In the Middle Ages, three very different monastic orders spread from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, surrounding themselves with lay believers and challenging the norm of meat-eating.
Episode 7: Heresies
A string of religious groups across medieval Eurasia shared one common belief: that this world was a terrible place; and to escape its cycle of rebirth and redeath you needed to be ordained into a pure life, abstaining from violence. They all have some level of abstention from flesh, up to and including a vegan diet. But they all face suspicion.
Discover why the “good men” of the Cathars and Bogomils eschewed sinful flesh, why the men and women of the Manichaean Elect followed a vegan diet, and how the monks and nuns of Buddhism were shamed by their layfolk. And how a vegetarian culture spread throughout east Asia.
Ian joins a Chinese Buddhist congregation in London for its full moon service. He discovers how Buddhism not only spread across China, but made vegetarianism part of Chinese culture. He discovers a war against pescetarian heretics in Europe, the medieval Chinese horror stories that encouraged kindness to animals, and visits his local Tofu maker.
- Chueh Yun, Fo Guang Shan Temple (Wikipedia) (@LondonFGS on twitter), London
- Prof John Arnold (Birkbeck, University of London)
- Dr Vincent Goossaert (Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités), Paris
- Jason BeDuhn (Wikipedia) (Northern Arizona University), Flagstaff
- Prof Richard Gombrich (Wikipedia) (University of Oxford)
- Dr Deepak Anand (blogger.com) (Buddhist University of Nalanda)
- Neil McLennan (Clean Bean Tofu), London
- Miracle Tale of Zhizong, from MS Fayuan zhulin 64.722b (see Camapany, 2012)
- Liang of Wu, pronouncement around 522 CE (see De Rauw & Heirman, 2011)
- Khan Bügü’s pronouncement (see Papaconstantinou, 2015)
- The Story of ‘Amir ibn ‘Abd Qays (see Tạbarī, 1990)
- The case of the animals versus man before the King of the Jinn, from The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (see translation by McGregor and Goodman, 2012)
- Frs Cosmas & Zigabenus on the Bogomils (see Hamilton and Hamilton, 1998)
- Anselms’ letter on the over-zealous persecution (see Wakefield & Evans, 1991)
- The report of the Cathar women from the Le registre d’inquisition (see Fournier 1978)
- And for the report of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, see (of course) Baṭṭūṭa 1953
Hear previous shows about a medieval Syrian vegan poet and Chinese mock meat
This episode returns to themes that previous shows have explored in depth.
Rebel Poet: Benjamin Zephaniah discusses the life of Abul ʿala Al-Maʿarri (أبو العلاء المعري), the medieval Arab vegan philosopher poet
There were some questions I did not manage to get to the bottom of. I leave them here, in the hope that scholarly specialists will one day come across them!
Middle East: Were any Qarmatians Vegetarian?
The Qarmatians were a religious and political rival to Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries. They controlled eastern Arabia, the gulf archipelago of Bahrain, and (at points) southern Iraq. At one point, they scandalised the Islamic world by stealing the meteoric black stone that lies at the spiritual heart of Mecca. The first sources I read painted them as communist vegetarian bandits, who followed a breakaway religion that owed as much to Manichaeanism as Islam. (Cyril Glassé’s New Encylopedia of Islam suggests they were mainly vegetarian. I do not trust his independent un-referenced work; not least because he calls the ethical vegan Al-Ma’arri a “crypto-Manichaean”. I found no evidence of this when doing a show about Al-Ma’arri in 2012.)
Less romantic sources, such as the Encyclopedia Iranica, position them simply as radical Shia Muslims.
The people nicknamed “al-Baqliyyah” (UK: “Greengrocers” US: “Produce sellers”) in southern Iraq were Qarmatians. My final script is based on M G S Hodgson’s entry in the Brill Encyclopedia of Islam, with some information from Wilferd Madelung.
I also found multiple versions of the etymology of al-Baqliyyah; some of which had nothing to do with vegetarianism.
But I really think someone who can read the primary sources (in classical Arabic) would be able to dig deeper than the brief outlines from Hodgson and Madelung. Cyril Glassé was of the opinion that orthodox Qarmatians put pressure on the rest to be vegetarian, and I don’t know where that idea came from. Farhad Daftary (author of the Encyclopedia Iranica article) tells me that “we cannot consider them as vegetarians”.
I’d be happy to share my detailed notes with anyone who wants to take this further.
Balkans: Did any Bogomils follow a Vegan Diet?
