The Rise of the Flesh-Avoiders

Modern vegetarianism is concerned largely with issues of animal welfare but its roots are to be found in the early-modern desire to promote spirituality by curbing humanity’s excessive appetites. 

Erica Fudge | Published 29 Nov 2017

An English translation of the essay De esu carnium, written by the first-century Greek philosopher Plutarch, was published in 1603. Translated by Philemon Holland, the text was given the title ‘Whether it be lawfull to eate flesh or no’ and opens with a bang:

But you demand of mee, for what cause Pythagoras abstained from eating flesh? And I againe doe marvell ... what motive and reason had that man, who first approached with his mouth unto a slaine creature … How could his eies endure to behold such murder and slaughter, whiles the poore beasts were either sticked or had the throats cut, were slaied and dismembered? How could his nose abide the smell and sent that came from them? How came it that his taste was not cleane marred and overthrowen with horrour, when he came to handle those uncouth sores and ulcers; or receive the bloud and humours, issuing out of the deadly wounds.

In his introduction, Holland was careful to deny that Plutarch’s work was a polemic in favour of animal rights. It was rather, he argued, an exercise in rhetoric by the young philosopher, intended as a display of his debating skill. If there is a moral intent, Holland wrote, the ‘principall scope that he shooteth at, seemeth to be a cutting off and abridging of the great excesse and superfluitie in purveying, buying, and spending of viands [foods], which in his time began to grow out of all measure’. Plutarch, Holland says, argues not for a meat-free diet, but against over-indulgence. 

What made Holland refuse to accept Plutarch’s work as being principally about animals? For an answer, we need to examine what vegetarianism, or rather ‘flesh avoidance’, meant to people in early 17th-century England. Eating meat was meaningful to early modern people, but not for health reasons; and animals were of significance, but only because they signified something other than themselves. Thus, the motives behind 17th-century flesh avoidance are far removed from those of today’s meat-free diets, but nevertheless are part of the history of modern vegetarianism. 

Holland’s dismissal of an ethical stance in Plutarch’s essay might have been simply because it did not correspond to biblical injunction. This was a common early modern problem with the ancient world: despite the fact that intellectuals thought of Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of human civilisation, Classical thought did not always sit comfortably with Christian ideas. In Genesis 1:29-30 God tells Adam and Eve: 

Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat / And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. 

Not until after the Flood was flesh-eating permitted by God. In Genesis 9:2 God tells Noah: ‘Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herb I have given you all things.’ Thus, while allowed, the eating of animals was also a product of the Fall and, therefore, evidence of humanity’s corruption. 

Though there is this link between eating animals and corruption, flesh avoidance was not regarded as a Christian virtue. Indeed, the consumption of flesh was presented by one early 17th-century cleric in a way that is entirely logical in relation to his theology and that seems to take Plutarch’s focus on the ‘uncouth sores and ulcers’ of dead animals in a different direction. In his A Mappe of Mans Mortalitie (1617), the puritan minister John Moore proposed that eating flesh was vital for the good Christian. We cannot know whether he read Plutarch, but a link seems possible. Moore wrote:

Our life is as a garment that weares of it selfe, and by itselfe; for we weare out our life in living; the more we live, the lesse we have to live, and still approach nearer death … So in our meates (as in a looking-glasse) we may learne our own mortalitie: for let us put our hand into the dish, and what doe we take, but the foode of a dead thing, which is either the flesh of beasts, or of birds, or of fishes, with which foode wee so long fill our bodies, untill they themselves be meate for wormes? All this we see by experience, we feele it and we taste it daily: we see death (as it were) before our eyes: we feele it betwixt our teeth, and yet can wee not cast our accompt, that we must die. 

Like Plutarch, Moore’s focus is on the dead animal’s presence at the table but he asks eaters to look into the bowl of food, not in order to make them turn away in horror, but in order to ask them to concentrate on what they see, be disgusted by it and, from that disgust, acknowledge the link between the flesh in the bowl and the flesh on their own bones. In doing so, he forces his readers to confront their own inevitable death. The bowl of meat is a memento mori. Moore reads it as a call to the eater to remember that their end is just around the corner. As he continues: ‘many sicknesses slay men suddenly, euen while they haue meate in their mouthes, and are full merry’.

