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The Art of Swimming (Excerpt)

From Cave of the Swimmers, Wadi Sura, Egypt. Photo Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., observed that it was “not inappropriate” to compare swimming to running.  And it’s true, one could do a kind of head count of body parts and see that each one is engaged while swimming:  eyes, mouth, nose, lungs, heart, shoulders, chest, arms, hands, neck, back, abdominal muscles, buttocks, legs, feet.

“Swimming can make one slender, improve the breath, firm up, warm and thin the body as well as rendering a person less liable to injury,” the Renaissance-era Italian physician Girolamo Mercuriale pointed out in his 1573 treatise De arte gymnastica.  What’s more, he felt that swimming provides “greater pleasure” than other kinds of exercise, “since the movement of the water…produces by its gentle touch a sort of peculiar pleasure all its own.”  

Spoken like a true swimmer.  I like that phrase peculiar pleasure, how it acknowledges the frankly sensual nature of swimming and the relationship—if that’s not too odd a word to use—that one develops with water.  The environment in which the swimmer swims makes it unique among exercises, and uniquely satisfying.

But the water’s embrace can change as quickly as the weather.  As with fire, there is always an element of danger and unpredictability with water, whether one is swimming in a lake, river, ocean, pond, or pool, which puts swimming in a different category from other forms of exercise. This is not to say that risks are not inherent in running, lifting, climbing, cycling, martial arts, or yoga, but these tend to be injuries of overuse (pulled muscles, torn tendons), equipment failure, or perhaps an overzealous opponent (a boxer’s black eye).  And instances of so-called “death by exercise”—when someone drops dead while, say, jogging—are generally due to preexisting medical conditions (albeit often unknown) such as atrial fibrillation.

With swimming, by contrast, your life depends on knowing how to do it.  There can be a very real risk of drowning, of accidents occurring—being outmatched by a powerful current and carried out to sea, or taken under by a rogue wave—no matter how strong a swimmer you may be.  Whereas parents teach their children to ride a bike for the sheer fun of it, for the sense of freedom and independence it brings, swimming is taught, first of all, as a basic safety measure. It’s a parent’s duty.  

The same was so thousands of years ago.

Our earliest recorded evidence of swimming comes in a group of cave paintings created during the Neolithic period, dating to about 10,000 years ago. The pictographs, found in a cave in southwest Egypt near the Libyan border, appear to show swimmers in different phases of a stroke—to my eyes, it looks like the breaststroke.  At the time these were painted, the climate was more temperate in this part of the world; there were lakes and rivers where now there is little more than desert. Archaeologists have postulated that the scenes depict an aspect of everyday life, a time when survival depended on knowing how to swim.  One swam to reach the other side of a body of water—perhaps in pursuit of food, perhaps to flee a warring tribe, perhaps to move to safer ground—and one swam simply for sustenance:  to catch fish.

Among the Greeks, it seems to have been expected that everyone—man, woman, and child—should be able to swim, which makes sense, since most people lived near the water.  As Plato observes in the Laws, not knowing how to swim was considered as much a sign of ignorance as not knowing how to read.  Socrates put it more starkly:  Swimming “saves a man from death.”  Parents taught their children, and presumably children learned from one another. The same obligation has held true for many centuries in Judaism.  As stated in the Talmud (Kiddishin 29a), parents must teach their children three essential things:  the Torah, how to make a living, and how to swim.

A similar perspective held true in ancient Egypt, where most people lived on the Nile or on one of the canals branching from the river. The ability to swim was a life-and-death matter for fishermen or boatmen, and a mark of a proper education for the higher classes.  In both Greece and Egypt, however, swimming was not among the events at athletic games or displays (Swimming did not become an Olympic event until the advent of the modern games in 1896). Exactly why this would be is never stated in ancient texts or hieroglyphics, naturally—any more than we would feel compelled to justify today why walking isn’t in the Olympics.  My sense is that swimming was seen as more of a utilitarian skill—the “athletic equivalent of the alphabet,” as the historian Christine Nutton has put it; given that nearly everyone knew how to swim, women included, it fell outside an exclusively male sphere.

Moreover, swimming was not a spectacular event, like ancient Greek or Roman boxing or pankration.  And unlike sprints or field events, with their displays of speed and strength, it was not conducive to spectators. While swimming may not have been a competitive event, its value as an all-around exercise was apparently appreciated.  Both the ancient historian Pausanias and the writer Philostratus noted that the four-time Olympic boxing champion Tisandrus supplemented his training at the gymnasium with long-distance swimming:  in Philostratus’s words, “his arms carried him great distances through the sea, training both his body and themselves.”

Actual instruction manuals on swimming didn’t begin to appear until the 16th century. The first of these, a stilted dialogue in praise of swimming titled Colymbetes and written in Latin by the Swiss humanist Nicolas Wyman, predated Mercuriale’s Gymnastica by three decades. Wyman was concerned with teaching rescue techniques—holding on to the victim while swimming with the free arm.  

It was not until fifty years later, in 1587, that the Englishman Everard Digby would treat the topic fully in De arte natandi (The Art of Swimming).  Digby, neither a physician nor an athlete per se, had been inspired by the work of a fellow scholar at St. John’s College, Cambridge, the poet and teacher Roger Ascham.  Ascham’s 1545 treatise on archery, Toxophilus (Lover of the Bow), was the first of its kind—a step-by-step guide to shooting the longbow that also aspired to be a work of literary merit, written not in Latin but in plain English.  As Ascham pointed out in prefatory remarks, “Many English writers have not done so, but using strange words, as Latin, French, and Italian, do make all things dark and hard.”

While Digby modeled his work on Ascham’s, focusing on a single form of exercise, he persisted in making things “dark and hard” and inaccessible by writing in a scholar’s Latin. Nearly a decade later, the poet Christopher Middleton translated Digby’s De arte natandi into English; this version—reprinted numerous times and also translated into French—would remain the standard text on swimming in the Western world for another 300 years.  All things considered, it’s not bad; it goes beyond Wyman’s lifesaving techniques and makes a case for swimming as an art and a science well worth studying.  Instructions are included for a breaststroke, dog paddle, treading water, and so on (the freestyle stroke swum today would not be refined until the 19th century).  If anything, Digby goes too far, gets too imaginative. For instance, he recommends a kind of pedicure-cum-backstroke that sounds as ludicrous as it does dangerous.  Speaking of a hypothetical student, he writes: “Swimming upon his backe, let him draw up his left foote, and laye it over his right knee, still keeping his body very straight, and than hauing a knife ready in his right hand, he may easily keep up his legge until he hath pared one of his toes, as thus.”  One has to wonder if Digby actually tried this, or even swam at all.

Excerpted with permission from Sweat: A History of Exercise (Bloomsbury, 2022).