By Cait Stevenson
Did medieval Europeans swim for fun?
For all our evidence of the joy (and utility in transportation) northerners took in skating on frozen water in winter, the extent of summer swimming in medieval Europe is a fairly open question. We know that some people certainly could swim, although the skill was rare enough to be remarked.
In his late fourteenth-century Piers Plowman, William Langland offers a short exemplum: if two strong men are cast into the Thames, with one knowing how to swim and dive and the other untrained, which one will be more afraid? And when a lady-in-waiting to the queen of Scotland, on an afternoon’s outing in 1273, pushed a squire into the river as a flirty joke, he wasn’t worried in the least. Even if she had pushed him farther out, he insisted, he’d be fine because he knew how to swim.
Swimming has a role to play, too, in literary traditions from all over medieval Europe. But in contrast to the classical elevation of swimming as a way to demonstrate or increase prowess, medieval narratives tend towards the utilitarian. For example, Beowulf in Beowulf and Grettir in Grettis saga both must dive down and swim to a underwater cave to battle and defeat a monstrous woman. Arthuriana likewise has its share of heroes confronted by water.
Late antique military theorist Vegetius, whose De Re Militari served as the basic textbook for literate medieval warriors, recommended swimming as a necessary skill for soldiers who might have to cross a river to avoid danger. Christine de Pizan, adapting Vegetius for her Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry, adds details that point to the use of tactical swimming. “It can happen, and often does,” she writes, “that they…take a shortcut, or [have] some other need such as to get whether they are going on time and in this way surprise an unsuspecting enemy” [emph. added].
However, neither the advice to swim nor the reality of swimming skills seems to have extended from elite men at arms to the bulk of army or navy recruits. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Western navies finally said, “Hey, maybe our sailors should be able to swim.”
The lack of widespread swimming ability is further attested by a key quality of medieval swimming: Europeans were terrible at it.
Contact with West African kingdoms starting at the end of the Middle Ages gave Portuguese and Italian explorers their first prolonged contact with non-European swimming traditions. Over and over, the accounts marvel at the Africans’ method of swimming: “throwing one arm after another forward, as if paddling…with a scissor-like kick of the legs.”
Europeans, on the other hand, were limited to a muddling breaststroke-like progression that seems almost tailor-made to create the most possible water resistance and slowest forward motion. Even sixteenth-century authors trying to make an argument for the elegance of swimming as an art get as far as…dog paddle (“to swim like a dog”).
One aspect of swimming, though, is as evident in medieval sources as it is today. The rumor that flew around 1425 London held that the grumbling bourgeoisie and beggars wanted to throw the Bishop of Winchester into the Thames. No, not to drown him, but “to teach him to swim, with floaties.” The distraught bishop thundered to anyone who would listen that the peasants were trying to kill him.
Nudity and indignity were one thing, but some people were just plain afraid of water.
Nicholas Orme, Early British Swimming: 55 BC-AD 1719 (Exeter: Short Run Press, 1983)
Kevin Dawson, “Swimming, Surfing, and Underwater Diving in the Early Modern Atlantic and the African Diaspora,” in Carina Ray and Jeremy Rich, eds., Navigating African Maritime History (University of Newfoundland Press, 2009), 81-116.
