Vegans In The Middle Ages | The History of Veganism Part Two


The Middle Ages, also referred to as Medieval
Times, the more-world-inclusive “Postclassical Era” or the Dark Ages comprise roughly the
time between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE and the end of
the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. Still, the exact dates of
what we call the Middle Ages remains hotly debated within a historical scholarship. What
is less hotly, if at all, debated is the question… …were there vegans? Hi it’s Emily from Bite Size Vegan and welcome
to another vegan nugget. In the History of Veganism Part One we covered Ancient Times.
Today we’re moving into the Middle Ages, the specific dates of which, as I mentioned,
are still being debated. For the purposes of this video we’ll stick to the late 400’s
to around 1500 CE. Well from now on everything is CE – so that’s much simpler! If you haven’t seen Part One I’ll quickly
recap some disclaimers: First, I will most definitely leave out important events and
people, as all historical accounts are bound to. Though not intentionally. Of course, we’ll
never know who and what escaped documentation. [Cough]…Women Second, and in a similar vein, despite my best
efforts I will mispronounce names and other things. Third, if I or anyone finds errors in this
video- or any of my videos in fact- I will keep a log of them on the blog post, which
is also where you can go to find all of my sources for everything I state today and further
reading. Fourth, as the term “vegan” wasn’t coined
until 1944, historically the word “vegetarian” most often meant what we now call “vegan.” Fifth, and this is actually specific to this
video only: In reality, the term “Middle Ages” really only applies to Europe with
the term “Postclassical Era” more accurately encompassing that time period on a global
scale. But as “Middle Ages” and “Medieval Times” and “The Dark Ages” are far more
recognizable terms, I chose to identify this video the way that I have. With all of that out of the way, onwards to: [booming voice] – The History of Veganism! Part Two The Postclassical Era or whatever you want
to call it, is characterized by the development of three of the great world religions, namely
Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The rise of trade and military contact between civilizations,
and invasions from Central Asia. As with Part One, the vast majority of examples in this
video will be linked to religion. This is an historical account and religion is a part
of history, especially in this era. Islam was the dominant religion, though
Christianity and Buddhism also flourished, primarily in the West and East respectively.
China expanded its influence into Japan and Korea with the spread of Buddhism and Confucianism.
Trading began to grow, and ideas were exchanged along with goods. As we often saw in ancient times, and now
to a far greater extent, the vegans and vegan-ish of the Middle Ages were- by the majority- motivated
by religious purity, digestive health, simplicity and inexpensiveness over any particular moral
conviction. There existed a variety of beliefs about abstention from eating animals and one’s
personal level of immaculateness. For example, meat consumption was linked to gluttony and
rampant sexual desires amongst early Christians and abstaining was thought to quell these
vices. Abstention itself was often viewed as piety through self-denial. In his text “The Ethics of Diet: A Catena
of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating” from 1883, Howard Williams
paints a less-than ideal picture of the Middle Ages in regards to ethical veganism stating:
“we look in vain for traces of anything like the humanitarian feeling of Plutarch
or Porphyry [who were late Greek philosophers we covered in The History of Veganism Part One] The mental
intelligence as well as capacities for physical suffering of the non-human races – necessarily
resulting from an organisation in all essential points like our own – was apparently wholly
ignored; their just rights and claims upon human justice were disregarded and trampled
under foot…they were treated as beings destitute of all feelings…In those terrible ages of
gross ignorance, of superstition, of violence, and of injustice – in which human rights were
seldom regarded – it would have been surprising indeed if any sort of regard had been displayed
for the non-human slaves”. As Williams sets forth, this period of time
seems to be somewhat sparse on ethical discussions and reliable research in regards to veganism,
at least that I could find in the time I had. As a result of the nature of the information
I could find, this video will follow less of a linear structure than the last and instead
concentrate more on specific divisions both by religious beliefs and philosophical reasoning. Let’s begin with the Medieval Christians.
