A Charlotte Mason Education, Book of Centuries, History
Comments 21

Owning the Middle Ages: Teaching History CM Style! – Revised by Mary Gildersleeve

[this is a revision of my original post where I mistakenly stated that Charlotte Mason recommended a four-year cycle through history.  This is a later development that CM proponents have used to balance history for grades 1-12, especially in homeschools.  I apologize for any inconvenience this caused.   – MCG, May 8, 2014]

In a post a little over 2 years ago, I mentioned my deep love for history, especially American History.  I mentioned how, had I learned history the way I teach my homeschooled kids, I probably would have majored in history, possibly even going on to a Masters and Doctoral work.

Yes, I love it that much.

My kids, on the other hand, aren’t quite as enthusiastic.  But they still understand the great benefit to learning history:

Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

Edmund Burke, English Statesman/Philosopher (1729-1797)

  1. Ancient World (Greece, Rome – we would add Asia and Meso-America)
  2. Birth of Christ, later Roman to early Middle Ages
  3. Middle Ages through the Renaissance (again, adding in America and other continents)
  4. Modern Times

I like this way of cycling through history – as the student develops and they re-study an era, the resources can grow progressively more detailed.  The one thing I don’t like about CM’s history is that it has a heavy focus on Western Europe, particularly British and Protestant views of history.  With that in mind, I add in American and non-European texts, legends and events to round out the subject.

Even though I have multiple ages that I’m homeschooling (now I’m down to just an 11- and 14-year old), we learn history together in order to maximize the learning process.  In this way, we can watch documentaries, read historical fiction and journey to historic spots to supplement our book learning.

This year, we are “owning” the Middle Ages.  Now, it would be tough for us to find field trip opportunities as we can’t exactly afford to head to England and Sherwood Forest, the Middle East and the Holy Sepulcher, or France and Agincourt.  We can, however, read living books and watch classic movies and documentaries and read historical fiction.

And that is what we are doing this year.

We have a couple of books we’re using for our “spine” for history (the texts which help us jump off onto rabbit trails, discovering what interests us and broad brush-stroking what doesn’t):

  1. Famous Men of the Middle Ages (and the accompanying teacher’s guide from Memoria Press) – a classic by John Haaren & A. B. Poland.  This book is great for its chronological arrangement of some of the major “players” during the Middle Ages; somehow relating history to the “actors” involved helps us own the history.  Here, we find great stories about Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Pope Urban and Joan of Arc.  Here the people come alive for us.
  2. The Middle Ages by Dorothy Mills (as edited by Memoria Press), is a thought-provoking overview of the major events of the Middle Ages.  Mills uses lots of contemporary chronicles, diaries, letters and minstrel tales to relate the era between the Fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance.  Her style is chatty and works well as a read-aloud.  A timeline at the end of the book helps to relate all that was occurring concurrently between the emperors, the English, the French, the Norse, the Popes and Islam.
  3. The Story of the World: Volume 2 – The Middle Ages by Susan Wise Bauer is already considered a classic for those trying to give their students a “classical education”.  Bauer is currently a teacher at the College of William and Mary so her book allows for more current scholarship than the other two spines we’re using.  I like the way Bauer weaves legend into her tales of fact.  This is a great spine and has an accompanying activity book with great ideas for supplementing the reading.  Were Charlotte Mason alive today, I think she’d wholeheartedly approve of Bauer’s text.

Along with these three “spine” texts, we supplement extensively with reading classic historical fiction, especially the wonderful (if a tad fanciful) books of Howard Pyle, Barbara Willard, G.A. Henty, and Louis deWohl.  These books, some of which we read-aloud and some I assign as individual reading, allow us to empathize with the protagonists, vicariously live the experience of going off to battle or shopping in a town’s annual market.

We further supplement with classic films such as Robin Hood, El Cid, and Joan of Arc.  Documentaries are also a “family affair”; most of these are watched through Netflix or Amazon instant, but we also borrow a fair number at the public library.   Some of the best-liked include  The Dark Ages: An Age of Light, the History Channel’s The Crusades, and many movies about Catholic saints (particularly the ones done in Italy with English subtitles) such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Rita, and St. Patrick.   Various television shows round out our viewing including Merlin, Robin Hood, and Cadfael.

The benefit to the historical fiction books, movie and television series is that we can use them to verify their truthfulness (or lack thereof).  We can question the way the Crusades are presented or the fear of Islam or Joan of Arc’s mission from God based on our factual readings and learning.

