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Vegetarianism and Romanticism

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Vegetarianism and Romanticism

Vegetarianism and Romanticism refers to the rise of vegetarianism during the Romanticism movement in Western Europe from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. England, Germany, and France were most affected by the turn to a predominantly meatless diet during this time. Vegetarianism during the Romantic Period was ubiquitous and widespread, stemming primarily from literary influence as well as from new ideas about anthropology, consumerism, and evolution. Vegetarianism in the Romantic Period may also have been influenced by views on humanism developed during the Age of Enlightenment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Romantic literary personalities who gave impetus to the shift to vegetarianism included Percy Shelley in his A Vindication of Natural Diet, Mary Shelley, Alexander Pope, Thomas Tryon, Lord Byron and Joseph Ritson.


Though the establishment of the Vegetarian Society begins in 1847, vegetarianism as a practice dates back long before the formation of this organization. Until the creation of the Vegetarian Society, vegetarians were referred to as Pythagoreans.

Romantic writers like Percy and Mary Shelley, Alexander Pope, Thomas Tryon and Joseph Ritson were promoters of vegetarianism. In her Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley depicts The Creature of Dr. Frankenstein as a vegetarian. In an emotional speech the Creature tells how he will live in his self-imposed exile in South America.

My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human."

Essays and other literary works written by these influential Romantics supported a meatless diet. With ideologies rooted in Romantic aesthetics of compassion and communion with nature, these writers found the consumption of meat sacrilegious and inhumane. With the industrial revolution came a rebellion against the mass market economically centered consumerism that flourished during this period. Romantics favored a more primal communion with nature that had nothing to do with currency or economics. Increased prices on meat products, a result of profit-driven markets, and the growth of humanitarian feelings towards both human and animal rights led to a rise in vegetarianism. During the eighteenth century, with more varieties of vegetables available, practicing a meatless diet became much easier to maintain. Nearly every large town in Western Europe now had numerous gardens fully supplied with fruits and vegetables. Between the new accessibility of meat alternatives, Romantic ideals of nature and humanism, and the desire to rebel against consumerism and class distinctions, the vegetarian movement had begun.

Enlightenment and Humanism

The vegetarian movement has a beginning during The Enlightenment when a shift in European attitudes towards justice, liberty, freedom, and brotherhood appears. The adoption of these new attitudes not only were applied to humans but were extended to all of god's creatures. John Locke thought that observation of animals showed that animals too could communicate, feel pain, and perhaps express emotion. Humanitarianism was extended to the animal kingdom because it was felt that there was little difference separating humans from the creatures. Moved by Locke's arguments people started to think that animals and humans were in some way interconnected. Being unkind toward animals man would most likely be unkind towards his fellow man With such principles in mind, vegetarianism became the proper response, one fueled by both humanitarianism and compassion.

Economics and Consumerism

Timothy Morton noted that, "by the Romantic period 'the consumer' had been born as an economic subject," classifying humans as commodifiable entities for market and economic profit. The shift to a meatless diet was seen by many as a way to distinguish oneself from an increasingly consumerist society fueled by industrialized living and profit-driven market conglomerates. An all-plant diet regime allowed those opposed to the present economic practices to exercise protest against consumerism by refusing the purchase of meat products. Romantic vegetarianism was a product of resistance to the "culture of luxury" which wove its way into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With literary reformists like Shelley carrying the flag, the public turned to vegetarianism. Meat had become a symbol of consumerism, so the Romantics, in an attempt to alleviate the oppressive nature of man and politics, boycotted such consumption. Meat had also become a symbol of class separation, with wealthy class consumers demanding red meat, and lower-class families eating potatoes and vegetables. In order to oppose such social separations, a number of individuals from various classes sought to remove meat consumption, therefore removing such class distinctions in the process. Essentially, vegetarianism became a radical response to a consumer-based pseudo-culture driven primarily by commercialization and market profit. The vegetarian movement established a Romantic form of consumerism that rejected raising meat prices in a newly market-driven mass society.

Evolution and Nature

The eighteenth century brought with it new ideas of evolution and nature. Society now saw the environment and the organisms within it as more physically, biologically, and even emotionally complex. Biologists began to study the embryonic development and differences in individual organisms. With these new studies came new insight on the relationship between human and animal. French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon addressed ideas of common ancestry in his Histoire naturelle stating that many scientists believed “that man and ape have a common origin; that, in fact, all the families among plants as well as animals, have come from common stock”. Theories of Charles Darwin, who claimed that all species were descended of common ancestors, also became prevalent in the early and mid-nineteenth century. These new scientific ideas stirred a great response from Romantic writers and members of European society who now began to see animals and man as interconnected.

