The Art of Swimming, 1587: A Manual with Woodcut Illustrations

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As the late great Robert Shaw remarked in Jaws, “here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.”

Or failing that, an extremely bow-legged man, as featured in Sir Everard Digby’s 1587 treatise-cum-manual, De Arte Natandi (The Art of Swimming). Hubba hubba, who needs trunks?

There were no pools at the time. The male bathers populating Digby’s 40 plus woodcut illustrations are river swimmers, like Ben Franklin, the inventor of swim fins and the only Founding Father to be inducted (posthumously) into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

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As Franklin would two centuries later, Digby sought to bring both water safety and proper form to the masses. According to the BBC’s History Magazine, the Cambridge Don’s goal was “to turn swimming from a disregarded skill of bargees and boatmen into an accomplishment for gentlemen, to make them more like the Romans.”

To get closer to his goal, Digby breaks it down as deftly as an online swim instructor in the era of youtube. When not delivering the how to’s on back stroke, side stroke, and doggy paddle, he’s advising absolute beginners on how to enter the water and steer clear of animal-befouled holes, and helping more seasoned students embellish their game with nifty tricks, (dancing, toenail cutting).

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Prolong the lazy days of summer by browsing through more images from De Arte Natandi at the Public Domain Review. Or see the text itself here.

Related Content:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, and extremely enthusiastic swimmer. Follow her @AyunHalliday



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