Europe, and more specifically the United Kingdom, is the cradle of modern vegetarianism. Before being called “vegetarianism”, the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat and the flesh of other slaughtered animals was called the “Pythagorean diet”, in the name of the famous Greek mathematician and philosopher who lived from about 570 to about 495 BC. The earliest practices of vegetarianism as a concept concerning an eloquent number of people can be found in ancient India : the vegetarian diet was strongly linked to the idea of benevolence, the respect for life and the avoidance of violence toward animals (called ahimsa in India) and it was spread by religious groups and philosophers. Vegetarianism then reemerged in Europe during the Renaissance, evolved in the 17th century and continued to be spread in the 18th century. In Great Britain, a lot of food such as meat, fruits and vegetables, tea etc. were reserved to the upper class only : poorer people could not access those expensive commodities. Therefore, the new interest of British people for vegetarianism was not necessarily linked to the protection of animals yet but to the fact that the great majority of people did not have enough money to get copious meals. But for several other people, vegetarianism was linked to ethical and moral ideas; or to health and medical reasons.
• Vegetarianism and romanticism
Vegetarianism was rising during the 18th century thanks to the Romanticism movement in western Europe and particularly in Great Britain. The meatless diet was really widespread at the age of Enlightenment when society was changing and new humanist ideas began to develop. Several romantic writers promoted vegetarianism because of their compassion and their deep relationship to Nature : they denounced the consumption of meat as a inhumane and monstrous thing. They had negative ideas about the industrialisation and consumerism that regulated the economy. Therefore, the rising costs of the meat, the agricultural changes and the emerging humanist values encouraged more and more people as well as romantic writers to follow a vegetarian diet. Among the romantics, Thomas Tryon, Alexander Pope, Joseph Ritson and Percy B. Shelley were the most emblematic vegetarians. Thomas Tryon was an English merchant who early advocated vegetarianism after having heard an inner voice that he called the “Voice of Wisdom” in 1657. He inspired Benjamin Franklin to adopt the same lifestyle. Tryon strongly opposed violence against animals so his vegetarianism was linked to his belief in spiritual progress (he was influenced by Pythagoras and his religious views). He first adopted that diet at the age of 23, saying that he only drank water and ate bread, some vegetables, butter and cheese. In his autobiography Some Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Thomas Tryon, late of London, Merchant. Written by himself published posthumously in London in 1705, he argued :
“It is a grand mistake of people in this age to say or suppose: That Flesh affords not only a stronger nourishment, but also more and better than Herbs, Grains, &c.; for the truth is, it does yield more stimulation, but not of so firm a substance, nor so good as that which proceeds from the other food; for flesh has more matter for corruption, and nothing so soon turns to putrefaction. Now, ’tis certain, such sorts of food as are subject to putrify before they are eaten, are also liable to the same afterwards. Besides, Flesh is of soft, moist, gross, phlegmy quality, and generates a nourishment of a like nature; thirdly, Flesh heats the body, and causeth a drought; fourthly, Flesh does breed a great store of noxious humours; fifthly, it must be considered that ‘beasts’ and other living creatures are subject to diseases and many other inconveniences, and uncleanness, surfeits, over-driving, abuses of cruel butchers, &c., which renders their flesh still more unwholesome. But on the contrary, all sorts of dry foods, as Bread, Cheese, Herbs, and many preparations of Milk, Pulses, Grains, and Fruits; as their original is more clean, so, being of a sound firm nature, they afford a more excellent nourishment, and more easy of concoction; so that if a man should exceed in quantity, the Health will not, thereby, be brought into such danger as by the superfluous eating of flesh.”
Thomas Tryon died in 1703. He was, hence, one of the precursors to advocate vegetarianism in the early 18th century.
Like Tryon, Alexander Pope thought that meat consumption was linked to man’s desire for superiority. He was an English poet, very famous for his translation of Homer and poems such as “An Essay on Criticism” and “The Rape of the Lock”. He was a fervent defender of vegetarianism as he considered the slaughter of animals as a “tyranny” so the vegetarian diet was a way to rebel against the Enlightenment modern ideas. Moreover, he came from a Catholic family so he was affected by the anti-catholic measures of the time and the Test Acts which was aimed at maintaining the established Church of England and banned the Catholics from teaching, studying, voting, etc. He published an essay entitled “Against Barbarity to Animals” in The Gardian in 1713, in which he declared :
“Nothing can be more shocking and horrid than one of our kitchens sprinkled with blood, and abounding with the cries of expiring victims, or with the limbs of dead animals scattered or hung up here and there. It gives one the image of a giant’s den in a romance, bestrewed with scattered heads and mangled limbs.”
