The history of evolution is reflected in the human diet. “What people eat is a symbol of what they believe,” writes Colin Spencer.
BSE or ‘mad cow disease’; ‘Frankenstein foods’; GM crops . . . the food on our plates and how it is reared, produced and sold is becoming an increasingly Big Issue and a contributing factor to why more and more people are espousing vegetarianism. There was a time when if you were a vegetarian it was considered kooky or cranky, but no longer. Colin Spencer’s comprehensive book, reissued in paperback for the first time in fifteen years, explores the psychology of abstention from flesh and attempts to discover why omnivorous humans at times voluntarily abstain from an available food. He begins in pre-history and ends in the present day.
I had no idea before reading Spencer’s fascinating and erudite history that the principles which underpin vegetarianism – a hatred of slaughter, animal welfare, concern for Earth’s balance and ecology – reach back in time to the ancient world. Definitions already varied, ranging from individuals who ate plants, beans, grains and a bit of protein from fish and dairy, to those who were strict vegans. Vegetarian priestly sects in Egypt date back to 3,200 BC. Greek religious thought was entwined with the religion of Egypt. Today, tribes and their shamans in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins know thousands of rain forest plants and are living encyclopedias of medical knowledge handed down through the generations.
The book is full of intriguing facts, perfect for a Mastermind or Trivial Pursuit quiz. Pythagoras rejected meat eating, as did Renaissance man himself, Leonardo da Vinci − the first great humanitarian and source of the saying: “We make our life by the death of others”. Meat was a vivid sign of wealth and power. Spencer provides vivid descriptions: “Drama and scenic tableau began to be intertwined with the feast itself. Catherine de Medici of France became a mistress of the feast as theatre. Her daughter, Marguerite de Valois, remembers a picnic given by her mother when boats were disguised as whales, hiding the musicians who played inside where once Jonah had been, and horses were dressed as elephants. The feast was served by girls dressed as shepherdesses and afterwards nymphs danced in candlelight.”
As humans became domesticated so did the animals which were rounded up and herded into pens − and ritually slaughtered. “Killing and by extension the meat itself are invested with spiritual significance, and blood spilled in the act of killing takes on the mystical semblance of the source of life.” Religions have varied over the centuries in terms of their commitment to non-violence and whether to eat flesh − or not. Hinduism is linked to the concept of the sacred cow and the transmigration of souls. Its roots lie in a collection of writings called the Rig-Veda dating from about 1,500 BC: the cow, speech and agriculture are inextricably linked. Zoroaster in Iran who lived from approx. 628 – 550 BC forbade all animal sacrifice and intoxicating drinks. His concepts of dualism and monotheism influenced Judaeo-Christianity and Hinduism. Gautama Buddha who lived between 566 and 486 BC condemned all killing or injury of humans, animals, birds, fish, or insects; war, sacrifice and trading in carcasses. In Outer Mongolia today, birds are still sacred and must not be killed.
The heroic diet enjoyed in Ancient Greece consisted largely of meat and wine. At a religious festival, the priest − a mediator between man and the gods − would sacrifice an animal. The brilliant mathematician Pythagoras was a Greek St Francis. The Pythagorean diet included barley and wheat bread, wine, seasoning, cooked and raw vegetables, dried figs, olive cakes and cheese. Spencer reminds us that in Paradise, Adam and Eve were vegetarians. His reading of the Old Testament and eating rules is illuminating. For example: “After the flood humanity was able to kill animals for food.”