Painting called Flight into Egypt (the Meat Market), Pieter Aertsen, Dutch, 16th century. Copyright Bridgeman Images.

This argument gives meat eating a spiritual role. It suggests that man is always decaying and that recognition of this should prompt constant contemplation of one’s inherent sinfulness. ‘In the myddest of lyfe we be in death’, as the burial service in The Book of Common Prayer put it in the mid-16th century. That meat should provide evidence of our inherent corruption is exactly what makes it valuable. Moore turned a potentially shameful aspect of humanity (we are beasts that must feed) into a daily prompt to contemplate the almighty. As such he proves humanity to be superior: no animal can undertake such contemplation. So, to stop eating animals is to draw back from an opportunity to ponder the world and the self within it; to avoid flesh is to endanger one’s immortal soul.

Yet, unlike Plutarch, Moore is not thinking about the animal as an animal. For him, the animal’s presence in our food does not raise ethical questions about human dominion and the welfare of non-humans. Rather, the animal is a divine sign to be interpreted by humans. Beasts are served to us as food but they can also serve as symbols. Recognising this offers another interpretation of Holland’s suggestion that Plutarch’s essay is not about animals but is, rather, a challenge to human excess. A Classical philosopher might consider meat not in order to address the position of animals but in order to think about humanity. 

But the impulse to ‘read’ animals had larger implications than simply the issue of overindulgence, however dangerous to the Christian’s immortal soul that might be. In early modern England it was believed by many that the good Christian could get closer to understanding the divine by studying the natural world. Not just as a means of addressing the individual’s or the species’ status, such study was regarded as a religious duty. In his unfinished work on birds, The Fowles of Heaven (c.1613-14), another puritan minister, Edward Topsell, made clear that his motive for writing was godly. His book, he argued, ‘encreaseth light in the hart of man to vnderstand the reuealed will, and word of God. And this kinde of diuination you shall finde in our historie which teacheth the meaning of textes of Scripture’. The book is not a zoology text as we would understand it, but is zoology as early modern authors regarded it: it offers revelations on the divine.

It is little surprise that within such a context ethical discussions about care for animals were, like flesh avoidance, rare. This is not because people did not care for animals. Cows, for example, could be vital to a family’s well-being and so looking after them was necessary, if not a reflection of emotional engagement. Rather, it is notable that printed discussions which seem to take up the issue of animal welfare in this period are frequently not what they appear to be. Writing in 1612 and taking as his starting point Proverbs 12:10 (‘A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast’) the clergyman John Rawlinson was quick to limit what that statement might mean. It is, he wrote, ‘a parable’ and ‘not literally spoken’: that is, it is not actually about animals at all. Rawlinson continues: ‘That regard, which a righteous man hath, as of his beast, so much more of men.’ Kindness to animals is simply a model of real kindness, which is only truly directed towards humans. This is a conception of animal welfare that appears again and again. When, in a 1609 sermon, Topsell stated that ‘our Flockes and Heards are our Families’, he was also speaking allegorically: ‘Our Parents are the flock and charge of us that are children, and children are the charge of parents.’ God being a shepherd does not mean that his flock should be viewed as made up of actual sheep. 

Portrait of Thomas Bushell, from Youth’s Errors, 16th century. Copyright © akg-images
It seems paradoxical that the logic which ignored animal welfare when contemplating ethics also underpinned the ideas of some of the vegetarians in the period, but that is exactly what happened. For the first early modern people who adopted a meat-free diet and put their thoughts into print, flesh avoidance was not about animal welfare; rather it was about retrieving for humanity what had been lost. Where John Moore turned towards meat to contemplate the self, Thomas Bushell turned away from it to achieve the same aim.

Bushell was the servant of Sir Francis Bacon, Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the fathers of modern science (it seems darkly appropriate in this context that Bacon died from catching a fever after attempting to see if he could freeze a chicken). When Bacon was impeached for taking bribes in 1621, Bushell retired for three years to a solitary life and took up an ascetic diet of ‘Oyle, Honey, Mustard, Herbs and Bisket, my Drink Water, like those long-lif’d Fathers before the flood’. His flesh-free diet was an attempt to return to a time before corruption, to a time of purity. Rigorous, meat-free self-denial was his path back into good society. Concern for animal suffering played no part in his decision; what was central was his journey to his own purification, which he felt had been mapped out in the Bible. Perhaps taking St Paul rather more literally than the apostle might have intended, Bushell quoted the Epistle to the Romans in his 1628 autobiography: ‘He that liues in the flesh dyes in the spirit.’ 

