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Vegetarian Week

May 24, 2010

May 24th starts the annual vegetarian week which usually passes unnoticed by most human omnivores. However, in schools and at events I’m often asked about whether there were vegetarians in earlier periods. Obviously it’s impossible to give a categorical answer as there is no firm evidence. It’s easy to cite Evelyn’s warning  ‘to beware of green sallets’ but there are a number of early recipes  dating from The Forme of Cury onwards which have vegetables as their main ingredient. Going back further, both the authors of Apicius and Pliny the Elder cite the benefits of eating both fruit and vegetables. For the vast majority of working people in England in the Middle Ages, they would eat what they could grow or find around them. Thus pottage was the basis of most meals, a soup that could be thick (‘stondynge’) or thin (‘runnynge’). Thickeners included a variety of whole grain –  barley, spelt wheat, rye, oats – whatever could be grown in a particular area. Generally wheat could only be grown in an arc which centred on the South East and through to Norfolk, and cooler and wetter areas grew other grains, with oats the main cereal crop in Scotland. However, during the mini ‘ice age’ of the Middle Ages the weather was so poor that wheat failed as fields routinely flooded and froze during the winters. Added to this pottage would be seasoning: for the wealthy this could include, apart from meat and vegetables, a variety of exotic spices such as cubebs, long pepper, ginger etc, but for the poor the flavour would be from their cultivated crops. Beans, like broad beans, not runner beans which came later from the new World, peas, and a huge variety of now little used pot herbs: chervil, pennyroyal, lovage, thyme, etc, all bulked out with vegetables like onions, cabbage and kale. A wide range of what we now consider weeds were also valued as potherbs. These included stinging nettle (but only the tops and they will make your mouth feel furry afterwards), fat hen (which has been found in the stomach analysis of Tolund Man), chickweed etc.

The church also played a large part in determining diet. Nearly a third of the days in each year were deemed to be fasting days. This was supposed to encourage abstinence, but realistically since it was meat that was prohibited, people got around the restrictions in a variety of ways. Fish was the obvious substitute, fresh if possible, alternatively dried or salted if it could be afforded. Salted dried fish was imported in vast quantities from Scandinavia. Although it is still eaten widely in a number of countries it’s impossible not to feel sympathy with the medieval schoolboy who wrote that no one could believe how very tired he was of salt fish as they had eaten it every day for the last three months.

For the wealthy, avoidance of the Church’s rules was easier. Many manors had their stew ponds, as did most monasteries, but a helpful church ruled that animals like beavers were technically fish as they spent their lives swimming in water. This ruling also covered porpoise – those these technically all belonged to the king. In times like Lent  when people were supposed to refrain from eating eggs or any dairy produce as well the table would have looked meagre: Spring would not be sufficiently advanced to offer much from the hedgerows, and stored grain could well be running low. Again the wealthy got around this restriction by substituting almond milk for cows milk and carried on as normal.

For Medieval householders then, killing an animal would be a major event. Meat was a prized meal moment in an otherwise rather monotonous and largely vegetarian diet. It would mark major events and celebrations, and every bit was used. Umble pies, made from innards, blood for blood (black) puddings, the skin for boots, pouches, even bottles, and what could not be eaten immediatley would be salted or dried for later consumption.

Large households got through conspicuous amounts of meat, which accounted in part for the enthusiasm for the hunt. Deer, hares, wild boar, as well as small birds and waterbirds brought down by hawks all helped to swell and vary the availability of fresh meat provided by the rabbit warrens and pigeon houses.

One reason for being a vegetarian these days is to register against the perceived cruelty of raising  animals only to slaughter and eat them. However, in the Middle Ages, when the animals might well be herded under  the same roof shared by the humans, or a man could be hung for poaching to get something to feed his family, issues of kindness would hardly be paramount. As the centuries progress, life was still hard and cruel. People flocked to witness public executions at Tyburn and Smithfield. Children as young as seven were transported for life to new penal settlements on the other side of the world for stealing something as inexpensive as a loaf to quieten their hunger. And the issues we face today, like the morality behind intensive farming and battery conditions, did not apply in an age when chickens were left to feed themselves by grazing, and animals were out in the fields as much as conditions allowed.

By the mid to late nineteenth century the conditions in which inner city cows were kept were publicised and this led to an outcry over the close confines in which they were kept in sheds, but this was as much about the disease and infections which they developed and passed on through their milk.

One family does stand out as vegetarian by conviction, and we know about them as their housekeeper painstakingly collected vegetarian recipes over a number of years. This is the Yorke family who lived at Erddig, near Wrexham in Wales . Their house and the family collection of recipes is now owned by the National Trust  the house is also interesting as the family, unusually for the period (late eighteenth century), commissioned a collection of portraits of the servants which gives us today a unique insight into who they were and what they looked like.

Later in the nineteenth century Goerge Bernard Shaw was also known for his commitment to vegetarianism and expected this to be respected when he dined out. However, the fact that a few individuals stand out is largely because they were the exceptions to general practice. Now we are fortunate to have the luxury of choice. For us in the West food availability means that food is not merely the means to survival but a lifestyle choice. For all those who wait the whole year to celebrate this week: enjoy, and to prove that I’m not prejudiced one way or another, a website to visit:   With the resurgence of interest in allotments and growing your own, which was last seen during World War 2, the recipes on this site might be helpful.

From → Food

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