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  • A Diet for a Sensitive Soul: Vegetarianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Anita Guerrini (bio)

While vegetarianism has a long history in Western culture, it reemerged forcefully in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. Three main motivations for vegetarianism converged in this period: religious, medical, and moral. In addition, a vegetarian diet entered mainstream medical and popular thought in the works of the physician George Cheyne. By the time of Joseph Ritson’s Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food in 1802, however, vegetarianism was about to rejoin the irrational fringe, exemplified in the nineteenth century by Sylvester Graham and his followers. 1

In this essay, I shall focus on three vegetarians of the period: the radical hatter Thomas Tryon (1634–1703), George Cheyne (1671–1743), and the man of letters Joseph Ritson (1752–1803). Cheyne’s work, especially his Essay of Health and Long Life (1724) and The English Malady (1733), defined the nascent concept of the sensitive character and explicitly connected it to diet and lifestyle. To Cheyne, a vegetarian diet was preeminently a diet for the sensitive soul. Over the century, the sensitive soul negotiated a path from the overtly religious Tryon to the covertly religious Cheyne to the professedly antireligious Ritson. To each, in addition, vegetarianism was part of a wider critique of contemporary society.

Tryon was one of a number of religiously motivated vegetarians in the period following the English Civil War. 2 The context of his ideas can be delineated by examining an earlier exemplar of them, Roger Crab (c. 1621–80). In the 1650s, Crab abandoned his haberdashery (hatters and radicalism seemed to have had a symbiotic relationship) for “a small Roode of ground.” According to the publisher of his rambling and curious 1655 pamphlet, The English Hermite, or, Wonder of this Age, this small plot of ground provided both Crab’s habitation (in “a mean Cottage of his own building”) and sustenance, for “his dyet is onely such poore homely foode as his own Rood of ground beareth, as Corne, Bread, and bran, Hearbs, Roots, Dock-leaves, Mallowes, and grasse.” What was “most strange and most to be admired” about Crab’s “Hermeticall kinde of life” was his refusal to eat meat or drink alcohol. His publisher referred to the imitation of the life of Christ and the prophets, but Crab’s own explanation of his motives was more complex. 3

He repeated the common belief that Adam was a vegetarian, and that meat-eating was a consequence of the fall: “Thus we see that by eating and drinking we are swallowed up in corruption.” 4 Like medieval ascetics, Crab rejected the body or “the old man,” as the site of sin: “Therefore let us put off the old man with his fleshly Laws, which reached no farther than the government of earthly bodies.” Killing animals for food also replayed the murder of Christ, often represented as a lamb. Therefore, butchers were inclined to violence; but those who bought the meat were equally so: “Mars being the god of War, is the governour of these destroyers: [End Page 34] and while he can get flesh to feed on, he will encrease his desires to destroy flesh.” Yet in the midst of his fulminations against the godless, Crab also addressed the health risks and expense of eating meat. His experience during the Civil Wars had shown him that meat and alcohol would “inflame...blood, venom...wounds, and encrease...disease.” The title page of his pamphlet announced that he could “live with three Farthings a week”; and like the Levellers, he condemned those who “drank in one day as much as a bushel of barly will make, which will keep two ordinary families a whole week in bread” (pp. 2, 4, 7). 5

Tryon, somewhat Crab’s junior, took advantage of the outpouring of vernacular literature during the Interregnum and studied theology, astrology, alchemy, and medicine. In the late 1650s, he embraced the works of the German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575–1624), who rejected formal religion in favor of individual illumination. 6 According to Tryon’s own account, “The voice of Wisdom...called upon me for separation and self-denial” and led him to drink only...

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