to make sure before I print. Also, do you think there needs to be earlier dates or a page simply listed as 3000 BC and Earlier. We mostly use AO so I don’t think we really ever go back that far in time. I am going to post this file to share as soon as I get these questions worked out. It looks really great and I am excited to put it to use with the kids.

    • Barbara says

      In answer to my own question I did make the dates wrong. I should have consulted the oracle (google) originally. I have corrected them. My file is in Word and it is done. If anyone tripping across this page would like a copy just send me an email. I’d be glad to share it.

      • missceegee says

        I would love your BOC file, also. Thank you.

      • Stormi says

        Hi! Thanks for this post it is great and i really understand the concept of the BoC now!! I was having a fuzzy picture before reading this, but now the picture is perfectly clear and it is thanks to your description of it. I would also love a copy of your finished file and truly appreciate all the hardwork and thought processes that wen into it.

      • Alyssa says

        Barbara, I would love a copy of your file as well. How do I send you an email?

      • Margaret Fallon says

        I would greatly appreciate a copy of your BoC file. Thank you.

  13. Kim McLaren says

    I would love a copy of your file!
    I am just beginning in this pursuit and find your thoughts insightful and encouraging and consequently they are pushing out my daunting and discouraged ones.

  14. I would love this file too – but I’m not sure how to email you.

    I definately plan to do a BofC myself in this style, and my children once they are older.

    (I also plan to do a book of years of my own life, and the lives of my children in a similar style… but with photos instead of drawings… and a grid with 12 spaces for the months of the year… my own invention (I think) )

  15. maryann lewis says

    I loved your explanation. Having it on one page really helps one see the entire century at a glimpse. I love it. History has always been a struggle for me but seeing it done this way really makes sense to me. I think it will work for my children as well. Will you down load a BOC file?

  16. Amy says

    I’m not even sure if anyone will see this but I’d LOVE to see any files or examples of BOC that have been constructed from the result of this post…

  17. Heather says

    I would love to get a copy of the file to create a boc. Looking forward to getting a grasp on history!

    Heather J

  18. Sheila Bice says

    I would love to learn how to get a copy of Laurie’s Book of Centuries that she has created as a result of all her research about this and the way Charlotte Mason used the Book of Centuries. Is it possible to purchase this yet from Laurie?
    Thank you,

  19. Pingback: CM Monday – Book of Centuries « Golden Acorn Homeschool

  20. Jennifer says

    Laurie, I took a look at your hardbound version, and was wondering if you could explain something? I see the lined pages are on the right hand side – are the drawings to be done on the left-side page? Do you have any other photos you could post that show more views of the book? Thank you so much for this information!

  21. Lisa Wiesman says

    I know this is an older post but I would love to have a copy of these timeline pages.

  22. We are taking the plunge into the Book of Centuries next year with my oldest daughter, and this article was so helpful in solidifying the reason and purpose behind it! Thank you so much! I put together a simple one for my daughter, print and coil bounded it. I have a link to the pdf on my blog. Feel free to use it if it will spare anyone the hours I put into it! 🙂

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