There is a widely-held belief, at least online, that the majority of the early Christian fathers
were vegan, or at least vegetarian. I found many compelling-sounding quotes that, when
traced to their source and more fully evaluated, were not the gems of vegan extolling they
were purported to be. While many of these early Christian men valued
asceticism, they denounced the complete prohibition of meat, wine, and sex championed by Marcionites,
Manichaeists, those still ascribing themselves to the Pythagorean belief of transmigration,
and more extreme ascetics. There are some, however, like St. Anthony who survived solely
on bread, salt, and water, and later in life, olives, pulse, oil, and possibly dates. And he lived
until the ripe age of 105 years old. Not too shabby for a desert-dwelling vegan monk. Though there were exceptions, the general
thrust of the early Church leaders was a turning away from the strict prohibition of meat in
what they saw as a truer adherence to Christ’s teachings over old superstitions and heresy.
St. Augustine made a rather startling remark on the matter in his writing “On
the Morals of the Manichaeans,” a group we also covered in part one, saying “You’re
abstaining from the slaughtering of animals and from injuring plants is shown by Christ
to be mere superstition…We see and hear by their cries that animals die in pain, although
man disregards this in a beast, with which as not having a rational soul, we have no
community of rights”. Basically meaning, because animals don’t
display rational thought in a way that we can appreciate, we might as well ignore their obvious cries
of pain. Or more simplified: they’re different so they don’t matter. Sound familiar? Of
course Augustine, after his conversion, lived as a strict vegetarian except when he’d
go into town occasionally, though his reasons were largely ascetic in nature. Now really getting into the Middle Ages, sometime
between 529 and 547, Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Christian monk, wrote The Rule of Saint
Benedict, a book of precepts for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot,
which continues to be used by those in the Benedictine order. Regarding food, St. Benedict
stated that there would be two meals available a day with only two kinds of cooked foods
unless fresh fruit and vegetables were available, at which point a third could be added, and
“all except the very weak and the sick abstain altogether from eating the flesh of four-footed
animals.” This again reflects the ascetic abstention from animals, which is a spiritual
rather than moral issue. Jumping ahead quite a bit within the Church
we come to St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the Christian most associated with
vegan-ness and the patron saint of animals. It was said of St. Francis that “he walked
the earth like the Pardon of God” rescuing lambs from their fate in the marketplace,
rabbits from the hunter’s snare, pleading the case of mistreated creatures before popes
and kings. While many claim that St. Francis was a strict vegetarian, the evidence is simply
not there. However, that should not discount his work
calling for the respect and protection of animals, which reaches into modern times with
Pope John Paul II calling for us to follow the example of St. Francis “who looked upon
the creation with the eyes of one who could recognize it in the marvelous work of the
hand of God. His solicitous care, not only towards men but also towards animals…We
too are called to a similar attitude…It is necessary and urgent that with the example
of the poor man of Assisi, one decides to abandon unadvisable forms of domination, the
locking up of all creatures.” Sadly, the rather brash philosophy of Augustine
seemed to take precedence and was echoed and expanded by Thomas Aquinas in the 1200’s. Aquinas brought together Greek philosophy and Catholic tradition, which basically became
the official doctrine of the Roman Church in regards to animals, releasing people from
any guilt they might feel for harming other beings. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas brought
forth such gems as: “”Dumb animals and plants are devoid of
the life of reason whereby to set themselves in motion; they are moved, as it were by another,
by a kind of natural impulse, a sign of which is that they are naturally enslaved and accommodated
to the uses of others.” And “”He that kills another’s ox, sins, not through killing
the ox, but through injuring another man in his property,” very much laying the ground
for thinkers like Descartes, who we will encounter in Part Three. Interestingly enough, Aquinas
did speak out against outright cruelty against animals, but for the sake of humans, not the
animals themselves cautioning that “cruel habits might carry over into our treatment
of human beings.” Now sadly, the Rule of St. Benedict wherein
monks were to abstain from meat, at least from the four-footed animals did not hold
up over time. Historian Christian Hibbert states that “meat, once provided only for
the sick, was now enjoyed by all in the infirmary; and when this was forbidden by papal statute,
a ‘misericorde’, ‘the chamber of mercy’, between the infirmary and the refectory, where
meat was freely allowed on the table. This, too, was prohibited by papal statute; but
in 1339 the pope, recognizing that the prohibition was unenforceable, conceded that the monks
might continue to relish their meat in the ‘misericorde’ provided that only half
their number did so at a time, and the other half maintaining the vegetarian rule elsewhere.” Which all seems like a bargaining game of
semantics in the end. As we saw in the beginning, the early Christian fathers’ condemnation
of the complete abstinence from meat was driven by the desire to disassociate from other spiritual
sects they saw as heretical rather than due to any actual alignment with Christ’s teachings.
