Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Question from Maynard - Vegetarianism and Veganism in Tudor England?

How would I (or any student or graduate researcher) explore vegetarianism and veganism (?) in Tudor England?

Many issues could be explored:
agricultural challenges and prosperity, the rise of meat eating, ethical and extra-ethical challenges to prevailing food mores, philosophy, actual practice, theatrical notes on vegetarians and vegetarian practices and values and beliefs, ritual notes on the topic, religion and vegetarian practices, etc.

I'm hoping to find an ongoing discussion of this topic, not a cut and dried answer.

Several sources could be Bloodless Revolution and Colin Spencer's books.

I don't know that Professor Rynn Berry, a vegetarian historian and literary specialist at the New School in Brooklyn (I think in comparative literature), has written on this topic; his interests seem to have shifted towards comparing modern vegetarians with ancient vegetarian practices in the 'classical periods' of Greece and Rome.


  1. I don't want this to seem like a dreaded "cut and dried answer," but I do not believe that vegetarianism existed in Tudor England, at least not as a deliberate philosophically-based dietary choice undertaken by the practitioner in an effort to avoid harming animals. And I rather doubt that veganism was physically possible, owing to the agricultural limitations on the availability of sufficient amounts of non-animal protein sources. Yes, Greeks and Romans could conceive of vegetarianism as a philosophically-based undertaking because their multiplicity of religions included sects that conceptualized animals in ways that early modern Christianity did not. Tudor-era Christian religious beliefs and practices in England conceived of animals as something for man to use as he saw fit, not in anthropomorphic terms. Even the practice of foregoing meat on Friday was done as a weekly dietary sacrifice in observance of the crucifixion, not out of consideration for the welfare of animals. If there were any self-conscious vegetarians in Tudor England at all (and I strongly suspect there were not), their numbers would have been exceedingly small, measurable only in hyper-fractional percentages. But this is only an impression based on many years of advanced study of general Tudor history, not on a focused study of Tudor dietary habits. When I have time, I will check some of the Tudor-era sources and dietary manuals available at the Huntington Library and offer a little followup on this interesting and thought-provoking question.

  2. Follow-up: I've now done a bit of background checking on the topic of vegetarianism as a deliberate ethical choice in Tudor England. Here are my findings.

    The modern literature on the subject is very limited. The usually very thorough RHS Bibliography of British and Irish History lists just two works on the subject. One is Erica Fudge's chapter "Saying nothing concerning the same: On dominion, purity, and meat in early modern England" in the book "Renaissance Beasts" (Univ of Illinois Press, 2004). The other is Alan Rudrum's "Ethical vegetarianism in seventeenth-century Britain: Its roots in sixteenth-century theological debate" in the quarterly journal "Seventeenth Century." I've been able to access only reviews and abstracts of each, and from that I have the impression that they describe ethical vegetarianism emerging in the mid to late 1600s, concurrent with the rise of Enlightenment philosophy.

    The search engine JSTOR reveals a great deal of modern analytical literature on the classical (Greco-Roman) philosophies from which modern vegetarianism stems, especially on Plutarch's discussion of animal intelligence and Pythagorean and Porphyrian arguments for abstention. But there are only a mere handful of articles on Tudor-era vegetarianism, mostly involving Erasmus and his writings on church teachings regarding the eating of meat on Fridays. That is vegetarianism as a Pythagorean prescribed religious abstention rather than as an individual ethical choice.

    I also checked the databases Early English Books Online and the English Short Title Catalogue. EEBO reveals just one item: Erasmus' "Concerning forbidding of eating of flesh, and like constitutions of men" (1534). Again, Erasmus' concern is with moderation ("to restrain overmuch liberty", p. 8) and correct religious observance, not total avoidance. He criticizes priests who teach their parishoners to abstain on Fridays while themselves feasting on the same day, for example. He does not advocate for complete vegetarianism.

    All other titles on EEBO are from after 1655. The same is true of the ESTC: the one title by Erasmus, with everything else published after 1655.

    The overall impression that I am left with from this admittedly brief search is that ethical vegetarianism simply did not exist in the Tudor period, except perhaps among an exceedingly small (and apparently undocumented) number of people.

    Colin Spencer's books are "popular history," not scholarly academic history (he uses, for example, very few primary sources), and he is often criticized for a highly polemic approach to the topic. From my perspective, his work would be useful only as a starting point, not as authoritative secondary sources.

    If you really want to pursue this topic, I'd suggest using the computers at your local university library to access the subscription-only database JSTOR, and search under keywords "vegetarianism" and "England." Lots of scholarly articles come up, though too few address the issue in the 1500s. But from those articles, you can find out which historians, modern philosophers, and theorists are debating the issue, and what books and articles they have published that might be useful in your study.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Sounds like an interesting topic! I can't add much, only pointing out what a status symbol meat was and how difficult it would have been to eat a vegetarian/vegan diet meeting nutritional needs then for most people. The no fish on a Friday religious directive was taken seriously - a man in 1539 was hanged for breaking this - but this was far from vegetarianism.

    The rise of Protestantism and higher rates of literacy wouldn't have changed this, as the Bible is clear that we are permitted to eat animals and few then would have contradicted the Bible, as to my knowledge everybody would have been a Christian or a Jew in England then. Would the Renaissance, with its emphasis on Greek culture, have made any difference on this issue?

  4. Sorry, that should read 'no meat' on a Friday.


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