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Swimming, swimming....

Summer is here and I'm looking over a past story I wrote about characters in a medieval-ish world and their summer. One thing they do is go swimming. As I have it now, they're swimming in the river that runs by their town.

But being on this site has taught me that in that setting, a river would be very heavily trafficked, especially in the summertime. It would be the main transportation artery, so full of boats. It would also be where all sorts of wastes get dumped.

I don't have fecal matter being dumped in the river in this setting, because I've gone with the idea that they use composting toilets and night soil fields as the primary method of human waste disposal. But all other ancient uses of rivers would still apply. So... would they really want to swim in the river? How realistic is that?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
It's fine. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, people did know how to swim (not all, but some, especially if their lives took them onto water) and they did so for recreation. There's an old picture of people swimming in a river (16th). I remember the one for Seville but I think there are others.

BTW, you might enjoy visiting
Historic Cities: Maps & Documents
which has a huge collection of cityscape illustrations. It's a treasure trove of pictures of daily life, buildings, even boats and ships. Making cityscapes was all the rage in the late Middle Ages and into the early modern era. A common convention was to put figures in the foreground, with the city in the background, so we wind up with wonderful details such as a robbery in progress, a family at play, or the town gallows standing outside the walls. Lots of stuff. It's one of my favorite resources.
 
It's fine. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, people did know how to swim (not all, but some, especially if their lives took them onto water) and they did so for recreation. There's an old picture of people swimming in a river (16th). I remember the one for Seville but I think there are others.

I never thought they wouldn't know how to swim. My assumption is that they would.

Does the river being a highway and dumping ground not deter people from swimming in it, then? Would they perhaps stick to certain sections of the river, to avoid refuse and stay out of the shipping lanes?
 

pmmg

Istar
There are people who line up to go swimming in the creek near my house, and....there is no way I would do that.

I think people would swim just about anywhere, though maybe up river from the town.

I am not sure how difficult it really is to learn to swim. Even beginners can dog paddle.

Ships would be out in the center, not near the shore.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I never thought they wouldn't know how to swim. My assumption is that they would.

Does the river being a highway and dumping ground not deter people from swimming in it, then? Would they perhaps stick to certain sections of the river, to avoid refuse and stay out of the shipping lanes?
OK, you've said this is a medieval-ish world. That means wooden boats powered by sail and oars, so they don't move all that fast and they aren't all that big. Also, the river itself will impose limits on the size of the boats, particularly draft and length. Such boats don't usually come close inshore along the river, they'll stay in the navigable channel. People will still swim in the river, as a way of cooling down and keeping clean, and they will be able to stay away from the boats.

As for waste, well that depends on the flow rate in the river. It's the rate of water flow which determines how fast waste is dispersed and diluted. Up to a certain point the river will stay ahead of the locals, but once a city or town gets beyond a certain size the river starts to become a cess pit.

And yes, people do swim in rivers, even now. The water is usually cold, at least here in Sweden, so you get in gently and you're not in for very long. Also, given the cold water, falling in by accident or being deliberately thrown in can be fatal - the shock caused by hitting the cold water can be enough to stop you breathing and/or cause cardiac arrest.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Yep, the Mad Swede covered it pretty well. Including death by accidental drowning which, just sort of by the way, was a regular cause of death listed for young girls. The historical guess is that they were the ones sent for water, and so were more likely to fall into a well or other water. You can swim and still drown, not only from very cold water shock but also from getting entangled in weeds or being swept away by swift water.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
I would point out that in flatter terrain rivers tend to meander quite a bit and frequently change their course. Often, this results in long, skinny 'oxbow' lakes only tangentially connected with the river proper. These should make fine swimming holes.
 

Queshire

Auror
I have more experience with lakes than rivers, but I have to agree with everyone else. One thing to consider is the width of the river. It doesn't actually take that much space for a swimming hole, so if the ships stick to the middle of the river and the swimmers to the sides then there's a good chance of their being no conflict.
 
I would point out that in flatter terrain rivers tend to meander quite a bit and frequently change their course. Often, this results in long, skinny 'oxbow' lakes only tangentially connected with the river proper. These should make fine swimming holes.

An oxbow lake would suit the purpose perfectly!