Of course once humans are given leave to indulge, we typically do. There is, however, some light towards the
end of the Dark Ages of the Christian Church in Sir Thomas More. In his landmark
work “Utopia” he condemns hunting stating: “Hunters also and hawkers (falconers), for
what delight can there be, and not rather displeasure, in hearing the barking and howling
of dogs?…if the hope of slaughter, and the expectation of tearing the victim in pieces
pleases you, you should rather be moved with pity to see an innocent hare murdered of a
dog – the weak by the strong, the fearful by the fierce, the innocent by the cruel and
pitiless.” Unfortunately, More doesn’t completely ban
slaughter in his Utopia, leaving it instead to criminals who had been degraded from the
rights of citizenship. But the Utopians do not perform ritual slaughter, as he states:
“they kill no living animal in sacrifice, nor do they think that God has delight in
blood and slaughter. Who has given life to animals to the intent they should live.”
And, almost 500 years before the documentary Cowspiracy, More decried the land use required
by the animals products industry stating: “They (the oxen and sheep) consume, destroy,
and devour whole fields, houses, and cities…they enclose all into pastures, they throw down
houses they pluck down towns; and leave nothing standing but only the church, to be made a
sheep house; For one shepherd or herdsman is enough to eat up that ground with cattle.” And finally, More argues against the objection
still cited today “well that’s what we’ve always done” stating: “‘These things’
say they, ‘pleased our forefathers and ancestors – would to God we could be so wise as they
were!’ And, as though they had wittily concluded the matter, and with this answer stopped every
man’s mouth, they sit down again as who should say, ‘It were a very dangerous matter, if
a man in any point should be found wiser than his forefathers were.’ “ Basically meaning:
just because it’s what we’ve always done, doesn’t mean it’s the best idea. Now shifting gears a bit, in Part One we spoke
a good deal about the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, many of which were vegetarian and some who
even espoused arguments echoed by today’s vegans, such as Plutarch’s pointing out
that our bodies aren’t designed for the consumption of flesh and Porphyry, in who’s
writing we found the first strictly ethical argument for veganism over 2,200 years ago. So what happened to the descendants of this
school of thought? Well the Neoplatonic Academy was shut down by Emperor Justinian I in his
attempt to stamp out anything seen as a religion outside of Orthodoxy. According to historian
Agathias, the dispersed neo-Platonists, with as much of their library as could be transported,
found temporary refuge in the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, and afterwards at Edessa, which
just a century later became one of the places where Muslim thinkers encountered ancient
Greek culture and took an interest in its science and medicine. This leads us into the House of Wisdom or
Bayt al-Hikma and the Islamic Golden Age, which is believed to have started somewhere
between 786 and 809 and ended with the sack of Bagdad in 1258, though some scholars place
the end into the 15th and 16th centuries. The Golden Age of Islam was a time when the
Muslim world experienced scientific, cultural, and economic flourishing, and the House of
Wisdom was a major intellectual center during this period, bringing forwards much of the
philosophy from Greco-Roman culture through the translating of all scientific and philosophical
Greek texts available. The Quran itself, which is the holy book of
Islam, said to have been revealed to the prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years, from the
22nd of December 609 and concluding in 632, the year of his death, contains passages which
can be interpreted as inline with vegan ideals. Sura 6:38 states: “There is not an animal
(that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities
like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to
their Lord in the end.” And 24: 41: “Seest thou not that it is Allah Whose praise all
beings in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds (of the air) with wings outspread?
