BOOKS: Vegetarianism: A History
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2004:
Vegetarianism: A History by Colin Spencer
Four Walls Eight Windows (39 W. 14th St,, New York, NY 10011),
2004. 384 pp., paperback. $16.00.
Until recent times, the history of vegetarianism was also
the history of religion and politics. The first two thirds of Colin
Spencer’s book describes the evolution of humanism and political and
religious influence on meat-eating.
Until the 18th century, vegetarianism in Europe was usually
equated with radicalism and heresy. During the Albigensian Crusade
against the vegetarian Cathari, who from about 1150 until circa 1250
challenged the primacy of Catholicism in southern France, alleged
heretics were required to prove their innocence by eating meat.
Spencer relates how “heretics” were brought before the
Emperor: “Among other wicked Manichean doctrines, they condemned
all eating of animals and with the agreement of everybody present,
he ordered them to be hanged.”
Circa 500 years B.C. the Greek philosopher and mathematician
Pythagoras was viewed with suspicion, though treated with greater
tolerance, when he openly abjured flesh. Pythagoras cited his belief
in the health benefits of vegetarianism, and his hope that
vegetarian societies would be less inclined to wage war. The basis
of his vegetarianism, however, appears to have been a belief in the
transmigration of souls (reincarnation).
There were other prominent vegetarians in classical times.
Ovid praised the golden age when “No blood stained men’s lips until
some futile brain envied the diet of the lion and gulped down a feast
of flesh to fill his greedy guts.”
Spencer traces Christian acceptance and even promotion of
cruelty toward animals and “heretics” back to Genesis. When the
flood receded, God reportedly told Noah that, “The fear of you and
the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon
every fowl of the air. Into your hands are they delivered.”
Spencer also ascribes Christian attitudes to a reaction by
Jews who had escaped from Pharaoh’s Egypt against Egyptian animism.
For them there could be no worship of animals, no sacred bull or
golden calf, and no anthropomorphism.
From Pythagoras and Plutarch to modern times, Spencer
pursues the elusive thread of his subject, showing how even the
ancients understood what we now know to be scientifically proved:
that meat eating is unhealthy; that the human body is designed to
digest a vegetarian diet; and that the eating of meat causes
unacceptable cruelty to animals.
The early chapters make for heavy reading, and might be
shortened, but the last two chapters are superb. The final chapter
in particular, which deals with the modern history of vegetarianism,
should be expanded.
Covering the 20th century in Britain, Spencer explains how
and why vegetarianism broke free from social and dogmatic restraints
and became not only accepted but part of the social mainstream. News
media and entertainment continue to educate the public about the
evils of factory farming, genetic modification of animals to make
killing them more profitable, the use of harmful additives to
preserve meat, and the horrors of slaughter.
Spencer describes how Ethiopia continued to export grain to
Europe in order to feed cattle during the last drought, while
millions of Ethiopians died from hunger. He concludes that eating
meat not only impoverishes the Third World, but can be described as
Spencer blames Christianity to a large extent for the western
addiction to meat eating, but Dominion author Mathew Scully
maintains that those who attribute meat eating to Christianity give
up more ground than they gain and that in fact the Scriptures, when
properly interpreted, oppose meat eating and the cruelty that goes
Keith Akers in The Lost Religion of Jesus (2001) concluded
that Jesus’ conflict with the Temple priests focused on his
opposition to animal sacrifice, citing a wealth of evidence from the
Sufi and Judaic traditions, and from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many others have made similar arguments during the past 200
years, increasingly well-supported by archaeology and scholarship.
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan