12 Centuries in 12 Months: Q1 Update

Have I learned more about PKM or about history...

It’s time to reflect on the first 3 months of 12 Centuries in 12 Months, my history project for 2024. So read on for some PKM insights!

Table of Contents

🔨 Tools Mentioned

  • Capacities

  • Aeon Timeline

  • Wondrium

  • MacFamilyTree

Learning in a time-crunch

To say Q1 was crazy would be an understatement. I had less time for this project than expected, and way less mental capacity. So I had to work out how best to reach my goals in spite of this.

My favourite resource ended up being the era-overview courses from Wondrium, which I think is a chronically underrated resource.

The best courses I’ve found for this have been:

  1. The High Middle Ages

  2. The Middle Ages around the World

  3. The Islamic Golden Age

  4. The Vikings

They are so rich with information, but beautifully organised and come with neat PDF coursebooks which can be read in Readwise Reader, which of course makes the reading experience even more delightful.

I got most of my information from them, and just did simple Google/Wikipedia searches around the gaps in my knowledge (either that I recognised myself, or that I’d noticed on the ChatGPT curriculum and that hadn’t been overtly covered in the course books).

Some interesting sources I found here were about the origins of gunpowder, and the impact of silver coins in the Carolingian empire (I really didn’t think this would be as interesting as it was, so it was a great surprise!)

Along the way, I realised I don’t need to drill down into large academic sources before making notes on a subject. This is a lighter project, aimed at giving me a foundational understanding of parts of the World through 12 centuries, and I feel I have managed this despite having less time than I first thought. Yay!

Dates in historical note-taking

I’m obsessed with time, timelines, calendars and honestly anything along those (time)lines. Time is central to everything we know and everything we do so I never want to ignore it while I’m taking notes in Capacities.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to deal with dates in history notes. For example, I feel I need to note when events happened, dates people were born, when they died, when they ruled, and more.

After varying experiments, I decided to use a number property to represent years, especially for the early dates I’m dealing with. Dates given in sources about the 9-11th centuries have so far been mainly years, rather than a specific pinpointed date in DD/MM/YYYY format, for example. Therefore I’m ok “dealing” in years for now.

Using number properties is also good for queries. One example is below- I want to know who was alive in the 11th century, which I spent some of March learning about. I can use an object type query that looks for people whose year of birth (a number property) is less than or equal to 1100, and whose year of death (another number property) is greater than or equal to 1001.

A screenshot of a query in Capacities, showing the properties used to find people alive in the 11th century.

This method will need attention as dates get more precise but I’ll figure it out when I get there!

For now, it’s also working nicely with eras.

My readings tell me the boundaries of an era, and I add this to my eras’ properties where “start year” and “end year” are both number properties. I later copy these into Aeon timeline which helps me visualise things easier.

Query to find the eras occurring in the 11th century

Aeon timeline’s view of the eras alongside some families

Eras are important because the change from one century to another does not really mean anything. The big players in the 10th century are also important in the 11th, and so on. So having these era objects in Capacities therefore means I can link to them and make notes on them, and having them in Aeon timeline lets me visualise them to see what was occurring at the same time.

Don’t just read, synthesise

I tend to read a lot, summarise what I’ve read, extract what I learn from it by linking to other objects, and then just read something else and continue that cycle. I learn loads, but synthesise very little. This means my “big picture” thinking isn’t as developed as it could be.

So when it’s time to synthesise my notes, what do I do?

I review the backlinks in my chosen object first and I write up what I learn from those. Then I do an extended search on the subject and open the results in the sidebar, and then I add that to my backlink-write-up. At this point, I’m sure I’ve covered all the angles that my notes do. But this also always shows the gaps in my knowledge. At this point, it’s time for more research. And the joyous knowledge cycle starts again.

Side note: I actually have tried to film a video walkthrough of this a few times but I’m not sure if it’s actually interesting or useful? So I ask you…

Would this be interesting to see in a video?

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To see what the product of a synthesis session looks like, here are a couple of pages I worked on:

I was playing with the structure of the page in order to help me build out my understanding. This is the beauty of a block-based editor, and I find much more useful to long-term learning and understanding than outliners I tried in the past.