Bushell stated that he wished to ‘deny all my treacherous Senses their most delighting Objects: I fed on nothing that pleased ye appetite; looking willingly on nothing which I formerly liked; nor accompanied any creature that affected my concupiscence’. Personal abstinence could sit comfortably within socially prescribed rules for religious and civic conduct and flesh avoidance could be seen as a personal choice rather than a social threat – it was a ‘harmlesse error’, to quote a 1655 pamphlet. Yet while self-purification achieved through a flesh-free diet would seem to offer little to challenge the stability of early 17th-century England, that was not how it was always represented. In the middle of the 17th century, a time of massive social upheaval – when horses were baptised and when Cavaliers ate their own buttocks – there was felt to be a more sinister side to flesh avoidance than a simple dietary choice. 

The perils of refusing meat were outlined in the midst of the English Civil Wars when, in 1646, Thomas Edwards listed those ideas that seemed most dangerous at a time of widespread chaos in Gangraena: Or a Catalogue and Discovery of many of the Errours, Heresies, Blasphemies and pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this time. Among the errors he found were the belief that ‘God loves the creatures that creep upon the ground as well as the best Saints; and theres no distance between the flesh of a Man, and the flesh of a Toad’; that ‘Tis unlawful to fight at all, or to kill any man, yea to kill any of the creatures for our use, as a chicken, or on any other occasion’; and ‘Tis unlawfull to eate any manner of blood in any kind of thing whatsoever, and that Black-puddings are unhallowed meat’. Edwards regarded these views as ‘gangrenous’ assaults on the status quo because they unsettled the natural order of things. To refute human superiority was to overturn divinely instated hierarchy and chaos would follow. The civil war raging in England was his evidence. 

It is notable that, during this period, even the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, did not question the consumption of animal flesh. In his 1649 pamphlet, True Levellers Standard Advanced, he wrote: ‘In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation.’ Things did not stay like this, however. 

But since humane flesh (that king of Beasts) began to delight himself in the objects of the Creation, more then in the Spirit Reason and Righteousness … then he fell into blindness of mind and weakness of heart, and runs abroad for a Teacher and Ruler: And so selfish imaginations taking possession of the Five Sences, and ruling as King in the room of Reason therein, and working with Covetousnesse, did set up one man to teach and rule over another; and thereby the Spirit was killed, and man was brought into bondage, and became a greater Slave to such of his own kind, then the Beasts of the field were to him.

Winstanley is following the narrative of Genesis, which presents the peaceful exercise of human dominion before the Fall and meat-eating corruption after it. But there is a crucial difference from the creation narrative here as, for Winstanley, it is ‘humane flesh’ delighting itself in ‘the objects of the Creation’ – which I take to mean the eating of animals – that leads to the enslavement of people. But even when outlining the ideal Digger universe, in which the corruption of the times would be undone, Winstanley did not move away from human exploitation of animals. In the Law of Freedom in a Platform of 1652 he proposes that ‘all public dairies are store-houses for butter and cheese: yet every family may have cows for their own use, about their own house’. In this period (as is often now the case) cheese was made with rennet, ‘the stomacke-bagge of a yong suckling calfe, which never tasted other foode than milk’, as Gervase Markham described it in 1631. So the diet outlined by Winstanley in the Digger paradise involved the killing of animals. Thus, while he is radical in his challenge to human hierarchy, Winstanley accepts the natural order in which animal slavery (his term) is a norm. Even as he echoes Bushell’s conception of a lost purity, he cannot leave behind Moore’s valuation of flesh-eating. 

There was one man who did take that step, however, and he offers a case study in the difficulty of being vegetarian in the 17th century. Roger Crab was a haberdasher from Buckinghamshire, whose ‘constant food’, we are told in a 1655 pamphlet, ‘is roots and herbs; as cabbage, turneps, carrots, dock-leaves, and grass; also bread and bran, without butter or cheese’. A pamphlet titled The English Hermit tells us that Crab, like Bushell, saw himself as an ascetic, a recognisable religious figure. He wrote: ‘The eating of flesh is an absolute enemy to pure nature, pure nature being the workmanship of a pure God, and corrupt nature under the custody of the devil.’ Like Bushell, Crab refused to eat animals in order to stop corrupting himself.

