Sink or swim: Elizabethan style

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. 🙂

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Ashley says:

    Exhausting, that’s my take on the technique. Very inefficient, and hard. He swims like a 6 year old trying to do the front crawl. But if you’re looking for fun, not to get anywhere fast, adequate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. eabwheeler says:

      It would be interesting to know how swimming evolved from this to its modern, scientific sport form.

      Like

  2. PHS says:

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    Reblogging on Archer’s Aim – some of my reading from earlier this week. Details can be important for effect and then what happens in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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