A Charlotte Mason Education, Book of Centuries, Curriculum, History, The Charlotte Mason Collection
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The Book of Centuries Revisited Part II by Laurie Bestvater

It has been several months since I first wrote about my experiment with Mrs. Bernau’s Book of Centuries. ( https://childlightusa.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/the-book-of-centuries-revisited-by-laurie-bestvater/)  Since then I have made a template and printed several versions with slight adjustments ending up with a three ring binder filled with 67lb cardstock punched pages.  This has given me and my son something to start with as we become familiar with this “new” model. Overall, we are very pleased with our books and are finding more and more occasions to use them. The one drawback still is the weight and awkwardness of the book—in hindsight, cardstock was heavier than necessary and I have recently printed the template on good quality paper (“Resume paper” with 100% cotton content for longevity but other papers of the weight of sketch paper and suitable for double sided printing would do) and had it  hardbound to try and imitate the Book of Centuries s the P.N.E.U. ultimately sold. (Bernau, 1923)

Also since that post, the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection housed at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario has opened thanks to the foresight and hard work of an international team of researchers and archivists from Redeemer University College, Gardner-Webb University, Covenant College and the Armitt Library and Museum and I have been able to trace more clues on Bernau’s work.  Many of you have written with questions and with this new information, I hope to answer some of them here.

QHow old should a child be before starting a Book of Centuries?

A. Mrs. Bernau (n.d.) wrote the Parents ’Union Schools began at “ten years old and onwards.”(p.4) This coincides with other writings in Mason about helping to build a child’s notion of time with gradually more complex time-lines.  Children would need to have a good understanding of what the past meant, before beginning a Book of Centuries. A family or school Book of Centuries could be used in the meantime but the idea was for each person to treasure their own copy throughout life.

Q. Do we only use the Book of Centuries if we can visit museums?

A. No, the practice originated out of Bernau’s relationship to Mrs. Epp who lived near a museum and taught her children history very often with museum visits but any good book (and Bernau listed books to use in her time, particularly Mrs. Epps’ The British Museum for Children) that shows real artifacts can be used for drawing and the internet can provide wonderful images as well. These were shown after the child’s reading of the matter, on a need to know basis.  Of course, one would want to take advantage of any access to museums as well.

Q. How can my student keep his work neat in such a format?

Several things come to mind. First, the Book of Centuries is begun after handwriting is fairly secure.  Especially in the beginning, the teacher may want to encourage finding the proper space on the chart noting that the numbers reverse from BCE and CE, before a pen is taken up.  The beginning student may even practice writing the word on a piece of scrap paper before neatly entering it on the correct page and line. The model I have made has wee dots at the top of each chart that can be used to draw a light pencil line to indicate the column for more support for the beginner but I would not leave the lines in as the page is much more effective without them and Bernau did not use them. Soon there will be five elegant “lists” running down the page in the child’s own hand.  Another fear is making a sketching mistake and Bernau does mention students sketching lightly in pencil before using ink, (Just don’t try to erase the pencil before the ink is completely dry.)  Pilot makes an extra fine black pen called the “Razor” which is very satisfactory for this type of drawing. Encourage the student to hold it so as to sketch and not to press too hard. The student should be encouraged not to select items to draw that are not too difficult so they do not become frustrated but are proud of their work. (More complex drawings may be saved for later with the reassurance that skill will grow.) (1923)  Pictures are generally not glued into the book as that could also contribute to a messy and “too bulky” (n.d. p.8) journal. The drawings rarely include colour and the effect of the pen and ink gives a unity that hides slight imperfections. Students may be encouraged to know that perfection is not expected but just their neatest effort. (1923)

