Nashe’s Swimming Lessons
by Steve Mentz
How might Thomas Nashe have learned to swim?
We don’t know if perhaps the most dazzling prose stylist in Elizabethan England could swim. The only surviving contemporary image of him shows the author in chains, on the cover of Richard Lichfield’s hostile pamphlet The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597).
Nashe grew up near water, in Suffolk and Norfolk, northeast of London. He was educated among rivers and fens at St. John’s College, Cambridge, between 1581–1588. Nashe received his BA in 1586, and left for London in 1588 without an MA. Rumors, including those spread by Lichfield’s Trimming, suggested that the young student had been drummed out of university because of his part in controversial plays and performances. Taking up his writerly career in London, Nashe rhapsodized “that most famous and fortunate nurse of all learning, Saint Iohns in Cambridge, that at that time was as an Vniversity within itself.” Clearly something touched him in his college days.
If anyone taught Nashe to swim, it was probably Everard Digby.
During Nashe’s Cambridge years, Digby was a fellow at St. John’s. A sizar (scholarship student) like Nashe, Digby arrived in 1567, took his BA in 1571, his MA in 1574, and his BD in 1581. Digby was principal lecturer at St. John’s in 1584 and elected senior fellow in 1585, the year before Nashe received his BA. Digby was involved in controversy around paying his college dues in 1587. In January 1588 he was expelled by the master of St. John’s, William Whitaker, and although he was briefly restored in May through the efforts of Archbishop Whitgift and Lord Burghley, he left his fellowship in September. The circumstances around Digby’s expulsion include theological as well as financial controversies. Like Nashe, Digby chafed against the dominant strain of Cambridge Puritanism represented by Whitaker.
Since both Digby and Nashe were at St. John’s in the 1580s and both left in 1588, it seems reasonable that the two may have encountered each other. Nashe, who appears today as one of the supremely urban writers of the 1590s, also displays long-running interest in watery subjects. Digby’s most famous book, De arte natandi (1587), which was Englished and abridged by Christopher Middleton in 1595 as A Short Introduction for to Learne to Swimme, was the first practical, illustrated volume on swimming published in England. Forty-three sometimes outrageous woodcuts display a (male) human body in various positions and maneuvers in, on, and under the water.
Digby’s book and especially its illustrations provide visually striking examples of polymorphism and experiment in an alien environment. In his short career in print, Nashe did to English syntax what Digby’s images do to the human form. I don’t know that Nashe knew Digby — but these two St. John’s alums were both fascinated by ways to contort and reimagine human bodies.
In the 1580s, swimming was not a common recreation in early modern Europe. Digby’s book treats swimming as humanist exercise. (Nicholas Orme, in his essential history Early British Swimming, suggests that Digby follows the Swiss writer Nicholas Wynman’s 1538 volume Colymbetes.) In a dedicatory epistle directed to Master Simon Smith, Middleton describes swimming as among “commendable exercises tending to profitable ends.” Digby’s main text emphasizes the value of swimming in “the preserving of man’s life” and also “to purge the skin from all external pollutions or uncleanness” (117). Digby knows that swimming is good for human bodies.
The outstanding features of Digby’s book are woodcuts that display different styles of aquatic maneuvers. All forty-three images build on the same visual frame, a river running vertically down the center of the page, but each image contorts its swimming body in different ways. These pictures represent humans as skilled and inventive swimmers. Humans even exceed fish, in Digby’s understanding, because of our felicity in “diving down to the bottom of the deepest waters and fetching from thence whatsoever is there sunk down.” The swimmer performs miracles of art and mobility, “sitting, tumbling, leaping, walking” mimicking the features of “a ship at sea,” “a dog” and even “a dolphin.” Among uniquely human abilities Digby notes our capacity for “’swimming upon the back’ — a gift which [Nature] has denied even to the watery inhabitants of the sea” Treating a (male) human body as the measure of all things may be a typical Renaissance affectation, but Digby’s intimate portrait of how bodies engage with watery environments gestures toward a growing awareness of swimming as art, experience, and formal variation.
