From History Today:
How Europe Learnt to Swim
For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.
Humans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.
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. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?
The retreat from swimming began during late antiquity, as evidenced in the writings of the fifth-century Roman military writer, Vegetius, who bemoaned the fact that, unlike the hardy legionaries of the Republic, ‘whose only bath was the River Tiber’, the recruits of his day had become too used to the luxuries of the baths and had to be taught how to swim. Roman baths were furnished with large, shallow basins (piscinae), but these were designed for soaking and sitting and not swimming. Nevertheless, is it conceivable that the majority of the population of the Western Empire could forget how to swim? It is, if one considers the size of the urban bathhouse infrastructure and the concentration of the population living in inland cities in the late-imperial period. In 33 BC, Rome had 170 bathhouses; by late-fourth-century, that number had grown to 856.
Much more at the link, although as a friend pointed out, the Roman Empire may have been based on cities, but the vast majority of people did not live in them.
The author of this piece, Eric Chaline, wrote Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming (Reaktion, 2017). My friend Nicholas Orme wrote a history of British swimming that I see is still in print. The post title is a lyrical reference.