Eating Animals: A Bit of History

Mark Hailwood

The recent horsemeat scandal – demonstrating just how crooked much of the meat industry is – has provided vegetarians with some potent new ammunition for those well-trodden dinner-table debates with their carnivorous cousins. But who can claim to have history on their side? Both parties offer up arguments based on our historical relationship with eating animals: meat-eaters often reach all the way back to our hunter-gatherer origins to suggest that quaffing down animal flesh is an inherent part of human nature; veggies refute the necessity of eating meat, pointing out that for most of human history the vast majority of the population have subsisted well enough on the peasant diet of bread, beer, cheese and vegetable stew, with meat being both an elite luxury and a rarity until the twentieth century.

Meat-munching caveman

Meat-munching caveman

Bruegel's Peasant Wedding: beer and broth all round! (via wikimedia commons)

Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding: beer and broth all round! (via wikimedia commons)

What do early modern English sources suggest about the history of eating animals? Elites were certainly capable of putting their meat away, and both quantity and variety were the order of the day. At the wedding of his daughter in 1582, Lord Burghley served up the following over three days of feasting: 6 veal calves, 26 deer, 15 pigs, 14 sheep, 16 lambs, 4 kids, 6 hares, 36 swans, 2 storks, 41 turkeys, over 370 poultry, 49 curlews, 135 mallards, 354 teals, 1,049 plovers, 124 knots, 280 stints, 109 pheasants, 277 partridges, 615 cocks, 485 snipe, 840 larks, 21 gulls, 71 rabbits, 23 pigeons and 2 sturgeon. No horse though.[1]

More surprisingly, Craig Muldrew has recently shown that even the poorer members of society were eating considerable amounts of meat—those involved in physical labour such as farm servants or agricultural labourers routinely consumed between 1 and 2 pounds of meat a day in the seventeenth century, the equivalent of a 16 ounce steak or two! [2] One mid-eighteenth century guide to running a farm advised that workers be served at breakfast with ‘minced Meat left the Day before’ with ‘a mixture of shred Onions and Parsley’; at lunch some ‘Broad Beans and Bacon or Pork one day, Beef with Carrots… another day’; and after some bread and cheese in the afternoon a dinner of ‘pickled Pork boiled hot with Broad Beans’.[3]

Hogarth's 'O the Roast Beef' (via wikimedia commons)

Hogarth’s ‘O the Roast Beef’ (via wikimedia commons)

The range of meats consumed by the ‘peasants’ was not as extensive as that served up at aristocratic feasts – the staples for the lower orders were pork, bacon, mutton, and most of all, beef. Indeed, the idea that beef was a particularly central foodstuff to both the English diet and identity dates from at least the sixteenth century. The physician Andrew Boorde wrote in 1542 that ‘Beefe is a good meate for an Englysshe man’ and ‘it doth make an Englysshe man stronge’, [4] and this association of the English with beef was well-entrenched by the time William Hogarth produced his 1748 painting, ‘O the Roast Beef of Old England’, which you can see depicted an English innkeeper lugging a huge hunk of beef past an envious looking French monk and a group of hungry-looking French soldiers eating a watery broth.

It seems quite possible that Hogarth was right to depict their high meat consumption as something that set the English apart from their continental neighbours. Fernand Braudel has shown that Europe in general was very carnivorous in the fifteenth century, but the population growth and higher food prices of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused a decline in meat consumption for all but the elite. The English seem to have bucked this trend, and European visitors often remarked on the meat-eating propensity of the English.[5]

198The peasants and the poor of early modern England were eating more meat than the conventional stereotype of such groups would suggest – but it is not the case that all of our early modern forebears saw eating animals as natural and unproblematic. Thomas More wasn’t exactly a vegetarian, but he did express a view that ‘slaughtering our fellow creatures gradually destroys the sense of compassion, the finest sentiment of which our human nature is capable’. Taking pleasure in slaughtering animals sprang from ‘a cruel disposition, or else finally produces cruelty, through the constant practice of such brutal pleasures’. In his imagined society, Utopia, all killing and butchering of animals was to be done by slaves outside of the city, to prevent good citizens being desensitized to cruelty by regular exposure to slaughter: as his marginal note put it, ‘By butchering beasts, we learn to slaughter men’.[6]

Thomas Tryon, pioneering veggie

Thomas Tryon, pioneering veggie

Whist More seems to have felt some unease about the tension between Christian compassion and the killing of animals for sport or food, he nonetheless thought the latter was a necessity. Not so the Gloucestershire hatter, popular author, and non-conformist Thomas Tryon, who was an early advocate of vegetarianism. In 1657, at the age of 23, he heard an inner voice that he named the ‘Voice of Wisdom’, a revelation that caused him to henceforth ‘forbore eating any kind of flesh or fish, confining myself to an abstemious self-denying life’. He abhorred any violence against man or animal, and exhorted his readers to ‘eschew things derived from violence, and therefore be considerate in eating Flesh and Fish, or any thing not procured but by the death of some of our fellow creatures’. Instead he encouraged his readers to ‘content themselves with the Delicacy of Vegetables, which are full as nourishing, much more wholesome, and indisputably innocent’. Meat-eaters were, he claimed, ‘digging their Graves with their own Teeth’.[7]

So, whose side is history on? Well, historically meat has played a far more central role in the English diet right across the social scale than the conventional perception of soup-guzzling peasants might convey. The modern argument that meat-eating is a necessity would have resonated with many early moderns. On the other hand, vegetarians can lay claim to some early modern fellow travellers, and can argue that history shows us that those who have ruminated most deeply on the issue have usually seen the eating of animals to some extent at odds with the best of human nature, rather than an intrinsic and innate component of it.[8]

[1] Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965), p.560.