Anthropology and Physiognomy

In his Moral Essay upon Abstinence (1802), Joseph Ritson claimed "how unnatural flesh-eating is to human physiognomy and how such a diet of blood will engender ferocity in those who consume it". He and other Romantics saw the eating of animals as a violation of nature. Such views on anthropology and physiognomy contributed to the vegetarian movement in Western Europe because of societal desires to both connect with nature, as well as to remain somewhat connected to the past. Much of Romantic literature displayed themes centered on the evocation of the past. Early Romantics, facing a new, modern, shiny, machine-driven world hoped to maintain older values of religion, nature, and imagination by establishing and maintaining attachments to earlier history. A way to maintain this connection with earlier, less mechanic human beings was revert to previous diet practices, and it was thought that the more primitive humans had sustained themselves on a diet closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. Romantic writers including Ritson, Shelley, and Pope perceived the movement to vegetarianism as a way of returning to nature, reclaiming history, and turning away from animal or carnal savagery. Shelley promoted this idealist principle in A Vindication of Natural Diet, writing, "It is a man of violent passions, blood-shot eyes, and swollen veins, that alone can grasp the knife of murder...In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury: in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial". Fueled by literary Romantics like Ritson and Shelley, vegetarianism became a substitute for what had been deemed to be a savage, physiologically conflicted practice of blood consumption.

Thomas Tryon

Thomas Tryon (1634–1703), an English merchant and author, was one of the earliest supporters of vegetarianism. He established a connection between carnivorous eating habits and slavery, claiming both were immoral and inhumane. He argued that the eating of flesh was never for necessity, but rather a means for man to satisfy his hunger for dominance. According to Tryon, the killing and consumption of animals is nothing but an assertion of power over innocent, defenseless animals.

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was another literary influence on the practice of vegetarianism. In The Guardian, Pope’s essay, “Against Barbarity to Animals,” paints a gruesome picture of animal slaughter. He writes, “I know nothing more shocking or horrid than the prospect of one of their [the humans’] kitchens covered with blood, and filled with the cries of creatures expiring in tortures”. Pope viewed the slaughter of animals as an exercise of tyranny. Like Tryon, Pope believed animal consumption was the product of man’s desire for dominion over all those inferior. He too put considerable blame on Enlightenment influences of politics, profit, and industrialization and he advocated in favor of vegetarianism as a means of rebelling against such tyrannical urges.

Joseph Ritson

Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), an English antiquary, was a radical vegetarian. Besides his arguments on physiognomy and anthropology in relation to a pro-vegetarian lifestyle, he also saw vegetarianism as a means of preventing medical ailments, advocating vegetarianism as a means of living to a “green old age”. In his “Essay on abstinence from animal food, as a moral duty,” he argued that the a complete abstinence from meat consumption would cure any human disease or medical ailment. He also argued that the practice of consuming your “fellow creatures” was cruel and unnecessary. He emphasized the unfeeling emotions associated with animal slaughter and the resulting disconnect from nature that it caused. A pursuer of Romantic ideals and aesthetics of nature, Ritson classified the hunting and killing of animals as pure “blood sport,” an act that demoted humans to a savage and diabolical existence. He argued that the pursuance of this “sport” only further corrupted humans’ natural temper and turned one away from the appreciation of the sublimity of nature.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) aligned most of his views on vegetarianism with those of Ritson. Like Ritson, Shelley believed that a meatless diet was the best mode of consumption for a healthy, disease-free life. He believed that human disease could be alleviated by a simple reversion back to a plant-based diet. The eating of meat, to Shelley, was a practice that polluted the body with syphilis, among other unpleasant ailments. In A Vindication of Natural Diet he wrote, "Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits," these unnatural habits being the consumption of meat. He compared the negative effects of a meat-based diet to alcoholism, asking, "How many thousands have become murderers and robbers, bigots and domestic tyrants, dissolute and abandoned adventurers, from the use of fermented liquors?". He goes on to suggest that, a human of gentle disposition towards animals, "rising from a meal of roots," will be a healthy man whose only threat of death will be that of his own natural, old age.


Vegetarianism and Romanticism Wikipedia