The setting is already determined to be a mountainous region, but this particular town is in a valley. I wonder if that terrain would be flat enough for oxbow lakes to form.

My guess is possibly, because the Rio Grande also flows through mountainous terrain, and it has oxbow lakes. And has set off more than one border dispute by changing its course.
 
For those of you who mentioned that the boats wouldn't come close to shore: my thought is they'd be docking somewhere in town. They'd have to come into shore for that. Of course, the swimming hole could be, and likely would be, well away from the docks.

I don't imagine the water being fatally cold, just pleasantly cool on a hot day. But, if the river's coming down from the mountains, there would be snowmelt in it pretty much year round, so maybe....
 

pmmg

Istar
The setting is already determined to be a mountainous region, but this particular town is in a valley. I wonder if that terrain would be flat enough for oxbow lakes to form.

I could imagine a circumstance where it could. I dont know that I would care to explain it to a reader though.
 

pmmg

Istar
For those of you who mentioned that the boats wouldn't come close to shore: my thought is they'd be docking somewhere in town. They'd have to come into shore for that. Of course, the swimming hole could be, and likely would be, well away from the docks.

They'd not come close to shore until they had to. They would not want to risk running aground. They would want to be near the dock before doing so. There may be markers to show them the safe route, or the docks would extend out to the deep water. Or the would unload the boat from the middle with smaller craft to paddle out to them.
 

pmmg

Istar
Looks like an unfinished thought there. You could imagine a circumstance where what could do what?

I edited. You posted faster than I did and disconnected my post. I could imagine a circumstance where an ox bow could form on higher land, but I would not think it useful to explain the geography of why to a reader.
 
I edited. You posted faster than I did and disconnected my post. I could imagine a circumstance where an ox bow could form on higher land, but I would not think it useful to explain the geography of why to a reader.
It doesn't have to be explained to the reader. The average reader probably doesn't know enough about it to need an explanation anyway. Just as long as I understand that it's possible, I'm comfortable putting it in a story.
 

pmmg

Istar
Well...suppose I had granite mountains with a lot of ice melt flowing down, and then along the way an impact crater from a meteor making a natural bowl. The bowl would fill and not leak, and the river would continue on after over flowing it.
 
Well...suppose I had granite mountains with a lot of ice melt flowing down, and then along the way an impact crater from a meteor making a natural bowl. The bowl would fill and not leak, and the river would continue on after over flowing it.
The crater could also be a caldera: the remnant of an ancient volcanic eruption. Meteors not required.
 

pmmg

Istar
All you need is a depression with a reason the water would not leak out. Any reason will do.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
In a number of those cityscape illustrations I mentioned, one can see stakes or poles driven into the river or lake bed to form a protected area around the docks. I imagine this was to prevent debris, sunken logs, and so on from drifting into anchored boats. People would very likely not be swimming around there, which sort of implies there would be other places where everyone recognized was a proper place to swim.

A small addendum here. The thread is about swimming, but very commonly the term would have been bathing. That term covered washing (not with soap), but also covered simply wading around as well as actual swimming. In other words, when a group of people went down to the river or lake to bathe, they likely engaged in the whole range of activity. Playing about in water.

And one other addendum. Rivers flooded. Two periods were crucial: one, where ice formed, the spring breakup of that ice. Very dangerous. Sudden ice floods could and did destroy bridges and mills. The second was close on the heels, and was simply the high water that came from snow melt. You mentioned mountains. That could come later, in April and May, and even into June. I'm guessing the locals would know this peril and, equally, that young people would persist in being foolish.
 
And one other addendum. Rivers flooded. Two periods were crucial: one, where ice formed, the spring breakup of that ice. Very dangerous. Sudden ice floods could and did destroy bridges and mills. The second was close on the heels, and was simply the high water that came from snow melt. You mentioned mountains. That could come later, in April and May, and even into June. I'm guessing the locals would know this peril and, equally, that young people would persist in being foolish.
The young people in this story do some foolish things, but I haven't made swimming dangerously one of them. Wouldn't be out of character for some of them, though. I'm not planning to kill off any of those characters, so if they do, they'll have to get lucky.

I suppose there could be a story going around about someone who tried it last spring or the year before, something like that, and died. That might make my characters think twice.
 
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