Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tools of the Trade: The Art of Swimming

We've spoken before about our sailing ancestor's love/hate relationship with swimming. Many who ventured out to sea, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, believed that it was simply better to drown quickly in the event of an unthinkable foundering or shipwreck. Knowing how to swim, the logic went, would only prolong the agony in the event that one's ship went down in the blue ocean, with no land in sight.

As their contact with Africa and the Americas increased, Europeans began to witness populations along these shores and particularly in the West Indies that all knew how to swim. Not knowing how to get around in the water was considered shameful among the locals and laughable in the case of the invaders. A new mindset was born and, though many career sailors, particularly in the Royal Navy, clung to the idea of avoiding the skill, knowing how to swim became somewhat of a rage.

Mechisedec Thevenot's L'Art de Nager, an illustrated book published in 1696, was on the cutting edge of this new wave. The book's entire title reads:

The Art of Swimming. Illustrated by proper figures. With advice for bathing. By Monsieur Thevenot. Done out of French. To which is prefixed a prefatory discourse concerning artificial swimming, or keeping oneself above water by several portable engines, in case of danger.

Quite the mouthful there. At any rate, as this wonderful post over at BibliOdyssey makes clear, the illustrations may be the best part of the book. But there is a good deal in the text that lends itself as well:

To mention some few advantages of Swimming. In case of Shipwreck, if one is not very far from Shore, the Art of Swimming may set one safe there, and to save from being drowned. In case of being pursu'd by an Enemy, and meeting a River in ones way, you have the advantage of escaping two sorts of Death, by gaining the Shore on the other side, and so escaping from your Enemy, and from being drowned in the attempt of doing it.

This quote, from the introduction, speaks specifically to the era in which Monsieur Thevenot wrote. So, too, does the caption from the illustration above entitled "To Tread Water":

By this way you remain upright in the water without making any motion with the hands, only you move the water round with your Legs from you, the Soals of your Feet being perpendicular to the bottom; you may make use of this if you are cast into the water bound hand and foot.

Considering that tossing captives, bound hand and foot, into the sea was a favorite piratical torture, this kind of advice could potentially be invaluable.

Click over to BibliOdyssey, which is a wonderful spot on the web for those of us obsessed with both books and history by the way, and see more of Monsieur T's fabulous tome. You won't regret it.

Header: To Tread Water from L'Art de Nager via BibliOdyssey


Timmy! said...

That is pretty funny, Pauline... And quite the title, to. I also like that all of the illustrations are of naked people... which is always a good source of amusement.

Undine said...

Thanks for introducing me to BibliOdyssey; it looks like an interesting blog.

And you're right, those illustrations are delightful!

Pauline said...

Timmy! Swim trunks shmim trunks say our early modern ancestors... apparently.

Undine: Thank you; I love BibliOdyssey and I know you will too.