The Renaissance and Enlightenment

During the early Renaissance period, an open vegetarian ideology was a rare phenomena. Famine and disease were rife as crops failed and food was short. Meat was largely a scarce and expensive luxury for the rich. It was during this period that there was to be a rediscovery of ancient classical philosophy. Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic thought would once again become influential in Europe. The rediscovery of the Classical writers included the notion that animals were sensitive to pain and therefore were deserving of moral consideration and this idea was to be revisited during the later Enlightenment period when the scientific method was to service the opposite view. With the bloody conquest of 'new' lands, new vegetables were introduced into Europe, such as potatoes, cauliflower and maize. This had a beneficial effect on health, helping to prevent such things as skin diseases which were then widespread. Against a backdrop of the gluttony of wealthy renaissance Italy, such figures as the long-lived dietitian Cornaro (1465-1566) emerged in vehement criticism of the prevailing excesses of high class culture and took to a vegetarian diet. Eramus and Thomas More both wrote with some passion on the plight of animals. They, along with Montaigne, were appalled by the brutal practices associated with blood sports and, though they mocked the hunting classes, none of them personally gave up the practice of eating meat. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), visionary inventor, draughtsman and painter was repulsed by the slaughter of animals and was known in his own time as one who openly denounced the eating of meat.

With the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century there emerged a new appraisal of man's place in the order of creation and with the new scientific mastery of enquiry rebounded mastery over the animal kingdom. Descartes' attempts to scientifically disprove the existence of animal souls gave way to vivisection and to the concept of animal as machine. In opposition to this position, British philosopher John Locke voiced arguments that animals were intelligent feeling creatures and moral objections were raised as there was an increasing distaste for the mistreatment of animals. Amongst western religions there was a re-emergence of the view that, in fact, flesh consumption was an aberration from God's will and the genuine nature of humanity. During these days, slaughter methods were extremely barbaric. Pigs were flogged to death with knotted rope to tenderise the carcass and hens were slit at the mouth, hung up and left to bleed to death.

Famous vegetarians of the period included the poets John Gay and Alexander Pope, royal physician Dr John Arbuthnot, penal reformer John Howard and creator of the Methodist movement John Wesley. Wesley was influenced by the famed physician Dr Cheyne who himself had adopted a form of 'The Vegetable Diet' to, like Cornaro before him, cure himself of a number of obesity related ills in the first half of the 18th century. It was Dr Cheyne's work that was to directly impact on subsequent generations of reforming physicians like Dr William Lambe and Dr John Newton. Great philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau all questioned man's inhumanity to animals. Voltaire had read Antonio Cocchi's The Pythagorean Diet (trans. French 1762) and Rousseau's work Emile, though not specifically on vegetarian themes, made an impact on French Vegetarian poet Lamartine and reforming educationalist Pestalozzi. Thomas Paine's extremely influential 'The Rights of Man' (1791) raised wider animal rights issues.

Romantics and Reformers

Noteworthy vegetarian figures of the 19th century represent the range of cultural expression of the age: the humanist perspective, a reforming religious, social or medical zeal and a romantic spiritualism by turns. Prominent dietitian and physician of the age Dr William Lambe (1765-1847) is a central figure who straddles both the medical and literary worlds. Part of the circle of radical thinkers including Mary Wolstoncraft and the poet Shelley, Lambe was often the guest of Dr John Newton whose family promoted the 'Vegetable Diet' and was later to become instrumental in the setting up of The Vegetarian Society. Romantic poet Shelley became a vegetarian in 1812. He was fervent in his renunciation of meat consumption, convinced of the healthy advantages a meat-free diet could offer. Shelley also added a political dimension to the cause of vegetarianism by pointing out the inefficient use of resources. Meat was still at this time the habitual reserve of the privileged and Shelley cited meat production as a reason for food shortages among society's most needy.