Q. Why are the rows so narrow, couldn’t we fit more in if you expanded your chart?

A. Well, two things: this is not about capturing all the history the child studies. Try to think of a rope hammock…There are just enough contact points to hold you up, but a lot of space too.  This notebook seems to function as a visual touch point for the child in future days, the century at a glance, personalized.  It is a unique grid that “warms the imagination” (n.d.) and will eventually act as a mind  filter for one’s  lifelong reading. If it has more than an hundred entries, it becomes less effective. The second thing is a discovery I made in the archive. We actually have a sample Book of Centuries left to us by P.N.E.U. teacher Eve Anderson.  Looking at hers, you will see that the book was specially designed to have blank and lined pages alternating with the number of lines per page exactly to Bernau’s specifications. So my earlier version is right in one way, JUST one hundred “spaces” but wrong in that “the chart” should take most of the page. In this case, the description wasn’t quite enough to get it right but a picture of Eve’s was worth a thousand words. I don’t think this was just a later adaptation (viz. Eve learning her version long after Mason and Bernau); it seems that Bernau has described just what we see in Eve’s Book of Centuries, (a model adopted by the P.U.S. in 1915) in several instances over the years with only minor adjustments.

Q. Why don’t you include more pages for the current age and recent past and drop some of the ancient pages?

A. Well, this touches on a similar question: Some have wondered if I am suggesting there is “a right way” and a “wrong way” to make a Book of Centuries. I am not; this is not a moral question. However, as I show in the first post, and am even more convinced of now, Bernau and Mason seem to have intended something quite specific.  I am trying to understand what that was and why.  I find that the more I attempt to follow Mason’s ways in my educational practice, the better I like the results. I am not suggesting anyone must do things in exactly this way. I suspect that what seems like too many empty pages for prehistory serves as a subtle but unambiguous symbol to the child of the great span of time before recorded history. This notebook was used in P.N.E.U schools to study the earliest finds housed in the British Museum, and the ancient peoples.  Bernau reminds her readers that some of those discoveries “…go as far back as the 100th Century, B.C….perhaps (some are) still to be made.”(n.d. How. p.7) Later P.N.E.U versions might have indeed  chosen to drop some of those early pages; Eve Anderson’s begins charting with the 35th Century BCE but Bernau recommended the 54th Century and further grouping  centuries before that by 10’s in each of the articles I looked at so that is what I have done.  As to adding more space later on, Bernau is very clear that we should have no more than a double page spread for each century, I think for the reasons listed above and in my first post, its mnemonic effect. She says, more than once, “Never be tempted to take two pages for a century which seems to interest you more, as it quite does away with the object of the Book of Centuries.”(1951, p.44)

Q. How soon will you have a version ready?

A. The good news is, if you want to read what is now available by Bernau, you can make your own quite simply in even an exercise book. (She recounts a touching story of children during WWI asking their Father who was home on leave and offering a treat to go to the P.N.E.U offices to purchase a readymade one since they had been making due with exercise books…that’s how special they were.) (1951)  If you don’t want to do that I feel confident now that I have a pretty clear picture of what Bernau and Mason were using and have adjusted my template accordingly. I will have my version available at the ChildLightUSA Charlotte Mason Educational Conference in June 2011 at Gardner-Webb University.  It will be for sale with part of the proceeds going to support the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection at Redeemer University in celebration of its opening.  You may also order a Book of Centuries through the website www.bookofcenturies.com.

P.S.. Reading Bernau in her later years (1951) it is so charmingly apparent what a beloved tradition this had become for the P.N.E.U families. She describes having a “Book of Centuries Tea” with her students and those of Miss Kitching where students would meet and enjoy each others’ books and exchange illustrations for drawing. In London, they had “Book of Centuries Evenings” when Ambleside students would come and spend the evening drawing.  A  School Book of Centuries was “of great interest” as students would draw something from their current term’s work and initial it as a type of keepsake.  I would love to hear stories like these circulating again. If you find creative ways to encourage your students with these books, please do post them.

