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THE HERETIC’S FEAST September - October 1998 Issue

A History of Vegetarianism

Colin Spencer

Colin Spencer is a well-known novelist and playwright who lives in Sussex England. And because he brings considerable writing talent to this book, his overview of the social, religious, and physiological implications of vegetarianism makes fascinating reading.

In the foreward to his book, the author tells his readers that before he began to do the necessary research, he was only vaguely aware of the history of vegetarianism: "Like many others, I thought that the vegetarian movement was a contemporary phenomenon. I had no idea that the issues which agitate so many today--a hatred of unnecessary slaughter, the concept of animal welfare, our own physical health, the earth's balance and hence its ecology--would have been perfectly understood in the ancient world, certainly as early as 600 BC."

The reason for this lack of information about the subject, even among the well-educated, stems from the fact that the vegetarianism of famous people of the past is ignored by most historians/writers. This holds true even when there is ample evidence that refusing to eat the flesh of other creatures was an important factor in a person's life.

In researching his book, Spencer found that although more than sixty biographies of Leonardo da Vinci were available at the London Library, only one discussed his vegetarianism. This refusal to eat the flesh of other creatures was a corollary of Leonardo's compassion for nonhuman beings. Contemporary accounts of his life give details of his habit of freeing caged birds from the marketplace, where they would have been sold for food. And excerpts from his writings further confirm the revulsion he felt for the way that humans treated nonhuman beings. Leonardo decried the fact that men seemed to compassionately supervise the birth and development of baby calves, lambs and kids, only to tear them away from their grieving mothers, in order to kill and eat them. "In countless numbers their little children will be taken away and the throats of these shall be cut and they shall be quartered most barbarously."

And it was Leonardo who referred to the stomachs of men as graveyards for nonhuman beings. He castigated them for raising animals and providing for them, only in order to consume their flesh: "[O, man} thou dost help them only in order that they may give thee their children for the benefit of your gullet, of which thou hast attempted to make a sepulchre for all animals."

Leonardo's compassion for animals and his under-standing that vegetarianism is a necessary corollary of that compassion, is a significant aspect of who he was. Yet in all the popularized accounts of his life, this very significant belief is ignored.

The vegetarianism of other famous men is also ignored. Plutarch, the Greek writer, biographer, and historian, (A.D. 46-120) wrote passionately and extensively about his horror of killing animals and consuming their flesh. He attributed this practice to greed and also linked a vegetarian diet to improved health because it was a "natural" way of eating. But you can be quite knowledgeable about the life of Plutarch and never be given the least hint of his passionate defense of animals, or of the revulsion he felt because of the greed of men who lusted after their flesh.

The refusal to eat flesh was considered sinful and heretical

The list of those whose vegetarianism has been ignored is extensive. But unlike historians who ignore the importance—and even the existence—of vegetarianism, it has been a matter of great concern to some religious groups. Such groups have periodically conducted "witch hunts" to try and uncover the existence of those who abstained from flesh. They were considered heretics and their heresy was punishable by death. However, there is an interesting exception to this condemnation of vegetarianism. It was only heresy when it was entered into for other than ascetic reasons. The self-control and self-discipline of asceticism was admired by the orthodox church which considered it a sure sign of serious intent to overcome human sinfulness. But to abstain from meat for any other reason was sinful: it was heresy.

In a series of pronouncements made in 1163-67, against the doctrines of one heretical group—the Cathars— Eckbert of Schonau (1163-67) wrote: “Second Heresy: avoiding meat. Those who have become full members of their sect avoid all meat. This is not for the same reasons as monks and other followers of the spiritual life refrain from it."

Thousands of Cathars were murdered for their beliefs. And one of the tests their inquisitors used to determine their guilt was to insist that the accused eat a piece of meat. If the person categorically refused to do so, their heresy was confirmed.

Vegetarianism has been demonized, trivialized, or disregarded throughout recorded history. But it has also been passionately promoted and practiced as a necessary step in the spiritual, ethical, and moral development of the human race.

The Heretic's Feast traces the story of vegetarianism,* and the reaction against it, from antiquity to the present time. The author also traces the inextricable counterpart of this history: man's attitude toward, and treatment of, other kinds of beings.

Spencer's book is not a polemic against those who have hidden or obscured the fact that eating the flesh of other creatures has been a very important issue in the development of human society. Rather, the book is revelatory: it uncovers much that has been hidden. And in spite of the great scope of this book, it reads like a good historical novel, rather than an academic tome.

*The term ”vegetarianism” was first used in 1840.

The Heretic’s Feast by Colin Spencer. University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 1995. 402 pages, Available in hardcover and paperback from bookstores.

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