A full analysis of all forty-three images, which I hope to undertake one day, could provide a compelling physical supplement to Renaissance discourses of generic imitatio and contaminatio. But for now, four images suggest four ways Nashe might have understood Digby’s swimming lessons.
Lesson 1: The Swimmer as Humanist
Digby’s core claim asserts a familiar humanist argument for “exercise” and self-improvement. Swimming resembles dancing, fencing, and horsemanship as ways to train unruly bodies to obey controlling wills. Digby begins with simple strokes and gradually introduces more complex maneuvers, such as this image of a man swimming “with his hands together.” To swim according to this model means to train one’s animal body to do what it’s told in an unfamiliar environment.
Lesson 2: Post-Human Swimmers
By imitating animals including dogs and dolphins, Digby’s swimmer departs from the human standard. This close-up of a man entering waist-deep water visually shows the split within classical human identity created through immersion. The body in water appears only half human. Entering the watery element entails leaving terrestrial human bodies partly behind.
Lesson 3: Swimming as Experiment
For the young Nashe, one attraction of Digby’s book and perhaps also of swimming might be its experimental style. Learning to swim requires mastering unusual bodily techniques that do not work on land. This image of a swimmer floating on his back and “play[ing] above the water with one foot” shows an experimental posture that the aqueous environment enables. Nashe’s prose, with its mixture of invective, invented coinages, and rapid transitions, may not appear as graceful as this early modern anticipation of synchronized swimming. But it may be just possible to imagine the young writer seeing these images — or attempting these maneuvers in the waters of the Cam — and thinking that new things were possible.
Lesson 4: Immersion as Play
The most notorious of Digby’s woodcuts shows a man floating on his back and “par[ing] his toes in the water.” It’s a ludicrous image. There’s no clear reason why the man should pare his toenails in the water. Even if he wishes to soak the nails to soften them before cutting, a bucket would seem easier than the river. But this image strikes me as deeply Nashean in its absurd bravado. The swimmer may crave watery play and display. He floats and pares to demonstrate that he can do difficult, complex, bizarre things. To swim while paring one’s toenails represents a strange accomplishment. But so, perhaps, are Nashe’s sentences?
Swimming, Writing, and Escaping Cambridge
It’s not certain that Nashe knew Digby or his book. Their overlap at St. John’s College makes a meeting conceivable, perhaps even likely. Since both appear to have harbored anti-Puritanical sentiments, some sympathy might not be too outrageous a speculation. Given Nashe’s interest in the sea, perhaps the idea of him glancing into Digby’s book or splashing with the doctor in local swimming holes is not unreasonable.
I don’t propose this speculative connection as a key to unlock Nashe’s restless experimentalism or his desire to cultivate strange novelties. Nashe’s salt-water obsessions, from Hakluyt’s travel narratives to the herring of Great Yarmouth, contrast sharply with the fresh waters in which Digby frolicked. The images in De arte natandi picture small waterways near the River Cam. The imaginative waters of Nashe’s books more often venture offshore into salty expanses.
Digby’s book documents an early modern humanist’s attempt to make swimming techniques suited to his local waters legible as a genre. The possibility that Nashe would have been introduced to these kinds of novel physical experiments in Cambridge may open new ways to contextualize the author’s stylistic variety and excess. (The homoeroticism of Digby’s images might also illuminate Nashe’s notorious misogyny.) We know that Nashe learned about drama, disputation, theology, and rhetoric at St. John’s. Might swimming also have been meaningful to this curious and ambitious young student?
Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City. His books include Break Up the Anthropocene (2019), Shipwreck Modernity (2015), and At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009). He also is editor or co-editor of four collections: The Sea in Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Literary Culture (2017), Oceanic New York (2015), The Age of Thomas Nashe (2013), and Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (2004). He blogs at The Bookfish, and tweets @stevermentz.