It was the translation of Everard Digby's 1587 book entitled 'De Arte Natandi' containing woodcut illustrations.
Do you recall the first time you dipped your feet in the swimming pool, wore a tube and learned how to swim while the sun glistened on your skin? The smell of chlorine and the frantic underwater breathing surely needed good guidance. Although we are told that we need to learn swimming by doing and not by reading, we aren't the first to wish for guidance. People from the 16th century also needed guidance on how not to drown and save their souls just in case they needed to find Nemo. The first swimming treatise in English was a translation of Everard Digby's 1587 tome, "De Arte Natandi," or "The Art of Swimming."
The odd book shows and describes how men and women can float, propel themselves and otherwise frolic in the water using amusing woodcut illustrations. The 400-year-old text talks about 35 such lessons, which include "To swimme like a Dolphin," "To seeke anything that is lost in the water" and "To swim like a dog."
The book was originally published in Latin and written by Digby, a theologian at Cambridge University. An English translation followed, but the woodcut drawings were understandable to anyone, regardless of language ability. Digby described the theory behind many strokes that are still taught today, including "to swim like a dog," "to tread water," and "to slide forwards upon his belly in the water." His goal is simple: safety first! He even describes how to enter and exit the waters, which are depicted in a manner similar to the River Cam in Cambridge, which he would have been very familiar with.
A 16th-century man or woman might want to swim for more than just safety reasons. The author wrote, "Nor is it onely to be respected for this great helpe in extreamitie of death, but it is also a thing necessarie for euery man to vse, euen in the plea∣santest and securest time of his lyfe especially: as the fittest thing to purge the skinne from all externall pollutions or uncleannesse whatsoeuer, as sweat and such like, as also it helpeth to temperate the extreame heate of the bodie."
Also, he emphasized additional health benefits based on scientific ideas at the time that linked health, stating, "If Phisicke be worthy of commendations, in respect of the nature in purging poysoned humors, dryuing away contagious diseases, and by this meanes adding longer date vnto the life of man, well then may this Art of Swimming come within the number of other Sciences, which preserueth the precious life of man, amidst the furious billowes of the law∣les waters, where neither riches nor friendes, neither birth nor kindred, neither liberall Sciences nor other Artes, onely it selfe excepted, can rid him from the daunger of death."
Some strokes were considered less important than others. It included maneuvers such as the crawl, which put the face in the water. Swimming, on the other hand, came naturally. Later swimming theorists would postulate it as a civilized practice, but Digby's distinctiveness seems to have been similar to that of a fish.