Each one knows its own (mode of) prayer and praise, and Allah knows well all that they
do.” There are also various verses which emphasize
the use of fruits and vegetables to sustain both humans and animals alike (Sura 6:141,
16:67, Sura 23:19) And evidence that animal sacrifice is not
a means to absolution or salvation: “Their flesh and their blood reach not Allah,
but the devotion from you reacheth Him.” (Sura 22:37) There also exist various hadith, which are
collections of reports of the teachings and deeds of Muhammed, whereas the Quran was said
to have been relayed to him by God. The hadith are widely accepted as part of Islamic teachings.
Though the proposed dates of their composition ranges from the time of Muhammed’s life to
200 years following his death. I’ll list some of the more striking hadiths.
Those without reference numbers were ones whose exact origin I was unable to find, so
take those with a grain of salt: “It behooves you to treat the animals gently”
(Hadith Muslim, 4:2593), “A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious
as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as
an act of cruelty to a human being” “Do not allow your stomachs to become graveyards!” “All creatures are like a family (Ayal)
of God: and He loves the most those who are the most beneficent to His family.”
““He who takes pity {even} on a sparrow and spares its life, Allah will be merciful
on him on the Day of Judgment.” “Allah will not give mercy to anyone, except
those who give mercy to other creatures.” Now Sufism is a more mystical branch within
Islam, of which many followers extolled the virtues of vegetarianism. 15th century poet
Kabir Sahib, simultaneously revered by Sufis, Yogis, Hindus, and Sikhs and belonging to
all by his own accord wrote of his ethical objection to eating animals:
“O Muslims, I see you fasting during the day,
But then to break your fast you slaughter cows at night.
At one end is devotion, at the other murder. How can the Lord be pleased? My friend, pray cut the throat of anger,
And slaughter the ravages of blind fury, For he who slaughters the five passions,
Lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride, Will surely see the Supreme Lord face to face.” Kabir wasn’t the first poet to speak out
against animal consumption, however. Enter the ethical, non-religious poet of Medieval
Times: the blind poet Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri Originally from Syria, he spent
time in Bagdhad during the Islamic Golden Age, fiercely decried the teachings of any
religion, calling them a “fable invented by the ancients” and was, in his own words,
a “pessimistic freethinker.” He lost his sight to smallpox at the age of four and began
his life as a poet around 11 or 12, often writing scathingly against the consumption
of animals in the most vegan of Middle Ages poetry: “Thou art diseased in understanding and
religion. Come to me, that thou mayst hear the tidings of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat what the water has given up, [i.e. fish] and do not desire as food
the flesh of slaughtered animals. Or the white (milk) of mothers who intended
its pure draught for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking their eggs; for injustice is the worst
of crimes. And spare the honey which the bees get betimes
by their industry from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others, nor did they gather it for bounty
and gifts. I washed my hands of all this; and would that
I had perceived my way ere my temples grew hoar! [i.e. hair became grey…] Interesting that it takes a man who cannot
see to bring light to the Dark Ages. Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri is basically laying down
the tenants of veganism to the extent, or even more so, that we heard in Porphyry’s
writing that closed out Part One. This excerpt is from a set of correspondences between Al-Maʿarri
and Abí ‘Imrán who wanted an explanation for Al-Maʿarri’s abstention from animals,
very likely to try and pull a theological reasoning from him as asceticism was the
only widespread motivation for such practices. Abí ‘Imrán even brings forth the argument
that animals eat other animals, so God must intend for us to. And now we’ve found the true gem of the
Dark Ages: the genesis of the compelling argument still so effectively employed today, over 1,000
years later: “Lions Tho.” In his text Studies in Islamic Poetry, R.A.
Nicholson states that Maʿarri wrote many passages preaching abstention from meat, fish,
milk, eggs, and honey “on the plain ground that to partake of such food is an act of
injustice to the animals concerned, since it inflicts unnecessary pain upon them.”
He even goes so far as to speak out against the wearing of animal skins, advocated for wooden
shoes, blames “fine ladies who wear fur,” and speaks out against hunting saying:
“Hunt not the beast; O, be thou more humane, Since hunter here nor hunted long remain;
The smallest grub a life has in it which Thou canst not take without inflicting pain.