For Joseph Ritson, besides Tryon and Pope’s reasons, vegetarianism was also seen as means to avoid health problems. He was an English antiquary and one of the most radical vegetarian. He wrote an essay entitled An essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty published in 1802, in which he asserted that vegetarianism would cure any human disease or medical illness. He became vegetarian at the age of nineteen after reading Mandeville’s Fable. He strongly criticized the cruelty of killing animals and the effects that it produced on humans. In his essay, Ritson argued that “the use of animal food disposes man to cruel and ferocious actions.” Moreover, he was anticlerical so he was against religion and most particularly against Christianity. He often linked the fact of eating animals’ meat to cannibalism : eating human flesh was an inevitable consequence of eating animal flesh.
The engraving is a caricature of Joseph Ritson made by James Sayers in 1803. On the top shelf, next to the cat, we can see a copy of Ritson’s Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food
Percy B. Shelley was another major English Romantic poet who shared most of his ideas on vegetarianism with those of Ritson. He wrote several essays on the subject of vegetarianism, the most famous ones being “A Vindication of Natural Diet” (1813) and “On the Vegetable System of Diet”. Even in his famous poem of 1813 entitled Queen Mab, Shelley wrote about the change to a vegetarian diet: “And man … no longer now/ He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,/ And horribly devours his mangled flesh.” His vegetarianism can be explained by the fact that he struggled for the rights of animals after witnessing varied mistreatments towards animals and many slaughters. He agreed with Joseph Ritson on many points and he used his book to defend his integrity and vegetarianism. Shelley wanted his children to follow a vegetarian diet too, but it caused him several problems with judges after his wife committed suicide. He considered the vegetarian diet man’s natural diet which would preserve health and prevent from diseases. For him, following a vegetarian diet would lead to the end of social injustices such as poverty, crime, aggression, capitalism and war. In “A Vindication of Natural Diet”, Shelly made an allegory between vegetarianism and the Creation myth, saying “The allegory of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of evil, and entailing upon their posterity the wrath of God, and the loss of everlasting life, admits of no other explanation, than the disease and crime that have flowed from unnatural diet.”
Through the emblematic vegetarian figures of Tryon, Pope, Ritson and Shelley, we can link Vegetarianism with Romanticism from the 18th century to the 19th century, influenced by humanist views and the age of Enlightenment (with the realisation that animals too could communicate, feel pain, and even feel emotion). These writers found the consumption of the animal flesh unnatural and barbaric. It was also a way to rebel against the consumerist market that evolved in the 18th century. Indeed, more varieties of vegetables became available so practicing a meatless diet became much easier. In Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley and the Making of Romantic Vegetarianism, an essay published in 2006, Timothy Morton asserts :
“The end of A Vindication alludes to Ritson on Pythagoras: ‘never take anything into the stomach that once had life’. Ritson’s Pythagoras shines through Shelley’s prose. Shelley marked the following passage: ‘the Samian philosopher, a man of universal knowledge, who flourish’d about 500 years before Christ, forbad to kil, much more to eat, liveing creatures, that had the same prerogative of souls with ourselves: and ate nothing himself that had had life. The truth is, he enjoin’d men not to eat of things that had life, but to accustom themselves to meats that were easeyly prepare’d, quickly at hand, and soongot ready without the help of fire
• Vegetarianism as a solution to obesity : a diet based on temperance
Since the 17th century and during the 18th century too, vegetarianism rose in England as a treatment for obesity for the wealthy people who consumed a lot of meat during their mealtime. People began to see vegetarianism as a solution to avoid obesity, thinking that it would reduce the risks of cardiovascular and heart diseases. One of the most famous 18th century obese who advocated vegetarianism was Dr George Cheyne (1671-1743). He was a physician, a mathematician and a philosopher born in Scotland. He is very well known for his contribution to vegetarianism. He was a popular figure who suffered from obesity because of the quantity of food and drink he consumed, which caused him several health problems. To counter them, he started a vegetarian diet composed of milk and vegetables only. It helped him to recover health but as soon as he stopped his meatless regimen, his health deteriorated again so he decided to follow a strict vegetarian diet for a lifetime
Portrait of George Cheyne made by John Faber Jr in 1732
George Cheyne was against gluttony and luxury and he claimed for temperance (especially concerning meal time) as we can read in his Essay on the Gout of 1720. Morale and religious motives were also linked to the medical reasons to follow a vegetarian diet. He often frequented taverns and dining-rooms looking for new clients but it played a big role on the deterioration of his weight. Therefore, after becoming obese, he decided to go to Bath to follow a dietary therapy and where he first acknowledged vegetarianism with a high consumption of milk. As by the early 1720s he could scarcely walk, he was obliged to follow a harsh vegetarian regimen. In 1724, his Essay of Health and Long Life was published, making him be much more famous. A great deal of the essay concerned evacuations and diet, through vegetarianism that he presented as an ideal more than a lifestyle at the time. That diet was based on moderation, with the consumption of white meat, vegetables and water mostly.