I don’t give tests, oral or written.  That said, there are a few ways I “track” the learning process:  we do oral reports when Dad gets home, write skits and stories that coincide with events we just learned, and we write journal entries for the major players (prayers St. Augustine would have written down … a diary entry just before St. Louis went into battle … the journal entry after Columbus was granted permission to sail off to find the Indies).  We also draw maps and keep a “Book of Centuries” to record all the events and see the interconnectedness of it all. We build models of famous buildings, re-enact the Crusades in Lego and learn to play games like chess and Shadows Over Camelot.

Some of these activities are done separately and some are done all together; some we enlist family members to participate in and some we rely just on the two left home being taught.  The more we can get others involved, the more fun it becomes to talk about what we’ve learned and share insights, debate “facts” and generally truly live and really “own” the Middle Ages!

Mary Gildersleeve is a hand-knits designer, free lance writer and home school teacher living in a small rural county about an hour south-west of Washington, D.C.  She earned an MBA from the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) and a BA in Print Journalism from Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington).  She has two published books:  Great Yarns for the Close Knit Family: over two dozen original hand-knit designs inspired by a dozen fantastic family read-alouds and In His Image: Nurturing Creativity in the Heart of Your Home.  She is married, has 5 children (11 to 24yrs) and keeps busy homeschooling her younger two children, working on the computer, writing articles, and knitting…knitting…knitting .  For more information, check out her website: www.marygildersleeve.com

© 2014 by Mary Gildersleeve


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. I don’t think Charlotte Mason suggested a four-year cycle for studying history, although if you can tell me where she did, I’d be happy to read what she has to say.

  2. Homeschoolmomof6 says

    I have read Charlotte Mason’s volumes. Several more than once and even more than twice. Poured over PR articles, old programmes, etc. I have never seen a four year history cycle. Would you please provide a reference to that? The only four year history cycle I have seen as described here is from a modern neoclassical educator.

  3. LMS says

    I have read nearly all of all six of Charlotte Mason’s volumes, several more than once and some even more than twice. I have never come across a four year history cycle. Would you please provide reference to this? Sounds more like the neoclassical format ….

  4. Sandy Rusby Bell says

    I too have found great joy in learning history along with my children in this homeschool journey. In fact, the delight I’ve experienced has led me to study Mason’s teaching about history for over 15 years. I so appreciate you sharing how you “own” history in your home but I do have a few quibbles with your post.

    Mason did not use a four year history cycle. Students in Grades One through Three (Form One) did not read history chronologically but read tales from history. Starting in Grade Four (Form Two) they read British history chronologically and started to read a French history book that was contemporary with their British history reading. A third stream of history reading began in Form 3 (about Grade 7). Ancient history was never studied as part of the chronological study but was learned through Plutarch’s Lives and The British Museum for Children.

    Mason did indeed teach European history but to say she focused solely on Western Europe is inaccurate. It would be impossible to do justice to the study of the history of all countries in a lifetime but stories from other cultures were included in literature, geography and, I have often thought most tellingly, in Sunday readings.

    I’m unconvinced that Charlotte Mason would endorse Susan Wise Bauer’s books. Mason’s choices consistently follow a chronological telling of the history of a country. As students aged they added in histories of other countries as they overlapped with British history. Again though, Mason used another book specifically dealing with the history of that country. Bauer’s books deal with contemporary history from many different countries. It can be difficult to follow the history of a specific country when weeks may pass between readings about it.

  5. Sandy, I would love to hear more about why it is “telling” that she included it in the Sunday reading. I can tell you know something I don’t know. 🙂

  6. I thought I’d posted but it hasn’t shown up so I’m happy to answer any questions y’all might have. Putting the history into cycles may not be EXACTLY what CM’s pedagogy stated and more what I have gleaned from an understanding of her work. And it’s fine if folks want to quibble but I adapt CM just as I would expect CM to have done or anyone else to take what works and change what doesn’t.

    This is one of the reasons I homeschool.

    CM was a big proponent of the child/children “owning” what was taught. To expect a child to understand history at 4th grade and not revisit it again for more than 6 years doesn’t seem reasonable to me in this day and age when we have SO MUCH for the children to learn. How can a child own history unless they revisit it at the different stages of their learning development?

    One of the reasons CM’s pedagogy is so fascinating for me … and why I use much of her teachings in my homeschool … is because she thought outside the box of her time. Wouldn’t she want us to do the same?

    I don’t ascribe to “doing CM” with a Victorian mindset … only using resources CM would have used. I don’t think does a service to her memory or what she stood for.