The wooden shoes I do like just because That skin did once live, aye, and even think.” Now if that’s not veganism, I don’t know
what is. It’s not entirely clear where Al-Maʿarri
came across such concepts, though it’s speculated that he encountered Buddhist and Jainist influences
is his time in Baghdad. Of course Nicholson rightly points out that one doesn’t necessarily
have to have “gotten” these kind of ethical convictions from anywhere other than one’s
own conscience. Now to our final leg of the Middle Ages: Buddhism,
Confucianism, and Taoism. As we saw in Part One, Chinese Buddhism, and Taoism in the late
4th century, required that monks and nuns eat an egg free, onion free vegetarian diet.
We also spoke briefly of Emperor Tenmu, who actually reigned in the Middle Ages from 673
to 686. In 675, Tenmu banned the consumption of meat due to Buddhist influences. This ban
was renewed by succeeding Emperors throughout the Asuka period of classical civilization. The vegetarianism of Buddhists in the Middle
Ages and throughout time is always debated, with some practitioners incredibly strict
and others consuming all matter of animal products depending on the school of thought. Within Buddhism exist many Sutras, or sermons
of the Buddha, some with strict vegetarian/vegan rules and others with more laxness where diet
is concerned, though none so far as I could find advocating the slaughter of animals. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist
Scripture most likely written in the first century but translated and disseminated in
the Middle Ages is purported to be the final teachings of the Buddha on the eve of his
death and fiercely rejects the consumption of any meat, even going so far as to say vegetarian
food touched by meat should be washed before eating and picking meat out of a dish is not
sufficient. Reasons for abstention reign from frightening
other animals: “all creatures can recognise a person who eats meat and, when they catch
the odour, they are frightened by the terror of death. Wherever that person roams, the
beings in the waters, on dry land or in the sky are frightened. Thinking that they will
be killed by that person, they even swoon or die. For these reasons, Bodhisattva-mahasattvas
do not eat meat.” To more ethical decrees that meat eating “cuts
off the seed of Great Kindness” The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra written between
350-400 but translated and disseminated in Medieval China in the 600s, is another text
of Mahayana Buddhism which also speaks out thoroughly against the consumption of animals
with passages like: “When I teach to regard animal flesh eating
as if it were the eating of an only child or as an intoxicant, how can I allow my disciples
to eat food consisting of flesh and blood, which is gratifying to the unwise and which
is shunned by the wise, which brings about much harm and keeps away many benefits? Animal
flesh eating was not part of the wisdom the ancient Rishis and was not meant to be
appropriate food for any human being.” And more health-centric passages as:
“Let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, totally refrain from animal flesh eating.
Those who eat animal flesh sleep uneasily and when they awake in the morning are distressed…They
are never satisfied. Their diet is not attuned to what is appropriate in taste, digestion,
and nourishment…They cease to believe that they can become free from all diseases and
do not have a clear aversion towards all the causes of diseases.” Also of great importance in China and Asia
in the Middle Ages were Taoism and Confucianism. While Confucianism doesn’t have any explicit
teachings on animals per se, Mencius, an influential follower of Confucius said that kindness or
love should be extended to all things living based upon the fact that the “inability to
bear the suffering of others” being a distinguishing character of humans. Mencius’ insights were further developed
by the Neo-Confucianists of the Sung Dynasty and taken even further by Wang
Yangming, of the Ming dynasty though the fact remained that Confucianism
was largely anthropocentric, meaning seeing humans as the most significant species on
the planet…wait…has there been a modern resurgence of Confucianism? Is that’s what’s going on? Now Taoism, as I said earlier, often mirrored
the practices of the Buddhists with at least the Chinese monks and nuns abstaining from
meat and eggs and essentially eating a vegan diet within their abbeys. Taoism’s founder
Lao Tzu taught that everything alive in the universe (plants, animals, and people) shared
in a universal life-force. Though founded in the 4th century BCE, formal Taoist schools
started forming and flourishing in the Middle Ages. Dr. Louis Komjathy, a professor of Theological