I also was reminded of a clever property (if I do say so myself…) I added to my object types months ago: the “last reviewed” date.

If I ever do a review of an object’s backlinks, I fill in the last reviewed date.

When I then return to that object months down the line, I can see when I last reviewed it, and I can sort my backlinks by the filters shown below. This helps me review the more recent links first.

Filterable backlinks are one of my favourite Capacities features

Importance of having different ways to visualise things

I don’t believe notes should just be text-based. Well, maybe it’s more precise to say your knowledge work should not ignore other media and ways of dealing with information.

This has come up in a few ways with this project, namely with maps, timelines and family trees. I can’t say I have a systematic way of dealing with these yet, but I’m very convinced of their utility in the study of history, which is of course what I mainly take notes on…

  1. Maps

I found a map website that, though incomplete, is really good at showing what the world looked like, roughly, at different parts of the past.

The utility of these maps became clear with the 1025 and 1100 maps. I flipped between the two maps embedded in my 11th Century MOC and saw that France fragmented, the German Holy Roman Empire expanded, and there were big changes with the Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates. All of this became something to research.

It’s one thing reading about the activities of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, but it’s another to be able to see the effects of these activities on the world, and it’s these maps that have facilitated that.

Check out a gif that demonstrates this here (it’s too big for this newsletter so might take a second to load).

just after writing this I found the most incredible resource. Pick a year and just see what the world looked like! 🤩

I am obsessed with timelines. Put very simply, everything is connected to time and I want to be able to visualise that.

I’m using Aeon timeline thanks to Réka’s recommendation. It works in a similar way to Capacities with entities having types, meaning you can put people, locations, categories etc in. I added entity types of eras and families too (pic of this above).

Even though all the input is manual, I have decided it’s worth it because time is such an important element of historical study.

Check out a gif that demonstrates this here (it’s too big for this newsletter so might take a second to load).

It’s impossible to study history and not appreciate that male heirs (or lack thereof) and strategic marriages are some of the most contextually important pieces to any historical puzzle.

I wanted to visualise the links between families and generations in a more precise way than links in a graph. It became obvious to me that I needed to make a family tree in a programme designed to deal with these links and that can visualise them in fascinating, but helpful ways. MacFamilyTree seemed the best option so I invested. It has loads of different views. It’s so cool.

It started small of course, but now I’ve added a lot of people to it and it’s just awesome honestly. I am seeing connections I never would have before, and that don’t naturally have a place in my note-taking practices. I will definitely be expanding this as I go!

Descendants of William the Conqueror! Fascinating.

More PKM realisations

All of these different visualisations of data lead to a realisation: for subjects you’re really interested in, I don’t think all your “work” on it must live in one tool. I think this is because information is not always best communicated through text. A family tree in words would be a lot harder to understand than the classic tree visualisation. I want to work with that rather than try and force it into my note-taking tool of choice just so everything is in one place.

That being said, I do think a lot of data visualisations need to be supported by text, in the sense that for important people (such as William the Conqueror), it’s good to have a place to take notes about them broadly. So that’s when your note-taking apps will come in.

Sure it would be great if everything linked together (I tried Hookmark but it doesn’t work here), but I personally gain a lot from having a note about William the Conqueror in both Capacities and Mac Family Tree, in spite of the time it took me to set both entities up (which really isn’t much).

This is because both entities have helped me develop an understanding of history and how it flows from one age to another, and that makes this project even more enjoyable. They have done this in very different ways, so I’m happy to continue using MacFamilyTree, Aeon timeline and Maps to help me develop my understanding throughout this project and into Q2 and beyond 🙂 


So that’s it for Q1. It’s been fantastically good fun and I’m so excited to learn more in Q2.

I find myself wanting to focus on England, France and Germany as I already have some understanding of them. But this is difficult, the Medieval world was so much more connected than I’d previously understood.

All of this reminds me though that there’s so much to learn, and I just cannot wait to continue. I’m not planning any big changes, just going to keep going as I have and be sure to share what I learn later.

Onto the 12th century! 🤩

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