    But hey, what works for one doesn’t work for all. Let’s keep the debate going since that’s how we all learn and can then take what will work and leave what won’t.

    • L says


      Certainly we are all free to conduct our home schools however we see fit. But you stated publicly that Charlotte Mason followed a four year history rotation, and she did not. That is not “quibbling” among academics studying Mason’s educational theories.

      • I apologize. You are correct in pointing out my mistake in my post. That being said, the point of the article is how we “own” the Middle Ages … an example for those studying CM to see how her theories play out in reality.

  7. Kimberly Foster says

    We love the history cycle period! It works so well and the kids retain so much by focusing on a period every year. I love that we can take as long as we like and really enjoy the learning!

  8. jeannegrantwebb says

    So Mason didn’t propound a four year cycle? And she didn’t suggest breaking up the eras like that? It probably would have been better if you hadn’t written that she did.

  9. Sandy Rusby Bell says

    Brandy: It seems to me that Mason chose sacred readings for Sundays. I’m uncomfortable with that word because, of course, one of her foundational principles is that there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. And yet, the readings for Sunday have a devotional tone. The compositions for Sundays were the “spiritual” songs (so, for example, when the PNEU students were studying Handel, “Messiah” was assigned on Sunday). The stories about children from other lands were also found in the Sunday readings. Mason was so thoughtful about every aspect of her curriculum. Did she schedule these stories on Sunday to convey the moral imperative of knowing our neighbours?

    • That makes a lot of sense, Sandy. What you say here reminds me of how she ties learning a foreign language to loving our neighbor. You have given me something to think about. Thank you!

  10. Lisa says

    What do you mean doing CM with a Victorian mindset? She was alive when my grandparents (1 of which is still alive) were children, so not so very long ago as it seems. I have never thought of her methods as old-fashioned. Something that works beautifully as is would be considered timeless instead.

    To be honest, what you do sounds like Well Trained Mind with CM thrown on top. Believe it or not, 6 years works quite nicely when one uses CM’s methods. They do remember from one time to the next. It is a beautiful thing.

    • I apologize about the Victorian comment … Edwardian and post WWI would have been more accurate. And I don’t mean that her methods are old-fashioned; I was speaking to the desire of some to use primarily what CM recommended and not go beyond that era. Modern resources with CM philosophy is a beautiful thing. THANKS.

      • L says

        Yet, I don’t see that any comments, besides yours, mentioned what resources are being used. There is nothing wrong with using the best living books available to you, no matter the publication date.

  11. Well, of course you can *adapt* it, but in the article you asserted that CM did certain things — a 4-year cycle, broken up in certain ways. You wrote: “Mason suggested breaking the eras into:” and then listed specific eras. I think your readers were asking for your source. Do you have one?

    It is fine to adapt, but it is helpful to the conversation when we distinguish our adaptations from the original.

  12. krakovianka says

    I can appreciate any educator reading and learning from any source–you take what you can use. That makes good sense, and it makes it your own. But to say this:

    “So, each year we do a different historical era, similar to the four-year cycle propounded by Charlotte Mason. Mason suggested breaking the eras into:”

    …is to say something that isn’t so. I think it’s fine to study history in a 4-year cycle if that’s what you want to do, but I don’t think it’s fine to say that Charlotte Mason “propounded” a four-year cycle or “suggested” breaking it up as listed here…when she didn’t.

    That’s not a criticism, but a desire for accuracy. You don’t have to defend wanting to study history that way–it’s fine. You don’t need Charlotte Mason’s stamp of approval, but in the interest of scholarship, I think it’s important to attribute correctly, and report accurately what others have truly said, and label our own interpretations or implementations as just that.

    This isn’t meant to be a debate, on my side–just a desire for truthfulness and accuracy.

    In my own studies, I find it more enlightening to look beyond “what” someone was doing and understand “why” they were doing it. When we know the purpose for a given practice, it’s easier to either alter the practice according to the principle, or reject the practice if we disagree with the principle.

    • Well, I misstated CM’s history cycle … I apologize for the confusion and will revise my original post. Thanks for pointing out my errors in such a charitable way.

  13. One of my high school students wrote a choral piece to one of St Patrick’s Prayers. It sounds Eric Whitacre/ Gregorian and was sung last week by a teen choir in Charlotte. We are wrapping up Christendom ( Medieval and Renaissance up to Puritans) with St Crispin Day Speech tomorrow. They also memorized the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. I like the book recommendations that AO has for this time period.

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