Vegetarian hermits, 17th century England

Reading The Bloodless Revolution, a Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart. A striking fact in seventeenth-century England was the appearance of two hermits, of different temperaments, both advocates of vegetarianism.

Thomas Bushell was Sir Francis Bacon’s secretary, and evolved (based on Bacon’s own observations) a view of vegetarianism based on the idea that God did not sanction the slaughter and consumption of flesh in the Garden of Eden but only after the Flood. Eden being the model for ethical behavior, Bushell advocated vegetarianism, even as a loyal monarchist and Anglican — meaning that he did not see it as subversive, as did some churchmen.

After the downfall of Bacon, Bushell became a hermit on the Isle of Wight, where he was famous for his diet of bread, water, and greens. He even put on a masque for the king and queen, portraying (guess what) a wise vegetarian hermit.

Roger Crab was originally a Cromwellian and soldier, but quickly wearied of Cromwell’s authority and became a Leveller and radical. (We have already written a little about Crab on Hermitary.) Crab held the same religious arguments as Bushell but his motive for vegetarianism was more egalitarian: he saw meat as the luxury of the wealthy, and a vegetarian diet as the diet of the poor and ate like them in solidarity with their plight. But soon he advocated the diet as healthful and he became a folk healer in herbs and diet, attracting many patients. His status as a hermit furthered his reputation as an eccentric, but also gave him a certain moral authority.

In many ways, Crab was ahead of his time. He made the connection between violence in society and violence against animals (both in how animals were treated and in their slaughter for food). He supported a radical group called the Diggers, who agitated for land reform, pointing out the enormous tracts of empty land owned by nobles on the one hand, and the eager masses of landless poor who were ready to grow their own food if they had land. Crab’s Christianity, therefore, was more radical than Bushell’s or his contemporaries in having a clear social consciousness. That Crab was a hermit only added insult to those who opposed him.

Stuart concludes with regards to Crab and his associates that “vegetarianism was a familiar expression of political and religious dissent in seventeenth-century England” and that “the rejection of violence, oppression and inequality went hand in hand with vegetarianism in a movement that aimed to achieve a bloodless revolution.”

Eremitism is radical, too, in its own way, and yet it reconciles all polarities, as the cases of Bushell and Crab suggest.