Early modern swimming


I was reading Henry Peacham’s The Complete Gentleman (1622), and when, apart from suggesting that “leaping is an exercise very commendable and healthful for the body, especially if you use it in the morning,” he also remarked that

The skill and art of swimming is […] very requisite in every noble and gentleman, especially if he looketh for employment in the wars, for hereby, besides the preserving of his own life upon infinite occasions, he may in many ways annoy his enemy (139)

…I suddenly found myself wondering if anyone has ever written a cultural history of early modern swimming. In Peacham’s view, swimming is a gentlemanly sport, ranking with leaping and hunting. Did women swim in early modern England? And did farmers? I remember a scene from the BBC’s Tales from the Green Valley in which a historian somewhat uncomfortably shared a country stream with a sheep. I searched some bibliographical databases and came up with Nicholas Orme’s Early British Swimming: 55 BC-AD 1719. It is not exactly the cultural history that I was looking for, but it is a wonderful book. The star of Orme’s history of British swimming is the Cambridge Scholar Everard Digby, who in 1587 published the treatise De Arte Natandi, translated from the Latin into English, and thereby made available to a much broader audience, by Christopher Middleton in 1595.

Digby’s treatise is a manual for the gentleman swimmer of early modern England. It advises him to swim during the months between May and August, but not on cold and windy days, and certainly not during the night. He should preferably find a natural swimming water where the ground is either rocky or sandy, and should take a companion with him for safety. Orme notes that the early modern swimmer “was more of an individualist than most swimmers today.”

Orme’s Early British Swimming includes an edition of Christopher Midlleton’s translation of the treatise, accompanied by the wonderful engravings of Digby’s orginal Latin publication. The engravings serve as illustrations for the technical part of the treatise, in which Digby surveys the various swimming techniques. It explains how to enter the water, how to swim on your back, on your side or on your belly. The engravings are very ingeniously designed: there are about five different settings in which we see a river, some trees, or a herd of cows, a farm, a gentleman sitting on the bank of the river taking off his stockings, and a naked man ready to dive into the river. In the river, as Orme also explains, a different rectangular section is used for each illustration, in which we see the swimmer performing the techniques explained in the accompanying text. Digby argues that man is a better swimmer than fish, since men can also swim vertically in the water, and can even transport things while swimming, keeping those things dry above the water. The technique for doing so is duly illustrated, but my favourite engraving has to be the one for paring your toes while swimming in the water:

Swimming upon his back, let him draw up his left foot and lay it over his right knee, still keeping his body very straight, and then having a knife ready in his right hand, he may easily keep up his leg until he hath pared one of his toes, as thus:

Michael West comments that “characteristically, the figure in the accompanying illustration is so drawn as to appear to be accomplishing a physical impossibility.” I would love to reproduce the engraving with the text, but since it is not available on the internet, I am not sure if I am legally allowed to place it here.

Orme’s book also contained a clue about women’s swimming. William Percey’s The Compleat Swimmer (1658) recommends swimming for pleasure, exercise and health, and not only to men, but also to women: “I could very well wish every man and woman were perfect in swimming likewise, which with a little practice they easily may attain unto” he writes. Orme does add that the book itself, like Digby’s, assumes that the practitioners will nevertheless all be men (104).

Nicholas Orme, Early British Swimming (Exeter: The University of Exeter, 1983). See also: Michael West, “Spenser, Everard Digby, and the Renaissance Art of Swimming,” Renaissance Quarterly 26:1 (1973): 11-22.

Links on swimming:
History of Swimming
The rather more gruesome swimming of witches

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8 thoughts on “Early modern swimming

  1. Thanks Kristine, that was a thoroughly interesting post.

    You made me go searching but alas…I can’t find much in the way of images to borrow and post ;- )

    The lack of cultural context for early modern times is obvioulsy giving you a book to write in the future!

  2. Pingback: Frog in a Well - The Korea History Group Blog

  3. A very very good cultural history of swimming is Charles Sprawsons: Haunts of the Black Masseur. Required reading indeed, and easily found in almost any online bookstore. A Canadian documentary based on that book was påroduced in 2004, but I have yet to find a copy or catch it on tv.

    Thanx for the Nicholas Orme reference, I will most definetely get that in the near future. hadn’t heard about it before…

  4. Another great book (mostly for people interested in the history of swimming) is Ralph Thomas’ book: Swimming (London – Sampson Low, Marston, 1904). Basically he wandered around Europe for 13 years visiting every library he found and wrote af bibliography of everything ever written on the subject of Swimming (this takes up more than 400 pages). Charles Sprawson holds him in great regard and I suspect that Nicholas Orme might also have peeked thru Thomas’ book before writing his own…

    … and let me just say, that I only found your blog today while searching the net for references on early british swimming, and I find that it is a very fascinating subjectmatter that you have chosen. Great work 🙂

  5. Not that I want to brag but you should check out a book I wrote: History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming available from Amazon.com… the early history of British and American swimming is quite thorough and the drawing I discovered of Renaissance swimming is mind-boggling. I’m presently revising the book for a third edition with color prints.

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