Painting called The Summer, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1572. © akg-images

Crab presented a novel theological reason for his diet. Following Genesis, he recognised that ‘ever since Noah came out of the Arke, the world being drowned, and no fruits nor hearbs on the earth, man was ordered to eate the flesh of the Creatures which came out of the Arke’. Carnivorism was thus embraced for practical reasons – because the Flood destroyed the plant-life that had sustained Adam and Eve (one wonders, in this context, why the antedeluvian Abel kept sheep). After the Flood, the consumption of animals had such an impact on humanity that ‘when the hearbs & innocent food was come forth, we slighted it, calling it trash in comparison of a Beast, or beastly flesh; so that by that meanes the flesh-destroying Spirits and Angels draweth neer us, and frequently attendeth man kind’. Not only was flesh-consumption evidence of original sin; for Crab it was also increasing the likelihood of humanity’s destruction. His diet of vegetables, leaves and grass was an attempt to turn away from Satan’s ‘destroying Spirits and Angels’ and to return to a purer mode of being. Yet again, animal welfare was not a motive. 

It tells us a great deal about English food culture at that time that Crab and his diet became famous. It made him, as the title page of the pamphlet stated, the ‘Wonder of This Age’, or as he wrote of himself, ‘the gazing-stock to the nation’. His status as gazing-stock offers an interesting inversion of Moore’s work. Rather than flesh being a valuable prompt to contemplation, here it is the flesh-avoider who is held up as a warning. In his preface to Crab’s work the unnamed printer – who saw flesh avoidance as a ‘harmlesse error’ – told his readers about one of Crab’s followers. Captain Robert Norwood, he wrote, ‘was acquainted with Roger Crab, and being enclining to his opinion, began to follow the same poore diet till it cost him his life: Felix quam facit alienem pericula cautem [happy are they who can learn caution from the dangers of others]’. The danger here may have been starvation rather than damnation, but the warning still carried weight.

It was not until the end of the 17th century that a flesh avoider also wrote about the lives of animals and it was this link between diet and animal welfare that allowed for vegetarianism as a modern social justice movement to emerge. The term ‘vegetarianism’ was not coined until 1842. Stuck in a discourse about purity, Bushell’s choices were personal and did not challenge the social order. Crab could be regarded as simply ‘most strange’, declared a ‘wonder’ and thus marginalised. In the writing of Thomas Tryon, however, something else emerges. In his 1691 work, Wisdoms Dictates, Tryon advised his readers to ‘Refrain at all times such Food as cannot be procured without violence and oppression … For know, that all the inferior Creatures when hurt, do cry and send forth their Complaints to their maker, or grand Fountain whence they proceeded.’ 

The literary critic Nigel Smith has described Tryon as ‘the backbone of an 18th-century vegetarian canon’, a man whose writings moved the debate about the consumption of animal flesh forward to the work of Joseph Ritson, William Cowherd, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Henry Salt and on to the vegetarian movement we have today. But Tryon must also be read within the context of the ideas that made him. There is a persistence of the idea of corruption in his work. ‘Intemperance’, he writes, ‘is the In-let and cause of all Oppression, both to those of their own kind, and to all other Creatures; as also of eating their Flesh and Blood, which do generate unclean and filthy Juices’. Here Tryon seems to bring together John Moore, in his focus on eating animals’ flesh and blood; Bushell and Crab, in his belief that meat leads to the generation in humans of corrupt ‘unclean and filthy Juices’; and Winstanley in his linking of this to oppression. What he also recognises is that animals, too, are oppressed in a world of flesh consumption. Thus we need to recognise that 21st-century vegetarianism has some strange and unlikely bedfellows, including flesh-avoiders, but also meat contemplators, animal allegorists, temporary abstainers, hermits and wonders.

Erica Fudge is Professor of English at the University of Strathclyde. This piece was originally published with the title ‘You Are What You Eat’ in the February 2017 issue of History Today