and Religious studies states that “we find at least three important views concerning
and types of engagement with animals [in classical Taoism]: (1) emphasis of importance of
freedom and wildness or animal flourishing, whether human or “non-human”; (2) criticism
of the human tendency to distort the natural state of animals and in the process, distort
their own innate nature and inner power; and (3) recognition of animals and other dimensions
of Nature as potential teachers of human beings. In classical Daoism, and especially in the
Primitivist lineage, it thus appears that humans may be the least realized when it comes
to expressing their innate nature. In order to return to their original connection with
the Dao [the Way], humans may observe animals and other living beings for guidance.” The Taoist text the Zuangzi states that domesticating
animals can cause a practitioner to lose the capacity to embody the Tao: “Horses and
oxen have four feet—this is what I mean by celestial. Putting a halter on the
horse’s head, piercing the ox’s nose—this is what I mean by the human. So I say: do
not let what is human wipe out what is celestial; do not let what is purposeful wipe out what
is fated.” With the organization of Taoism prior to and
throughout the Middle Ages, early Taoist communities rejected blood sacrifices which were standard
within China. Unfortunately this did not extend to their personal diets as “Historical sources
indicate that animal slaughter, blood sacrifice, and meat consumption were excluded from early
Daoist ritual contexts but that daily communal life still involved eating slaughtered animals.”
Priests and those wanting to purify themselves, however, would adopt and/or maintain a vegetarian
diet. Though it comes from far before the organization
of Taoism and the persistence of animal consumption, I’ll leave you with a beautiful passage
of Zuangzi analysis by Dr. Komjathy: “As one begins to renounce an instrumentalist
and desire-based existential mode—as one begins to return to one’s original condition
of attunement with the Dao—one may then accept animals and other organic beings as
one’s teachers. According to the Zhuangzi, one may learn carefree wandering from birds. One may learn joy from fish, embodied in spontaneity and playfulness. One may learn the possibility of a more expansive
perspective from sea turtles. One may also learn the value of uselessness
from old, gnarled trees.>From a classical and foundational Daoist
viewpoint, these are the lessons learned from close observation of Nature, of the Dao manifesting
in the world and everything in existence. If one recognizes this value and wishes that
such lessons be available to others, one must work to preserve wild places and make space
for the wild being of animals. They are essential to animals flourishing. They are necessary
for human participation in the Dao. The Zhuangzi in turn urges one to imagine a world free
of cages, corrals, hooks, lures, nets, pens, snares, and traps. I hope that you enjoyed this look into the
Medieval times of veganism. The time it took to produce this video clocks
in at about [71 hours] over a period of about 4 and a half days..so basically…doing a
lot of this…and this… If you’d like to help support Bite Size Vegan so I can keep
putting in the long hours to bring you this educational resource, please check out the
support links in the video description below where you can give a one-time donation or
receive perks and rewards for your support by joining the Nugget Army- the link for that
is also in the iCard sidebar. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the
Dark Ages of vegan development. There was some backsliding it seems but also some rays
of light amidst it all. Let me know your thoughts in the comments! If you enjoyed this video, please give it
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Monday, Wednesday, and some Fridays, and to not miss out on the rest of the vegan history
series- next time we’re moving into semi-modern times and back to a more linear format.
And hey, check out some of my other videos while you’re here including Part one. And remember,
extra resources and citations for everything I talked about are in the blog post for this
video linked up below and in the sidebar. Now go live vegan, make history, and I’ll
see you soon. First, I will most definitely leave out important events…bli..la..la..la The Qur’an itself which is the holy bowl…blaaaah There are also variest verses which…which The blind Poet Abul ‘Al… Abul ‘Ala Al… Abul ‘Ala Al-Maʿarri Abul ‘Ala Al-Maʿarri Anthropocen… Anthropocentric Anthropocentic…tric Anthropocentic…..Anthro..po..cen..tic…tric Throughout the Asuka period of classic sil…sil…lalala…Oh my god! In the Islamic Golden Age which is believed to sal…lalala…ahhhh! Subtitles by the Amara.org community