Anderson, Eve. (n.d.) Book of Centuries. Personal artifact. Retrieved from http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/PNEU-Briefcase/PNEU-Box24/pneu162/i3p01-p42pneu162.pdf

Bernau, G.M. (1923) The Book of Centuries. The Parents’ Review, 34, 720-724. Retrieved from http://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR34p720BookofCenturies.shtml

Bernau, G.M. (C.M.C.)(1951). Century Books. Parents’ Union School’s Diamond Jubilee Magazine, 42-44.Retrieved fromhttp://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/2nd-CM-Briefcase/Box17/cmc113/p001-p070cmc113.pdf

Bernau, G.M. (C.M.C) (n.d.) The Book of Centuries and How to Keep One. Parents’ National Education Union Publication. Retrieved from http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/2nd-CM-Briefcase/Box16/cmc107/I/i1p01-p15cmc107I.pdf

© 2011 by Laurie Bestvater


  1. I have really enjoyed your posts regarding the BOC. Thank you for all the wonderful information — it does leave a lot to ponder.

    I do wish the Eve Anderson sampling had some of A.D. and more drawings to visualize better the contrast of B.C. and A.D.

  2. Bethany says

    I also was very interested in your posts regarding the Book of Centuries. So much so, in fact, that I immediately went and designed one for my own uses. I also used card stock, but printed it in a horizontal format. The left hand page had the name of the Century at the top, with five columns of 20 rows each. The right hand page had various smaller boxes designed for drawing. My sons tend to find a blank page difficult to measure and end up drawing very small or very large. Dividing the page into an orderly array of smaller spaces enables them to envision their drawings better and to choose carefully which shape and size of space best fits what they desire to draw. After printing, I spiral bound the books so that they would lay flat for easier drawing convenience.

  3. Tanya says

    Thanks for these posts! I’m preparing to start Year/Grade 1 with my oldest next year, and having seen different designs for the BOC was wondering where I wanted to go with it. Having read your posts, seen the pictures, and read that article by Bernau myself, I too want to better adapt the original format. I can completely see the benefit and what was desired for it.
    I do realize that this is intended for an older child to start, rather than a early reader/writer. However, I wanted to start one as a family, so they can see it building. Then when they are old enough, present them with one of their own, transfer anything recorded in the family album to theirs, and let them take off from there. Also, based on what was “supposed” to be done for the first few pages–regarding the old ages of prehistory–it almost sounds like that is SUPPOSED to be prewritten for the student. What is your take on that?
    Thanks again for your posts. I really wish I was somewhere nearby to see yours in person. 🙂

  4. I am fascinated with the BC charts that she did in her Book of Centuries. It will be helpful for study of Antiquity next year.
    Thanks for the links. I would never have found them in the Archive! Very rich reading.

  5. amy in peru says

    Many of us are SO grateful for all this work you have done! It has helped me so much to have you spell it out so clearly. I very much agree that it was definitely done thoughtfully and purposefully. I am thrilled by this. The whole idea of hooks to get your bearings.

    I am sorely afraid that I was the one that may have inadvertently accused you of saying there was a “wrong” way… I may have been trying to justify/defend my ever morphing understanding of things :S I am humbled. I can’t help wincing when I read my first comment on the other post [blush] …please forgive? 😉

    I’m so inspired and excited. Now that we’re back in Peru, and will start our new school year, I FINALLY get to start my own BOC! I’ve been looking forward to it since… well, a long time now!

  6. Sarah says

    I am enjoying these posts on the BOC. Isn’t it facinating how CM was so intentional in all she did. Your details about this particular item in her method fascinates me and intrigues me to know even more about everything she did. I can understand the point about keeping it to one double page spread per century. If you must sort through all you know about a century and only fill in what fits it forces you to get aquainted with the material so your can chose your favorites. I love this! It is what makes the learning gell and what makes the BOC project special to the student making one. My boys are still too young to begin a BOC as these posts have pointed out but I am storing this idea away for them when we get there. We love making books and it would be great to make our own book from scratch start to finsh and then fill it in. Also, I think the eyewitness books can be great museums in bindings to find artifacts to draw.
    Thanks so much!

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