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.
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.
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!  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’.
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’,  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.
The 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’.
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’.
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.
 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965), p.560.
 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.
 William Ellis, The Country Housewife’s Family Companion (London, 1750), pp.71-2.
 Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Health (London, 1542), ch.16.
 Braudel, Civilisation and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries, Volume I: Structures of Everyday Life (1979).
 More, Utopia, Book II
 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?’