Books about Vegetarian History
A couple of people have suggested I write a book about the history of vegetarianism. I replied that I wouldn’t, when there are so many good books around already. These are the ones I’ve found useful, and that others have recommended.
(The purchase links mostly go to Amazon affiliate schemes. They give me a small cut. This helps pay for The Vegan Option, without adding to the price you pay. As we say in Britain, other booksellers are available. The listed price is for a specific edition direct from Amazon; they usually show cheaper options too, such as second-hand.)
Sins of the Flesh: A History of Ethical Vegetarian Thought
by Rod Preece; 393pp (2008)
Of the complete English histories of vegetarianism, this is the only one by a history professor – and it shows. It’s exacting on whether particular people were really vegetarian or not; rigorous in putting ethical vegetarianism in its historical context; and the only book where I stopped checking sources because they were so rarely at fault.
It’s comprehensive, beginning in prehistory and including (if unduly lightly) western vegetarianism. If it misses figures like the medieval Syrian poet al-Ma’arri, that’s just a testament to how much vegetarian history has moved on since he wrote it in 2008.
Vegetarianism: A History
by Colin Spencer; 402 pp (1st ed 1993, 2nd ed 2000)
Colin Spencer is one of Britain’s leading food writers. So his account is more accessible and more conversational than some of the academic tomes. I do think he sometimes strays into overconfidence; such as when he talks about the influence of Egypt on the vegetarianism of the ancient Orphic cult, or in pronouncing some Byzantine Bogomils like Basil to follow a vegan diet, when we can’t absolutely exclude whether they ate fish.
But this is the classic popular history of the whole scope of vegetarianism, from prehistory to the present. My copy is the first edition, titled “The Heretic’s Feast”.
The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarianism and the Discovery of India
by Tristram Stuart; 629 pp (2006)
This book was met with rave reviews from newspapers and literary supplements when it first came out, and it was the only history book I took to India. Several interviewees spontaneously mentioned it. It prompted me to make the conversation between East and West a big part of the story. And you can hear Tristram Stuart talking about the impact of Indian on Europe in episodes 9 through 11.
Tristram does a great job of bringing the story to life, and it’s very fully referenced. Only occasionally does he seem a little too confident. For example, when I discussed the vegan hermit Roger Crab with my expert interviewee, he took the sensationalist contemporary sources with more scepticism.
This book starts in 1600, and focuses on the cultural interaction between India and the west. And is probably the most fun of these books to read.
I also have two hardback copies to sell myself, at £15 each.
The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement (1817-1921)
by Adam Shprintzen; 268 pp (2013)
Adam is another frequent guest on the series – in episodes 12 through 14, covering the rise of vegetarianism in the United States of America. And Adam is a history professor whose book manages the rare trick of combining rigorous scholarship with popular history. It opened my eyes to both the full radicalism of the antebellum vegetarian movement, and the birth of our individualistic consumer-culture vegetarianism – trends that are very much still going today.
I think this is a must-read for American vegetarians. Rather like Bloodless Revolution, it manages to be a great read by focusing on a particular era.
The Victorian Vegan
An entertaining romp through the archives of the UK’s Vegetarian society, in the form of an anarchist (and anarchic) ‘zine. Buy The Victorian Vegan by (and from) Cubesville: £2.50
Books I have only dipped into:
Le végétarisme et ses ennemis: Vingt-cinq siècles de débats
by Renan LaRue, 2015
This is, as far as I know, the only history of vegetarianism in French. My French isn’t really good enough to comment, beyond using it to check some quotations. But it’s recommended by my translator, and it caused something of a sensation in France, with Renan winning the 2016 Prix La Bruyère and appearing on a string of late-night shows.
Dr Renan LaRue himself is a lecturer in French literature, and breaking new intellectual ground on the place of vegetarianism in the French enlightenment. He featured in episode 11 (though my interviews with him were much broader than his academic focus).
Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth Century Britain
by James Gregory, 2007
A book I have only managed to sample in researching episode 13, but dives deep into the radicalism of the late Victorian surge in vegetarianism.