I have a scene in my Elizabethan work-in-progress that requires several of the characters to jump into the water, and one of my critique partners asked, “Would they know how to swim?”
That’s an important question. It would be awkward to have the book end with all the main characters drowning (or worse, miraculously developing a skill they shouldn’t have), and Elizabethans were generally wary of water. I was pretty sure I’d read that Elizabethan men sometimes swam for fun (they “bathed” in rivers and ponds anyway, at least during the summer), and I assume people who worked in and around the water could at least dog paddle, but I thought I’d better make sure. Luckily, I found a charming work by Everard Digby, “De Arte Natandi,” a swimming manual written in Latin and published in 1587 (overlapping with when my book takes place).
The fact that it’s a how-to guide and in Latin indicates that swimming was probably not, in fact, a very popular sport among Elizabethans (at least not the upper crust ones–maybe those who didn’t know Latin did know how to take advantage of free outdoor recreation). Considering it was done outside and in the nude, it was also a decidedly male pastime. Still, I feel that I can justify my characters surviving their dunking. Everard Digby also gets bonus points for having a pretty cool name and for being a crypto-Catholic like some of my characters (remaining Catholic despite its being illegal and being fiercely persecuted at times, especially in the 1580s).
For your entertainment, here’s one of the illustrations from his book. I’d love to hear a modern swimmer’s take on the technique. 🙂