[2] For more on food consumption in early modern England see Craig Muldrew’s excellent recent book, Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness, Work and Material Culture in Agrarian England, 1550–1780 (Cambridge, 2011), which provided the inspiration for this post, and directed me to a number of the examples cited here.

[3] William Ellis, The Country Housewife’s Family Companion (London, 1750), pp.71-2.

[4] Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Health (London, 1542), ch.16.

[5] Braudel, Civilisation and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries, Volume I: Structures of Everyday Life (1979).

[6] More, Utopia, Book II

[7] For more on Tryon, see wikipedia or the ODNB.

[8] If you think this is too strong a claim to base on two examples, let me add John Foxe, Sir Matthew Hale, Richard Baxter and Sir Isaac Newton to the list of those who felt deep unease about eating animals. See Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World (1983), section on ‘Meat or Mercy?’

13 thoughts on “Eating Animals: A Bit of History

  1. If the Great Chain of Being teaches us anything it’s that vegetarianism is a sin against the divine order: God has ordained that animals should eat plants, humans should eat animals, angels should eat humans … wait, maybe not.

    More seriously, I’ve always thought it was interesting that in the early modern period the word ‘meat’ actually could mean any kind of food, including animal fodder, whereas ‘flesh’ meant what we call ‘meat’. I wonder if that tells us anything about attitudes to meat-eating then and now? Perhaps people would view meat differently if they referred to the animals they eat as ‘flesh’?

    • As Chris points out below, there has long been a degree of disconnect in English between signifier and signified when it comes to labeling the animals we eat, and early moderns seem to have used the terms ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ as well as sometimes the more direct ‘flesh’. They may not have avoided terms like flesh as we do, but they didn’t always opt for direct descriptors. They were much more intimate with the slaughtering process than most of us are today though, and appreciated that these were slaughtered animals they were eating. This does seem to have produced a degree of aversion, even if it didn’t put people off entirely. Adam Smith, for instance, thought the trade of butcher ‘a brutal and an odious business’, and many commentators found the slaughtering process ‘cruel, bloody and greasy.’

      As for the Great Chain, it is interesting that it depicts birds and fish above the four-legged animals: early modern elites did tend to see the former two as superior forms of meat.

      • On the signifier/signified issue, perhaps it is just my over-active imagination, but didn’t early moderns tend to eat meat that still looked like the animal more often than we do? I’m thinking of whole roast pigs, sheep heads, birds served with their heads still attached, etc. I’m sure the ever-growing literature on early modern recipes would discuss this. In any case, presumably this suggests something about changing attitudes too. I know personally people who are quite happy eating meat only if it no longer looks anything like an actual animal.

      • I’m not sure about this – perhaps at feasts, but I think the labouring classes tended to eat their meat in broths and stews. Perhaps I should do a follow up post on eating habits and types of dishes eaten.

  2. A timely post! I was under the impression – probably informed by a historical urban myth – that the names used for meat – beef, mutton, pork – came from the French and were imported to England by the French nobility after 1066. Do you know if this is correct?

    • Brodie’s comment above got me wondering about precisely this question Chris – where do our indirect labels for meats come from? I didn’t know, but according to _The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language_ (Fourth Edition, 2000) – a reference found via wikipedia, I should confess – your theory is correct.

  3. Somebody else might be able to fill in the details, as I can’t track down the reference, but I’m sure I remember reading from some sixteenth century divine that vegetarianism was the prelapsarian human condition, so before the fall we lived quite happily off herbs and fruits, but that after the fall, humanity needed to eat meat to sustain their broken and deficient natures.

    • Thomas refers to this in ‘Man and the Natural World’ (p.289 in my edition). Apparently all theologians agreed that man had not been carnivorous in Eden, but there was some dispute about whether humans became meat-eaters after the Flood or after the Fall, and whether this was a result of the degeneration of man’s physical constitution meant new forms of nutriment were needed; whether cultivation of the soil required a more robust diet; or whether the fruits and herbs munched in Eden had lost their goodness after the Fall.

  4. Pingback: Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster

  5. I just came across a reference in Eprraim Pagitt’s ‘Heresiology’ (London, 1662) to one Dorothy Traske, a very succesful schoolteacher from Fleet Bridge who refused to teach school children on a Saturday, which she believed was the true Christian Sabbath. For these views she was imprisoned in the 1640s, and she eventually died in jail. Whilst in prison ‘she eat [sic] no flesh, nor drank wine, but water only for many years together’.

  6. Pingback: What flesh eatest thou? A missing child and a suspicious meat pie in 1645 | the many-headed monster

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