The influence of politically astute and reforming clergymen in vegetarian history is seen in the history of the Vegetarian Society itself. The year 1809 marks the beginning of a movement within an offshoot of the English church towards vegetarianism as an expression of Christian faith. Establishing the Bible Christian Church in Salford in 1809 the Reverend William Cowherd pointed to biblical references in his appeal against meat eating. Popular on account of his wider concern for his congregation's welfare and offering healing, food and free burial Cowherd's religious roots were in the Swedenborgian movement. Swedenborgianism was a mystic form of Christianity commonly associated with painter and poet William Blake and linked to the Renaissance German mystic Jacob Behmen. Though Cowherd broke with the Swedenborgians to form the Bible Christian Church the relationship between the English vegetarian movement and that of the USA was galvanised by politically outspoken Swedenborgian Jonathan Wright when he left England under crown threat to join his brother-in-law William Metcalfe in Philadelphia. In 1817 Metcalfe had emigrated to the US with members of his Yorkshire congregation and in 1850 was to set up the American Vegetarian Society.

Back in England, in 1847 convergent groups including the members of Alcott House a reforming educational college and the Northwood Villa Infirmary met with members of the Bible Christian Church now led by Joseph Brotherton at the Ramsgate conference and formed The Vegetarian Society.

The influence of radical Christianity in the 19th Century was to give the cause of vegetarianism great impetus in Britain and the USA. Such groups were vegetarian fundamentalist Christians, with large congregations made up of the newly urbanised poor. Representatives who ventured away from Britain and vegetarian communes were evident in the USA in the 1830s, practiced among such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists. A notable practitioner of this religion was Dr John Harvey Kellogg, preacher and inventor of famously of breakfast cereals.

By the 1880s, vegetarian restaurants were popular in London, offering cheap and nutritious meals in respectable settings.

The Twentieth Century

At the turn of the 20th Century, British public health was still in a poor state, with high levels of infant mortality and widespread poverty. The Vegetarian Society sent food parcels to mining communities during the General Strike of 1926; vegetarianism and humanitarianism have always been closely linked. 

Any history of vegetarianism would be incomplete without mentioning the contribution made by Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote extensively on the subject. Vegetarianism was central to his life and was informed by the ascetic life of his mother Putlibai, Jainism, his politics and, of course, Hinduism. 

Because of general food shortages during World War II, the British were encouraged to 'Dig For Victory' and grow their own fruit and vegetables. A near vegetarian diet sustained the population and the nation's health was to improve vastly during the war years and vegetarians themselves were issued with special ration cards that allowed for more nuts, eggs and cheese in lieu of meat. In 1945 it is estimated that there were about 100,000 vegetarians in the UK. The figure today is approaching two million.

In the 1950s and '60s, the general public became increasingly aware of the truth behind intensive factory farming, which had been introduced in the UK following the war. Vegetarianism also appealed to mid 1960's counterculture, as Eastern influences permeated Western popular culture. The 1970's saw serious academic attention turn to the ethics of animal welfare, with Peter Singer's seminal book Animal Liberation in 1975 spawning the movement against animal experimentation and factory farming.  
  
During the 1980s and '90s, vegetarianism was given major impetus as the disastrous impact humanity was having upon the Earth become more apparent. Environmental issues dominated the headlines and were for a time foregrounded in politics. Vegetarianism was rightfully seen as part of the process of change and conservation of resources.

In the mid 1990s, issues such as livestock imports rallied opposition from many 'ordinary' people from all over the UK. Very real health concerns were raised when it was realised that some flesh foods were infected with such diseases as 'Mad Cow Disease' (BSE), Lysteria and Salmonella. Since the 1980s, popular conscience had anyway become focussed on healthy living and there was the realisation that food was very important in this. Consequently consumption of meat has plummeted, as many millions of people in the West have turned to vegetarianism as a safe and healthy alternative.

The history of vegetarianism has consisted of an amazing diversity of characters and events. Vegetarianism has been evident in cultures all over the world and a largely vegetarian diet has sustained humanity for many thousands of years, for moral, religious and economic reasons. With the global population growing and resources stretched, vegetarianism shows the way forward into histories yet to come.

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)