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Lent – a fast solution to a 200-year vegetarian push

Lent

Rare books curator Dr Karen Attar gets her teeth into one of Senate House Library’s recent acquisitions.

As an undergraduate, I read Old Icelandic. In one of the mediaeval family sagas a character renounces meat for Lent, and people travel from all over Iceland to marvel at him and his continuing welfare.

It is Lent again, and meat is a fairly common food to renounce between Ash Wednesday and Easter – now in a society in which vegetarianism, far from being regarded as a curiosity, is an actively encouraged lifestyle. In this blog post I want to look at a book added a couple of months ago to Senate House Library’s catalogue.

It was printed in Manchester in 1795, 14 years before the Rev William Cowherd led a coalition of Mancunian Christians who pledged to abstain from consuming meat and alcohol, and 52 years before the Vegetarian Society was formed and the word ‘vegetarianism’ replaced ‘Pythagorean diet’ in the English language.

The book, Remarks on Cruelty to Animals, is a modest anonymous publication: modest as a provincial production and modest in size, as a 54-page duodecimo (two-and-a-half sheets) of eleven by eight centimetres. It appeared as part of a miscellany with John Gregory’s famous A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters and with a medley of writings gathered together as Preceptive, Moral and Sentimental Pieces. The idea was that the reader would be attracted to one work and go on to peruse the others.

Remarks on Cruelty to Animals makes a clarion call: ‘Man, be humane!’ it exhorts on the title page, quoting Rousseau’s Emile. The writer addresses himself emotively to: ‘the feeling and sympathising few whose opinions have not been formed on implicit belief of common acceptation; whose habits are not fixed by the influence of false and pernicious maxims or corrupts; who are neither deaf to the cries of misery, pitiless to suffering innocence, nor unmoved at recitals of scenes of violence, tyranny and murder (p2).’

He begins by pointing out that whereas plants grow everywhere, animal food is a luxury, and that many people were already vegetarian or nearly vegetarian for financial reasons: ‘The peasantry … even of England, that most carnivorous of all countries, can seldom afford to eat flesh’ (p3).

After noting the value of agriculture as softening the human heart and promoting the love of peace, justice, and nature, he expounds with lists of precedent, detailing how the ancients were vegetarians. Passing to the question of health, he states that children who are breastfed by vegetarian nurses are less subject to worms and cholic than babies with carnivorous breast-feeders, as ‘animal substance in putrefaction swarms with vermin, which a vegetable substance does not’ (p8).

He follows this up with a description of food microbiology for adults, concluding: ‘Animal food, and made artificial liquors, in the original frame of our nature, and design of our creation, appear not intended for human creatures’ (p13). And even more strongly: ‘Animal food overpowers the faculties of the stomach, clogs the functions of the soul, and renders the mind material and gross’ (p14). Vegetarianism, by alluring contrast, promotes long life, physical strength, good health.

Next, the writer asserts that killing animals is unnatural, as we do not like spilling blood: if we had to witness the death of animals, we should be less keen on eating meat (cf Paul McCartney: ‘If abattoirs had glass walls, then we would all be vegetarian.’).

He provides numerous examples from various sources about animals being sentient, reasonable, and principled. This levels the difference between man and animals to regard animals as kinsmen and to stress again that animal slaughter is murder. Unable to eat raw meat, we cook it to disguise the murder.

In the final paragraph the writer, using John Oswald’s words, turns back from decrying carnivorousness to urging vegetarianism: ‘To this primitive diet Health invites her votaries. From the produce of the field her various banquet is composed: hence she dispenses health of body, hilarity of mind, and joins to animal vivacity the exalted taste of intellectual life. Nor is Pleasure, handmaid of Health, a stranger to the feast’ (p53).

Vegetarianism had been advocated by some writers and practitioners since ancient times, and Remarks on Cruelty to Animals makes no claim to originality. Rather, it revels in its lack of it, with the title page advertising in its summary of contents ‘Quotations from history’.

Wide historical, literary and religious references and quotations, whether taken from first-hand reading or at a remove, abound to bolster its argument, extending in the longest example to three pages from Dryden’s translation from Ovid (‘O mortals! From your fellow’s blood abstain…’). Sources range from ancient writings to new publications. Porphyrus’s work on abstinence, from the 5th century BC, features early on.

The writer relies heavily on John Oswald (1730–93), whose Cry of Nature: An Appeal to Mercy and Justice on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals (1791) had a wide following. On the way he draws from Cowper’s poetry, George Sales’s translation of the Qur’an, Buffon’s Natural History, James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775), Peter Simon Pallas’s Account of the Different Kinds of Sheep Found in the Russian Dominions (1794), and advice on health by the medical practitioner George Cheyne among others.

The work appeared three years before Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which surely would have been quoted if the order of publication had been reversed. Published a few years later, it might have added the late-18th-century economic argument that arable farming is a more productive use of land than breeding livestock. The environment does not play a role. Nonetheless, the book’s arguments are both ancient and utterly modern, as the most perfunctory of web searches on why to be vegetarian speedily demonstrates.

Back to the look of the book: it must have been cheap, and it was easily portable. Might Cowherd have read and been influenced by it, so that it ultimately affected a broad movement? We shall never know.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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The University of London’s oldest printed book turns 550
Christmas with the Mayhews
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King Lear: 400 years of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s great tragedy
Joyful tidings: 175 years of Christmas cards
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Celebrating the 450th anniversary of the ‘Bishops’ Bible’ 
Queen Victoria’s journal reveals her rosy view of Scotland
Shakespeare scintillation: Senate House Library’s first folios
From daily sermons to satire, the rediscovered musings of a long-lost German polymath

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