"Sins of the Flesh": Vegetarianism in the English Civil War
Humility was just one reason for abstaining from flesh. Anglican clergyman Thomas Barlow, a lecturer at Oxford in the 1640s, was fervent in his belief that certain foods were forbidden in scripture. In his 1652 tract, Triall of a Black-Pudding, he noted that rabbinical law had prohibited the eating of blood among the Hebrews. Although, he argued, the Apostles had later rescinded the Jewish dietary laws set down in Leviticus, the ban on eating animal blood was retained (specifically in Acts, 15). While the eating of an animal’s flesh was allowed, God, Barlow asserted, forbade the consumption of blood because it was “the life and soul of Beasts” (Shapin, 2007). To consume an animal’s God-given life-force was a blasphemy. The absence of blood at the dinner table was as important to Barlow as it is would be in kosher or halal diets, and he maintained that the consumption of black pudding was anti-Christian.
Those of the period who had received a classical education would have first encountered through studying the works of Greek and Roman authors. These writers argued that the philosopher Pythagoras had abstained from flesh, and the Roman historian Plutarch wrote that he was "astonished to think, on the contrary, what appetite first induced man to taste of a dead carcass" (quoted in Nichols, Vegetarian Cookery). Others found their own, more individualistic, reasons to turn vegetarian. In 1646 the Anglican divine Thomas Edwards published Gangraena, a rambling and repetitive catalogue of heresies associated with the mood of religious toleration that had emerged among Parliamentarians during the civil war. Among the beliefs Edwards considered heretical were those that appeared to show an undue affection toward animals. The author cited examples of people who believed: “God loves creatures that creep upon the ground as well as the best saints”; who believed “there shall be in the last day a resurrection from the dead of all the brute creatures, all beasts and birds that ever lived upon the earth “and that it was “unlawful to . . . kill any of the creatures for our use, as a chicken” (Rudrum, 2003). Edwards cited a Hackney bricklayer named Marshall, who insisted that it was unlawful to kill any living creature because life itself was God-given. This kind of ethical vegetarianism reported by Edwards was quite different to the theological argument espoused by Barlow. Edwards clearly disapproved of vegetarianism, primarily because such views were based on a highly individualistic reading of the Bible that was discouraged by the established church, but which formed a good deal of Puritan opposition to Charles I and the Anglican liturgy. It is possible, then, to observe a correlation between independent religious thought, political persuasion and a vegetarian diet: if one was vegetarian in the 1640s it was likely that one was also a Parliamentarian.
The vegetarianism of Thomas Tryon (1634-1703) was among the most complex and considered of this period. Apprenticed to an Anabaptist in 1650s London, Tryon, like Crab, came to vegetarianism through a spiritual revelation, feeling compelled to follow “an abstemious self-denying life . . . My drink was only water, and food only bread and some fruit” (Smith, 2004), though he later reverted to eating butter and cheese. When in later years Tryon published his personal philosophy in a series of highly popular writings, he urged readers to “eschew things derived from violence” and the death of “fellow creatures” (ibid.). It was Tryon's belief that violence toward animals stemmed from the “Dark and Stygian Degeneracy and Separation, from the Divine Power and Union” (Rudrum, 2003), the detachment of man from God that had occurred with the expulsion from Eden. Tryon considered vegetables to be “indisputably innocent”, and a vegetarian diet for him was a way of retracing the path to Eden – it was popularly supposed that Adam and Eve had been vegetarians before the fall, living solely off the "herb bearing seed" (Genesis, 1:29-30). Tryon summed up the health benefits of a meat free diet in his assertion that meat-eaters were "digging their Graves with their own Teeth" (Smith, 2004).
Crab and Tryon both emerged from a background of Baptist puritanism, and indicate a link between vegetarianism and the religious Independents who formed a good deal of Parliamentarian support against Charles I during the Civil War.
16th century physician, Thomas Moffett, had praised the amount of meat that was consumed in England: "Let us give God thangs [sic] for storing us with Flesh above all other Nations". Moffett had proclaimed England's slaughter houses to be the envy of Europe, "yea verily rather of the whole World" (Guerrini, 2011). By the end of the 17th century, however, the consumption of flesh had been questioned by the independent religious thought espoused by the Civil War puritans.
Robert Hodkinson, January 2016 (revised, 2020)
Bowers, R. (2003), “Robert Crabb: Opposition Hunger Artist in 1650s England”, The Seventeenth Century, 18:1 (2003)
Guerrini, A. “The English Diet: Roast Beef and… Salad?”, History Today, 61: 2 (2011)
Hailwood, M. (2013) “Eating Animals: A Bit of History”, The Many-Headed Monster [online] https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/eating-animals-a-bit-of-history/
Hessayon, A. “Crab, Roger (c.1616-1680)” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2004)
Nichols, T. L. Vegetarian Cookery (1888)
Rudrum, A. “Ethical Vegetarianism in Seventeenth-Century Britain”, The Seventeenth Century, 18:1 (2003)
Shapin, S. “Vegetable Love”, in: The New Yorker (January 2007), pp.80-84
Smith, V. “Tryon, Thomas (1634-1703)”, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2004)