Carnivorous Protestants and Radical Vegetarianism in Early Modern England

By Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

L0000657 Portrait of Roger Crab.

A meat-free diet is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. The number of vegans, for instance, who avoid all animal products as well as meat, has more than tripled since 2006.[1] Increasing awareness of environmental issues caused by the meat industry, concerns about animal welfare, new claims about healthy living, and greater access to a variety of foodstuffs, are among the driving forces of this trend. In the social media age, trend seekers aspire to the meat-free diets of several high-profile celebrities and the copious crafted-snaps of vegetarian and vegan #foodporn on Instagram. Most recently, comedian Simon Amstall’s ‘mockumentary’, Carnage, envisaged a utopian vegan future (2067) in which now-elderly meat-eaters repent their carnivorous past. Yet, whilst the term ‘vegetarian’ was not coined until 1847, the question of whether or not to kill for food has concerned human societies across history.

In early modern England, Protestantism inherited a long-held Christian conception that meat-eating is central to the God-given hierarchy of nature. This had a Biblical precedent, as contemporary physicians like Thomas Moffett (1553-1604) pointed out. Genesis gives dominion to humans over animals (Genesis 1:26), and after the Flood it is declared, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you’ (Genesis 9:3). In fact, the Medieval Catholic Church had seen those who chose to avoid meat ordinarily as a threat to the established religion. In medieval France, for instance, the Inquisition tirelessly tracked down and burnt heretical Cathars, who were known for their meat avoidance.

Yet, the Catholic Church also sanctioned abstinence from flesh as a religious penance in monastic diets, and for the populace in the weekly fast days (Friday, Saturday and variably Wednesday), and the periods before Easter, Christmas, and other holy days. After the Reformation, the English Crown continued to enforce these routine religious days of abstinence.

This, however, was increasingly problematic for Protestant preachers and writers, who reemphasised the teachings of St Paul to claim that all foods could legitimately be consumed. Matthew 15:11 was most often quoted: ‘Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man’. As Elizabethan writer Edward Jeninges declared, ‘the eating of fleshe or forbearing to eate fleshe, is not anie matter or thing concerning saluation of man’, which was granted sola fides (in faith alone) rather than in worldly acts.[2] The number of fast days was reduced, along with the worship of Catholic saints which they necessitated, and monastic abstinence was lost in the dissolution of the monasteries.  The avoidance of meat was increasingly no longer an accepted expression of Protestant religosity.

Meat-eating, particularly beef, was also central to English national identity in the early modern period well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his Haven of Health (1584), English physician Thomas Cogan argued that ‘beife of all flesh is most usual among English men…the common consent of all our nation doth sufficiency prove’. English travel writers persistently compared their beef and meat-based diet, a sign of their honesty and sincerity, to that of the pomp and temptation of the Italian and their ‘sallets’ and fruits.[3]

Those who sought a vegetarian diet in early-modern England were therefore unsurprisingly few in number. One of them, Thomas Bushell (1594-1674), a student of Thomas Bacon, moved to live in a cave on the Calf of Man and lived on a diet of herbs, oil, water, and honey. Bushell adopted religious arguments to support his dietary choice. He imagined that a vegetarian diet was closer to that of the Garden of Eden, and believed that mirroring this diet could bring about paradise on Earth, as had many ascetics before him, like St Jerome.[4] Similar ideas were central to the radical Protestant and largely vegetarian sect, the ‘Ranters’, who appeared after the Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century. Important among them was John Robins (fl. 1641-52), who claimed that he was the new Adam sent to recreate Eden on Earth. Roger Crab (1621-1680), who published radical vegetarian pamphlets, likewise preached that sinful meat-eating should be excluded from a Christian life.  

Some early-modern arguments for a meat-free diet sound more familiar today. Although Bacon was not a vegetarian, he expressed a concern for animal welfare, arguing that compassion could be granted to animals, without denying humankind’s God-given dominion over them. Like Crab, Bacon also thought that a meat-free diet was healthier; the Bible claimed that before the Flood people had lived up to 900 years without consuming meat. In his Utopia (1516), Thomas More (another carnivore) put forward a quasi-environmental reason for vegetarianism in his imagined idyllic community:

“They [the oxen and sheep] consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities…. For one shepherd or herdsman is enough to eat up that ground with cattle, to the occupying whereof about husbandry many hands would be requisite”. [5]

The practice of vegetarianism, however, was associated with religious transgression in early modern England. Bushell feared that his hermit-like lifestyle would lead to accusations of  Catholicism. Both Robins and Crab were suspected of Judaism and the ‘Ranters’ movement was condemned.

In the early modern period being a vegetarian was a radical choice. Some English Protestant reformers fought against the religious necessity to abstain from meat, whilst beef consumption was presented to the wider-world as essential to ‘Englishness’. Today meat and beef consumption is deeply ingrained in English identity, and it continues as the centrepiece of the traditional Sunday meal. Dependent as it would be on the dissolution of these long held beliefs about food, the creation of the meat-free ‘utopia’ equally envisaged in the sixteenth century by Thomas More and today by Simon Anstell, would be far from a simple task.



[2] Edward Jeninges, A briefe discouery of the damages that happen to this realme by disordered and vnlawfull diet, London, 1590), STC2 14486, p. 27

[3] Thomas Olsen, ““Poisoned Figs and Italian Sallett: Nation, Diet and the Early Modern English Traveler,” in Luigi Monga (ed.), Annali d’italianistica, 21 (2003), 233-54.

[4] Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London, 2012).

[5]  Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (London, 1993), p. 186.



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