A Brief History of Vegetarianism

May 01, 1996

 by Anne Dozell

The following is a short summary of some of the highlights of “The Heretic’s Feast, a History of Vegetarianism” by Colin Spencer. (The information and views are those of Mr. Spencer.) This book is available from Amazon.ca (where it has a four star rating based on six reviews.)

Colin Spencer is a British vegetarian who once wrote a regular food column in the Guardian and has published a dozen cook books.

We often hear the phrase, “vegetarianism’s time has come at last.” But vegetaranism is not a new idea. It has a long and fascinating history stretching back to the early evolution of human beings.

Our Earliest Ancestors

Our hominid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, according to Spencer, for all but one-and-a-half million of these years lived on an almost completely vegetarian diet, except for occasional insects and grubs.

Spencer suggests that lack of a varied plant & fruit diet may have been the reason Neanderthal man died out, while Cro-Magnon man, our direct ancestor, survived. The Cro-Magnons lived in a more temperate climate and had ready access to plentiful supplies of plants and fruit, while the Neanderthals, who lived in the icy wastes of northern Europe, were forced to subsist mainly on flesh food.

Pythagoras

The first prominent modern vegetarian was the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who lived towards the end of the 6th century BC. The Pythagorean diet came to mean an avoidance of the flesh of slaughtered animals. Pythagorean ethics first became a philosophical morality between 490-430 BC with a desire to create a universal and absolute law including injunctions not to kill “living creatures,” to abstain from “harsh-sounding bloodshed,” in particular animal sacrifice, and “never to eat meat.”

The Vegetarian Heretics

Another big surge in vegetarianism came from the Manicheans in the early centuries AD. The Manicheans were a sect of “heretics” with vegetarianism as the centre of their beliefs, and were much reviled by the Christians. [It is for this reason that the book is called the Heretic's Feast] Manicheanism survived in the Near East as late as the seventh century AD and kept a foothold in China as late as the 16th century, the Manicheans being known as “vegetarian demon worshippers.”

The Renaissance

By Renaissance times in Europe, meat eating had became surrounded by an aura of wealth and power. Only the Christian monks abstained, hoping to bring a closer affinity to God.

From the 17th century, a time of radical ideas, vegetarianism began to grow steadily in England. Religious sects that abstain from animal food began to proliferate. Moral objections began to appear as people discovered a distaste for exploiting animals: “as the threat from wild beasts receded, so man’s right to eliminate wild creatures from whom he had nothing to fear was increasingly disputed” (Keith Thomas: Man and the Natural World).

Thomas Tryon was a prominent vegetarian of the early 17th century. His writings and teachings recommended a vegetable diet and a complete refusal to “gorge on the flesh of fellow animals.” Tryon strongly influenced the Quakers, and much later the young Benjamin Franklin was greatly impressed by one of Tryon’s books, The Way to Health.

The dilemma of whether humans should kill and eat animals was now being debated and written about by scores of people, some, like John Evelyn, advocating the wholesomeness of a “Herby-diet” and others, such as Henry More, advocating that cattle and sheep were only given life in the first place so that their meat could be kept fresh “till we shall have need to eat them.”

Moving into the 18th century, we find the writer and dietitian Dr. William Lambe recommending a vegetarian diet to his patients as a cure for cancer. By the end of the 18th century, there was an upsurge in humanitarian feelings, and the concept of animal welfare began to strengthen. The vegetarian movement now had real reason to hope for expansion due to the fact that vegetables and grains were becoming more abundant and available to everyone. All the arguments that sustain modern vegetarianism were now in circulation, including the view that meat eating was bad for health, was cruel and unnatural, and fostered a wasteful form of agriculture compared with arable farming which produced far more food per acre.

Blandness and Purity

The Pythagorean diet officially changed its title to vegetarianism in 1847 at a meeting in Ramsgate, an English seaside town. From this meeting came the Vegetarian Society, branches of which were subsequently established in Manchester and London. One of the first members was George Dornbusch who ate all his food quite cold and without salt and condiments. Many members of the Society believed that salt and condiments were stimulants and as bad as alcohol. This led to vegetarian food being enormously bland. At this time, too, vegetarianism became equated with moral earnestness, do-gooding and the higher grounds of purity and moral rectitude. Meat was considered a generator of lust. Vegetarianism even went hand in hand with abstention from alcohol. Because British beef was regarded as one of the positive forces behind the growth of the British Empire, vegetarianism was very quickly relegated to the level of a joke by the rich and powerful.

In 1847, the Manchester branch of the Vegetarian Society held their first annual meeting and a banquet. At this banquet they ate macaroni omelette, onion and sage fritters, savoury pie, plum pudding, moulded rice, flummery [fruit pudding], and several other dishes.

In the early 1880’s, membership in the Vegetarian Society rose until it reached over 2,000. In 1889 there were estimated to be 52 vegetarian restaurants in England, 34 of them in London. In 1889, Gandhi became a member of the London Vegetarian Society.

The 20th Century

At the outbreak of the First World War, pacifism and vegetarianism became intertwined and vegetarianism suffered a bitter backlash from a society which saw refusal to fight as treason. Seventy vegetarian conscientious objectors died in prison because of harsh treatment, including their inability to survive on prison meals. A food strike eventually produced a vegetarian diet for prisoners.

For the remainder of this century, vegetarians have continued the struggle to put forward their message. In Canada, the Toronto Vegetarian Association was founded in 1945 and has flourished for 50 years. As history shows, vegetarianism has had its ups and downs. Surely, by the year 2000, we will be able to say with absolute certainty, “Now our time has surely come.”