Could People Swim in the Middle Ages?

My blog statistics show me what search queries people use to find my blog. Someone came here searching for “could people swim in the middle ages?” Let me take a moment to answer that.

Depending on your definition of “swim,” yes, some of them could.

My boss and I were just discussing the definition of swimming the other day. Someone told her a kid could swim and someone else told her the same kid couldn’t swim. Well, which was it?

See, people’s definition of “swim” varies. Some people think if you’re not doing a front crawl (aka freestyle), you’re not swimming. The fact that I didn’t do this was why I failed my swimming test at summer camp (even though I performed all the tasks assigned to me). Some people refuse to acknowledge doggie paddling as a legitimate form of swimming (although when was the last time you heard about a dog drowning?).

However, some people define “swimming” as being able to get from Point A to Point B in the water without drowning. Or some even go so far as to give a thumbs up to anyone who can get in the water and not drown (which means that floating and treading water are considered swimming, too).

Personally, I tend to define “swimming” as being in the water without drowning. When I was growing up, I never swam laps, but I spent plenty of time in the water riding waves, diving for coins and shells, jumping in, turning flips, and generally playing around. (If you haven’t guessed already, I didn’t drown. Furthermore, I never had a near-drowning incident.)

I was probably a teenager before I learned to freestyle, and while I can do it, it’s still not my preferred swimming method (after a bit of research on YouTube, I have discovered that my seemingly-random swimming style is actually a breast stroke).

Okay, now that’s out of the way, back to medieval people.

Unlike today–where access to pools is common in America and the vast majority of people at least learn to float and tread water and doggie paddle–the ability to swim in the middle ages was probably not as common. People in cities, for instance, would not have had much access to bodies of water where they could swim. In medieval London, for instance, the Thames was heavily polluted and perpetually stinky. It was where people went to throw their trash and sewage. It’s not likely that people went swimming in it.

In the country, however, people had access to cleaner ponds, lakes, and rivers, and it’s much more likely that they learned to swim. People who lived on the coasts were also more likely to know how to swim.

Beowulf was composed around the 6th century, and the copy that we read today was written sometime before the 10th century. In it, we clearly find an account of swimming in the ocean:

“Are you that Beowulf
who struggled with Brecca
in the broad sea
in a swimming contest?
The one who, out of pride,
risked his life in the deep water
though both friends and enemies
told you it was too dangerous?
Are you the one who hugged
the sea, gliding through the boiling
waves of the winter’s swell?

Beowulf was the Dark Ages’ equivalent of a tall tale (think Paul Bunyan), so we can easily dismiss the claim that Beowulf and Brecca swam for 7 days straight, but we can infer that swimming was a known phenomenon (otherwise the boast would have little meaning to the people hearing the story).

This cropped picture from the Duke de Berry’s 15th century Book of Hours shows people in the country swimming around in a wide spot in a river. There are two figures partially in the water and partially out of it, and two who are clearly swimming around under the water. This means that medieval people didn’t just get into the water up to their knees and go no further; they put their heads under the water and swam around.

Did they have a codified style of swimming? No. Did they do something that resembled the freestyle stroke? Probably not. Could they get from Point A to Point B without drowning? Some could, yes.

Interestingly, the number of people capable of swimming might have shrunk post-middle ages. By the time Benjamin Franklin was a young man in the early 1700’s, he had to teach himself to swim by reading a book on the subject (written specifically to encourage people to learn to swim both for safety and health reasons) and townspeople considered him odd for getting in the water and swimming around.

Wait, why would people stop swimming?

Click pic for a lovely website on Victorian tea.

People tend to think that progress/civilization/evolution/etc. moves in a straight line. The Victorians were especially fond of this idea–especially as they held that they were at the pinnacle of human evolution.

However, that’s not true. Evolution makes all sorts of off-shoots that end up dying out. Likewise, progress makes starts and stops. The artistic Renaissance wasn’t something new, but rather a discovery of art and architectural principles which had been lost after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Medieval people actually seem to have been cleaner than their Renaissance and Commonwealth (Puritan) counterparts. They also had much better teeth (it wasn’t until the Tudor and Elizabethan periods that people started to consume large quantities of sugar, causing tooth decay).

Englishmen in the year 1000 were, on average, taller than all subsequent generations until nearly the mid-20th century. This is because nutrition was better and pollution lower. (The book The Year 1000: What Life was Like at the Turn of the Millennium has all sorts of fascinating information in it and is a really easy read.)

So it’s quite possible that medieval people actually swam more than people of the 17th-18th centuries.