His several of his works Cheyne gave dietary advice with more and more religious concerns, as in the English Malady (1733). According to him, a meatless regimen only composed of milk and vegetables would return corrupted people to purity. That arguments are more and more present in his other works : the Essay on Regimen (1740) and The Natural Method of Cureing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind Depending on the Body (1742).
Here is an extract from another essay entitled Essay on Regimen : together with Five Discourses Medical Moral and Philosophical, &c of 1740, more focused on the treatments toward animals :
“ The question I design to treat of here is, whether animal or vegetable food was, in the original design of the Creator, intended for the food of animals, and particularly of the human race. And I am almost convinced it never was intended, but only permitted as a curse or punishment . . . At what time animal [flesh] food came first in use is not certainly known. He was a bold man who made the first experiment.
Illi robur at œs triplex
Circa pectus erat.
To see the convulsions, agonies, and tortures of a poor fellow-creature, whom they cannot restore nor recompense, dying to gratify luxury, and tickle callous and rank organs, must require a rocky heart, and a great degree of cruelty and ferocity. I cannot find any difference, on the foot of natural reason and equity only, between feeding on human flesh and feeding on brute animal flesh, except custom and example.
I believe some [more] rational creatures would suffer less in being fairly butchered than a strong Ox or red Deer; and, I natural morality and justice, the degrees of pain here make the essential difference, for as to other differences, they are relative only, and can be of no influence with an infinitely perfect Being. Did we not use and example weaken this lesson, and make the difference, reason alone could never do it. ”
• The care for animals and the political activism linked to vegetarianism
One main focus of the 18th century vegetarianism was the inhumanity linked to the consumption of meat : there was a sort of “humans’ duty” towards animals but also towards people (as it was for the evangelical forms of Christianity). They claimed that making animals feel pain was a sin, as they were suffering as humans do. Vegetarianism became therefore inevitable to avoid causing pain to animals.
Also, vegetarianism was linked to slavery and the developing trade and industry between the British Empire and its colonies (in the Caribbean and in America mostly). Vegetarian people wanted to show their disapproval of slavery and of the mistreatments of people because of the color of their skin. It was a way for them to show their political commitment. Even Dr George Cheyne, in his Essay of Health and Long Life of 1724, showed that vegetarianism was also a way to take part in political activism by characterizing the “sensitive” (intelligent and imaginative people) in contrast to the eaters of Roast beef described as stupid and idiots; as we can see here in the painting of 1748 by William Hogarth :
The Roast Beef of Old England – by William Hogarth (1748) – The Tate Gallery, (Mennell 10th of 29 photoplates) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hogarth-o-the-roast-beef-of-old-england-the-gate-of-calais-n01464
The painting is about French and English people. Indeed, during his visit in France in 1748, Hogarth could see how the French did not eat well. He had a very low opinion of the French so that was a way for him to spread Britain’s wealth and power with the huge beef carried by a fat clergyman (in the middle of the painting) destined to an English inn located in the North of France. The clergy represents the absolute monarchy that starved the French people. By contrast, the English ate and thrived on their food. In its summary of the painting, Tate’s website adds : “To the left of the gate, framed by vegetables, sits Hogarth himself. As he sketches the drawbridge, the arresting officer’s hand clasps his shoulder.” Therefore, thanks to the representations of meat and vegetables, Hogarth showed in his painting how politically active he was and what he thought of the western Europe societies.
Primary sources :
– Cheyne, George. An Essay of Health and Long Life. London, 1724.
– Cheyne, George. The English malady : or, A treatise of nervous diseases of all kinds, as spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, hypochondriacal, and hysterical distempers, etc. London, 1733.
– Cheyne, George. The natural method of curing the diseases of the body and the disorders of the mind, depending on the body. London, 1742.
– Ritson, Joseph. An essay on abstinence from animal food, as a moral duty. London, 1802.
– Spencer, Colin. The Heretic’s Feat : A History of Vegetarianism. London, 1993.
Secondary sources :
– Guerrini, Anita. “A Diet for a Sensitive Soul: Vegetarianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 23, Number 2 (May 1999) : 34-42
– Puskar-Pasewicz, Margaret. Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism. Santa Barbara, California, 2010
– Morton, Timothy. “Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley and the Making of Romantic Vegetarianism.” Romanticism 12.1 (2006) : 52-61