This article was first published inThe Medieval Magazine– a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages.Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: British Library MSRoyal 2 B VII fol. 170
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By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister 'otherworlds' populated by mermaids and sea monsters.Were there swimsuits in medieval times? ›
The Middle Ages saw a resurgence in bathing, both in indoor bathhouses and open air, and was largely still without clothing. Contemporary illustrations depict men and women bathing together, either nude, or with cloth wrapped around the groin. The end of the era saw more restrictions placed on bathing attire.Could people swim in the 1400s? ›
Some people in the 1400's could, and did, swim but many did not including many sailors. Columbus had grown up by the sea so he probably had plenty of opportunities to learn how to swim and he must have been a strong swimmer. The distance from his ship to the shore must have been daunting.Did people go to the beach in the Middle Ages? ›
In the middle ages there were a lot of bandits along the roads looking for wealthy travellers without guards so going to the beach was too expensive or too risky.Why did sailors not learn to swim? ›
Ships were big, bulky, and slow; turning them around took way more effort than they were willing to expend. Chances were if you fell overboard or sank, it wasn't worth the agony to prolong the inevitable—so not learning to swim and drowning quickly was actually nicer than struggling for hours.What was bathing like in the Middle Ages? ›
Laborers, who made up most of the population, probably used ewers and shallow washbasins. Castle dwellers might have access to a wooden tub, with water heated by a fire. And yes, they used soap—in fact, soap was often made at home and widely available as a trade good as early as the 9th century in Europe.Did medieval people wear bras? ›
A team of Austrian archaeologists has discovered four bras from the 1400s. It reveals that women wore the garment some 500 years before fashion historians thought it was invented.Did medieval people bathe once a year? ›
—Brides carried bouquets of flowers at their weddings in order to cover up their body odor. (No stories about how grooms might have covered up their own stench.) —At most, people only bathed twice per year in the middle ages — May and October.Why did people stop bathing in the Middle Ages? ›
It wasn't just diseases from the water itself they were worried about. They also felt that with the pores widened after a bath, this resulted in infections of the air having easier access to the body. Hence, bathing, particularly at bathhouses, became connected with the spread of diseases.What did medieval soap smell like? ›
Still made using animal fats, soap during the Middle Ages in Europe actually had an unpleasant smell. But better smelling cleansing soap began to arrive from Islamic lands, which incorporated olive oil and sometimes lime.
People would usually wash their hands and face regularly, but full-body bathing was not a daily occurrence. Instead, people would take a weekly bath in a communal bathhouse or wash in a nearby river. These bathhouses were also used for socializing and were a place to meet and gossip.Why was it illegal to swim in the 1800s? ›
Germany has a long and rich history with swimming, but it wasn't always legal to do so. In order to protect the environment, it was illegal to swim in rivers and streams from 1884-1933. What is this? During this time, many people drowned because they didn't know about the law or were unaware of its existence.What was on the beach before sand? ›
Most beaches get their sand from rocks on land. Over time, rain, ice, wind, heat, cold, and even plants and animals break rock into smaller pieces. This weathering may begin with large boulders that break into smaller rocks. Water running through cracks erodes the rock.What did medieval people think of the ocean? ›
While I personally think the evidence from literary sources has been overstated in scholarship, it's pretty clear that people in the Middle Ages viewed the ocean as dark, forbidding, and dangerous, even apocalyptic. A whale washed up on a Dutch beach in 1522, and Martin Luther believed it was a sign of the apocalypse.When did people start swimming in the ocean? ›
Yet the earliest humans from over 100,000 years ago taught themselves how to swim, for food and for pleasure. There is a long history of human swimming for utility and leisure, amply recorded in pictures from the earliest cave drawings and folk narratives.When did humans start to swim? ›
Yet the earliest humans from over 100,000 years ago taught themselves how to swim, for food and for pleasure. There is a long history of human swimming for utility and leisure, amply recorded in pictures from the earliest cave drawings and folk narratives.How did people get water in medieval times? ›
This could be fresh running water, a spring or, in many cases, wells. All of these could easily provide fresh, disease- and impurity-free water; the idea that water from these sources would be the causes of disease and so had to be made into ale or beer is fanciful.Were Vikings able to swim? ›
Still, if you assume that the sagas are reasonable approximations of what Viking-era Norsefolk used to do, then they almost certainly did swim well. Swimming (sund) is often listed as one of the standard skills that warriors commonly learned.Did medieval castles have running water? ›
In some castles, the cisterns were located at a high elevation in the castle complex, which allowed lead pipes to be connected to the cistern so there could be running water in various rooms in the castle, but such a luxury was rare.