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:

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Illus­trat­ed in a Remark­able Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script (c. 1450)

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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