Veganism’s about to get Medieval. The Middle Ages were also known as the Dark Ages, and with good reason, if you were vegan. So what exactly was the “vegan scene” of Medieval Times? Learn about the pushback from the Christian Church, Islam and more.
- Were There Ethical Vegans in the Middle Ages?
- Medieval Christianity and Dietary Ethics
- Mainstream Medieval Views on Non-human Animals
- Thomas More: A Change in Direction
- Veganism in the Islamic Golden Age
- Vegan Ethics in Medieval Poetry
- Vegan Threads Within Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism
- In Closing
The Middle Ages, also referred to as medieval times, the more-world-inclusive “Postclassical era” or the Dark Ages1 comprise roughly the time between the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 CE2 and 1453, with the end of the Eastern Roman empire with the fall of Constantinople.3 Still, the exact dates of what we call the middle ages remains hotly debated within historical scholarship. What is less hotly, if at all, debated is the questions: Were there vegans? [tweet this]
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’s 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 cough)
Second, 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 bottom of this blog post.
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 that out of the way, onwards to: The History of Veganism! (part two) <– you really should watch the video for my dramatic delivery.
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.4
As we often saw in ancient times, and now to a far greater extent, vegans and the vegan-ish of the Middle Ages were–by 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.5 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 [ both 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 feeling…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.”6 [tweet this]
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 Saint Anthony who survived solely on bread, salt, and water, and later olives, pulse, oil, and possibly dates.5 And he lived until the ripe age of 105 years old.7 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. Saint Augustine (354-430) 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:
“Your 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.”8
Basically meaning because animals don’t display rational thought in a way 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.5
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, Saint Benedict stated 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.”30 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 Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), perhaps the Christian most associated with vegan-ness and the patron saint of animals. It was said of Saint 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.9 While many claim that Saint 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 Saint Francis:
“Who looked upon the creation with the eyes of one who could recognize in it 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.”10
Sadly, the rather brash philosophy of Augustine seemed to take precedence and was echoed and expanded by Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s (1225 – 1274). 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.”
“He that kills another’s ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property.”11
Very much laying the groundwork for thinkers like Descartes, whom we will encounter in part three. Interestingly enough, Aquinas did speak 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.”11
Now sadly, the rule of Saint Benedict wherein monks were to abstain from meat, at least from the four-footed animals (except for the sick or infirm strangely enough) 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, the other half maintaining the vegetarian rule elsewhere.”12
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 toward the end of the Dark Ages of the Christian church in Sir Thomas More (1480-1535). In his landmark work, Utopia (1516), 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.”13
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.”13
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; or one shepherd or herdsman is enough to eat up that ground with cattle.”13 [tweet this]
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 then his forefathers were.'”13
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 whose 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 Neo-Platonic academy was shut down by Emperor Justinian the first 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 afterward, 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.14
This leads us into the house of wisdom or Bayt Al-Hikma and the Islamic Golden Age, which is believed to have started sometime 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.15 The Golden Age of Islam was a time when the Muslim world experiences in 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.16
The Quran itself, which is the holy book of Islam, said to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammed over a period of 23 years, from the 22nd of December 609 and concluding in 632, the year of his death17, contains passages which can be interpreted as in line with vegan ideals. [tweet this] 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.”
“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 (Surah 6:141, 16:67, Surah 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.” (Surah 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 range from the time of Muhammed’s life to 200 years following his death.18
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.” (Hadith Mishkat, book 6, ch. 7, 8:178) [tweet this]
“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.”
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.”19
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 (973–1058). Originally from Syria, he spent time in Baghdad during the Islamic golden age, fiercely decried the teachings of any religion, calling them a “fable invented by the ancients”20 and was, in his own words, a “pessimistic freethinker.”21 He lost his sight to smallpox at the age of four21 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., wish I figured this out before my hair became grey…]”22
Interesting that it takes a man who cannot see to bring light to the Dark Ages. [tweet this]
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 effectively employed today, over 1,000 years later:
“Lions tho.” [tweet this]
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 wooden shoes, blames “fine ladies who wear furs,” 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 best because
that skin did once live, aye, and even think.”22
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 he encountered Buddhist and Jainist influences is his time in Baghdad. Of course, Nicholson 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.23 This ban was renewed by succeeding emperors throughout 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 manner 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 found 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 Ages24 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.25
Reasons for abstention ranged from frightening other animals:
“All creatures can recognize 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.”25
To more ethical decrees that meat eating “cuts off the seed of great kindness.”25
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 of the ancient Rishis and was not meant to be appropriate food for any human being.”25
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 awaken 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.”25
Also of great importance in China and Asia in the Middle Ages were Taoism and Confucianism. While Confucianism didn’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 daily based upon the fact of the “inability to bear the suffering of others” being a distinguishing characteristic of humans.
Mencius’ insights were further developed by the Neo-Confucianists of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) and taken even further by Wang Yang-Ming, of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).26 Though the fact remained that Confucianism was largely anthropocentric, meaning seeing humans as the most significant species on the planet.
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, 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 starting with the Tianshi school at the end of the 2nd century, to the Shangqing school during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) to the Lingbao school, which unfolded its greatest influence during the Song dynasty (960–1279), to the Quanzhen school founded in the 12th century and flourishing in the 13th and 14th century, which during the Yuan Dynasty to became the largest and most important Taoist school in northern china.27
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 on the importance of freedom and wildness for animal flourishing, whether human or “non-human”;
(2) Criticism of the human tendency to distort the natural state of animals and in the process to 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.”28
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 the 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.”29
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.”28 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 persistence in 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 Shuangzi, one may learn carefree wandering from birds [chapters 1, 3, and 12]. One may learn joy from fish [chapter 17; also chapters 6 and 10], embodied in spontaneity and playfulness. One may learn the possibility of a more expansive perspective from sea turtles [chapter 17]. One may also learn the value of uselessness from old, gnarled trees [chapters 4, 20, and 24]. From a classical and foundational Daoist viewpoint, these are the lessons learned from close observation of nature, of the Dao manifesting through 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 animal 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. [chapters 1, 3, 10, 18, 20, and 23].”28 [tweet this]
I hope that you enjoyed this look into the medieval times of veganism.
The time it took to produce this video post clocks in at about 70 hours. If you’d like to help support Bite Size Vegan so I can keep putting in the long hours to bring you this educational resources, please consider supporting this vegan educational mission with either a one-time donation or, to receive perks and rewards for your support join the Nugget Army!
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!
And stay tuned for the remaining videos in this series as we move into semi-modern times!
— Emily Moran Barwick