One academic told me that there was a source that suggested the Bogomil clergy followed a vegan diet. This would not be a surprise – it would be a logical extension of existing orthodox fasts. and if the Manichaeans did, why not the Bogomils? (The Bogomils presumably never met any Manichaeans, but they were part of scholarly common knowledge in Christendom.)
I asked every relevant academic I could find, and didn’t find anyone who had heard of a direct reference. We know a lot about the Cathars because of the papacy conducted a detailed inquisition and kept the records. On the other hand, the Byzantine empire didn’t gather as much information about the Bogomils, and much of has been lost over the past few hundred years.
China: What’s in Emperor Wu of Liang’s essay about meat-eating?
Wu of Liang wrote an essay about why we should be vegetarian. It’s on Wikisource. It’s just never been translated into English. It’s as important to the history of vegetarianism as the writings of ancient Greek or Indian vegetarians, which have been available in English translation in some cases for centuries.
So if you happen to be able to read T’ang dynasty Chinese and can translate it into English please consider having a read of “Of meat and wine” (at least, I think that’s what 断酒肉文 means) by Emperor Wu of Liang. There’d probably be quite a few English speakers interested in reading it too.
The Links to Broader History
When it came to Buddhist vegetarianism, I was fortunate that John Kieschnick had already written an excellent overview.
But the rest of the continent required me to dive deep into research into Bogomils, Cathars, and Islam. Even letting the show run to 46 minutes – the longest yet – I had to leave a lot of stuff out. And in the process of research, I came across a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with vegetarianism, but it pained me to leave out anyway.
That time the Chinese emperor tried to please Buddhists by sacrificing an animal to the Buddha
At first, Buddhism was slotted into traditional Chinese religion, perhaps as additions to the Daoist pantheon. And these additions sometimes ran ahead of the monks and nuns who actually understood the Buddhist dharma.
In 166 CE, the emperor was reported as having sacrificed animals jointly to the Buddha and (the legendary founder of Daoism) Lao-tse. Opposition to animal sacrifices has been a defining feature of Buddhism since the beginning, so he rather missed the point.
All the Challenges to the Medieval Roman Church
When I look into a cultural movement whether it’s the mystery religions of ancient Greece or the anti-clericals of medieval France, I pick out the vegetarian threads, but wish I could have included the whole movement. And I wish I could have included more of the interview with Dr John Arnold – but I need to put a limit on episode length!
The Cathars were just one aspect of the challenge to the church. Other groups also eschewed the trappings of the establishment to rework Christianity.
A similar semi-heretical movement, the Waldensians, had even produced a translation of the New Testament in the local language Franco-Provençal. Even the Bishop who was forced to disavow heresies in the tenth century plays his part – he was credited with introducing the abacus from neighbouring Arab Iberia.
The Waldensians aren’t the only group that survived. The early Cistercians were also living monastic abstemious lives that reminded people of Jesus’ apostles. And they’re still an active order of Roman Catholic monks.
The European events of this episode also accidentally created France. The Albigensian crusade was an excuse for King of France (based in the north) to annex the Mediterranean lands.
This episode has a blink-and-miss-it cameo appearance by one of the most important figures in Muslim history
In the show, I recount the first mention of vegetarianism in the context of Islam – when the preacher ‘Amir ibn ‘Abd Qays is questioned on behalf of the Caliph about ‘Amir’s (overblown) reputation for vegetarianism.
The person who quizzed ‘Amir (Mu‘Āwiyah) goes on to become Caliph, and fight the war that sunders Sunni from Shia. This is the central divide in Islam.
Pun of the Month
Is in the episode itself, and shouted by our troupe. The Chinese word for “Demon” (“Mo”) is also how the Chinese pronounce “Mani”. Many academics suspect that the shout of “Vegetarian Demon Worshippers” is a play on words that references Manichaeans.
I had to rely on even more academic advice than usual for this episode. I’d like to thank Claire Taylor, Yuri Stoyanov, John Kieschnick, Renan LaRue, Erica Hunter, and Andrew Chittick.
The ambience in the fable of Zhi Zhong is CC-BY Klank Beeld; the recording of a Niger village muezzin call was contributed to the public domain by Felix Blume; and the monastic chanting by singer Jayme Amatnecks. The Uyghur folk song “Mira Jihan” was sung by the London Uyghur Ensemble, and featured by their kind permission.
The theme music is by Robb Masters. The actors were Sandeep Garcha, Chetan Pathak, Selva Rasalingham, Jeremey Hancock, Guillaume Blanchard, and Yasser Sha’aban, with additional laughter by Orna Klement.
A bar over a vowel (“ā”) lengthens it.