The early Christian church included sects involving asceticism and non-violence to animals – later such beliefs were condemned as being heretical by the Church. “Meat became the essential means by which humans communicated with the gods. The smoke and aromas of the spices were the food of the gods and they were given it before people were allowed to eat the meat itself. The ritual of animal sacrifice, the blood spilt, the method of slaughter were all carefully kept to. When Christianity finally halted this practice it had already invested its own rituals with much of the same symbolism: in the Mass it is the body and blood of Christ which are consumed by the celebrant, the smoke of the censer having already wafted to heaven.“
The Cathars, who were tolerant of other religions and were not anti-semitic, did not eat meat. They were persecuted by the Church in the 12th-13th centuries as heretics. Christian attitudes to animals were ambivalent. Even St Francis who preached to the birds ate them. God was praised and the body punished by means of fasting. Meat was not eaten on Wednesday and Friday. Infanticide, Black Magic and cannibalism were all rolled into one in the Middle and Dark Ages. From Ancient Greece through to the Dark and Middle Ages, if a domesticated creature such as a cow, horse, pig or dog killed someone accidentally then a secular tribunal would be held and the animal sentenced and put to death.
St Thomas Aquinas argued that animals had no souls, and so were not immortal, and so could be killed and eaten. He divided sin into three: against God, oneself, one’s neighbour. To commit a sin against an animal was not possible. Centuries later the view that animals had no souls meant that the likes of Descartes who had a mechanistic view of the universe, or students at the Royal Society in London, could pin down, flay and dissect a living animal which struggled desperately to survive. Since the study of God’s world was complementary to the study of the Bible, to dissect bodies made by the hand of God was acceptable.
The seventeenth century saw the beginnings of capitalism, with men going out in to the world to trade and women staying at home. Diets were largely fatty and sugary. Animals were herded through London’s streets to provide for the feasting of the rising middle classes. Scurvy was rife, but the housemaids who ate cress did not get it. Thomas Tryon’s treatises on healthy eating published in the 1680s were a hit. He was against sugars and too much alcohol. Plus ça change! John Gay, best known for The Beggar’s Opera, and the satirist Alexander Pope, were against animal slaughter and meat-eating. Voltaire’s hatred of cruelty to men and animals runs through his work; he admired the Hindus.
The Agricultural Revolution and the rise of market garden revolutionized production. The Romantic poet Shelley believed that the adoption of a vegetarian diet and a cessation of animal slaughter would lead to the end of poverty, crime, aggression, capitalism and war. His poem Queen Mab circulated countrywide among middle-and-working-class radicals.
The term ‘vegetarianism’ dates from 1847 when the Vegetarian Society was founded in Ramsgate. The Indian Mutiny in 1857 was caused by British insensitivity to Hinduism: the cartridge paper of the Minie rifle was greased with lard so for the sepoys and Indian troops to bite it infringed their creed. In mainstream Victorian society vegetarians were seen to be outsiders, immoral even.
Jump to the twentieth century and the founding in 1908 of the International Vegetarian Union, a union of the national societies. George Bernard Shaw was a famous vegetarian activist, the private man wrote: “I am a vegetarian purely on humanitarian and mystical grounds; and I have never killed a flea or a mouse vindictively without remorse.”
I had read that Hitler’s diet was sugary and vegetarian and that by the end of the war he was on a cocktail of drugs. Spencer describes what he ate: “Hitler’s favourite dishes were Russian eggs, hard-boiled and covered with mayonnaise, soup with tiny dumplings in it, baked apple and cauliflower. He would take soup, a starchy dish, potatoes or pasta, vegetables, cheese and fruit. At his country estate at Berchtesgaden he ate breakfast before nine of oatmeal porridge and prunes, and wholemeal bread and honey.”
The popularity of vegetarianism grew during the 20th century as a result of nutritional, ethical, and more recently, environmental and economic concerns. Vegetarianism and 1960s counter culture were entwined.
The world population is rising so rapidly that Earth’s resources are being used up faster than they can be replenished. Spencer points out that the human drive to dominate is destroying the environment thereby threatening the survival of the human species. How ironic!
He concludes: “Will large numbers of people ever be able to give up that symbol of human domination over their planet, the slaughtered animal and its carcass meat? Will Leonardo have been right when he said that the time would come when men would look upon the murder of animals as they now looked upon the murder of men?”
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Vegetarianism: A History by Colin Spencer | Grub Street | April 2016 £14.99 400pp PB | ISBN: 191069021X