Mbloodless Revolution: A Cultural History Of Vegetarianism From 1600 To Modern Times Hardcover – Dec 26 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The word "vegetarian" wasn't coined until the 1840s, but Stuart's magisterial social history demonstrates how deeply seated the vegetarian impulse has been in Western culture since the 17th century. Thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Bushell contended that a vegetarian diet provided a key not only to long life but also to spiritual perfection: God had permitted Adam and Eve to eat only plants, fruits and seeds, and doing so could restore humankind to Edenic wholeness with nature. Seventeenth- and 18th-century travelers to India introduced the Hindu idea of ahimsa (the preservation of all life) as an ideal for a slaughter-free society. Stuart follows the development of vegetarianism through its Romantic proponents Shelley and Rousseau and on into the 19th century, when doctors proffered scientific evidence that human teeth and intestines were more similar to those of herbivores than of carnivores. Looking at literary culture, Stuart notes that Samuel Richardson, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen included vegetarian characters in their novels. Stuart offers a masterful social and cultural history of a movement that changed the ways people think about the food they eat. 24 pages of color illus., b&w illus. throughout. (Jan.)
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As Stuart points out early in his marvelously researched, deeply revealing, minutely considered history of vegetarianism, it was not till the nineteenth century and the founding of Britain's Vegetarian Society that Western society seriously confronted its conflicted attitudes toward the eating of meat. Before that, ascetics and other fanatics pursued meat-free diets for substantially religious reasons. No less significant a figure than the eminent Jacobean Francis Bacon led the search for a diet that would prolong the human life span. Some radical French revolutionaries regarded meat eating as part of a larger oppression carried on by dissolute upper classes. Vegetarianism gained new momentum with the colonial conquest of India's flourishing Hindu civilization, awash with dietary taboos. Vegetarianism became so strong a cultural movement that it survived even its association in the twentieth century with Adolf Hitler. Recent history has seen the expansion of a correlative animal-rights movement. Students of this phenomenon will be forever grateful for Stuart's immense bibliography. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Yet sometimes I feel that Stuart was in some ways blinded by his own hypotheses and unwilling to look at alternative views. Stuart believes that European vegetarianism is rooted in Indian culture. This is not an indefensible view, but his case for it would have been stronger if he had answered some potential objections to such assertions, rather than ignoring them. Furthermore, literally all of European history between Pythagoras and English Revolution is simply missing. It is perfectly reasonable for Mr. Stuart to focus on a particular era, but readers with some preestablished famniliarity with vegetarian history -- a group likely to comprise a significant portion of The Bloodless Revolution's readers -- are likely to ask questions. For instance, why does St. Francis of Assisi not appear once in the entire book? Why is Leonardo da Vinci only mentioned in a quote comparing him to the Indians? Should the Cathars be ignored? It is one thing to focus on a specific era of history -- the English Revolution to the Second World War -- but it is another to leap straight from Pythagoras to Francis Bacon while ignoring virtually all of the intervening millenia. In short, if Stuart wants to emphasis the critical role of Indian influence on European vegetarianism, he should have investigated earlier indigenous European vegetarian movements or ideas and, if the evidence showed them not to be influential, shown us such evidence, rather than ignoring the whole question.
Second, Stuart often magnifies a dichotomy between animal welfare activists who called for less brutal treatment of domesticated animals and vegetarians who opposed meat consumption. While it is certainly true that there were and are numerous animal welfare activists who sought the reform, rather than abolition, of meat consumption (and vegetarians indifferent to animal welfare), Stuart seems to imply that these were each others' chief opponents. There is little mention of the arguments of those who opposed both animal welfarists and vegetarians. From my impression, it seems that Stuart himself happens to be an animal welfarist who has no problems with meat consumption so long as the animals involved are treated humanely. There is nothing wrong with this viewpoint, but sometimes I wonder whether Stuart's emphasis on welfarists as opponents, rather than allies, of vegetarians, is an attempt to defend his own position against worries about the persuasiveness of ethical vegetarian arguments, and whether Stuart ignores most views less sympathetic to animals than welfarism or vegetarianism because he personally finds them so unpersuasive that he feels they needn't be covered.
Lastly, while Stuart has a brilliant eye for detail and color, he has little time for facts or demographics. Such information may be hard to come by, but could there have been more information? For example, could there be some way of estimating the fraction of vegetarians in the British population from 1600 to modern times? Could we find out the average meat consumption per capita over time? I did not pick this up expecting a book heavy on statistics or demographics, but I nonetheless found the absence of even minimal attention to such matters disappointing.
Nonetheless, The Bloodless Revolution is a thoroughly researched, well-written, and original work. It provides a valuable resource to anyone interested in the history of vegetarianism in the modern era. I found it quite an enjoyable read, and the detailed portraits of the individuals, from meticulous scientists to enthusiastic religious cranks, were all a pleasure to read. I took great pleasure in reading it over several weeks.
Though the author comes up eventually in favor of cutting back on meat products for ecological reasons, it is my impression is not generally sympathetic to vegetarians. The book largely focuses on the hacks and crazies that adopted vegetarianism between 1600-1800. Gandhi gets a scarce few pages.
Second, this is A cultural history of vegetarianism, specifically the relationship between western europe and India. His thesis is that India was largely responsible for transplanting many strands of vegetarianism into Europe, specifically England and a few French philosophers. This very well may be true, but a more expansive survey would have made for a more interesting book. I got very bogged down in the first few chapters.
All these negatives included, it is a well researched, reasonably well written book on a narrow topic.
This book comes as close as any to providing the explanation that I have sought. Although I am not a professional historian or philosopher, I have long had an avid interest in these disciplines. I strongly believe in that age-old adage that those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. However limited my perspective may be, I nonetheless find this book by Tristram Stuart to be an incredible presentation of some events and ideas that really go a long way to help provide an answer to my question.
I am still awed by the depth and sophistication of knowledge that existed among leading scholars and medical people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries concerning the use of a plant-based diet. I am sure that it is possible to quibble about Stuart's selection and interpretation of references, as is true of almost any historical account. Nonetheless, I am impressed with these references, not only because of their number, but also because of Stuart's liberal use of direct quotations--these can be easily confirmed, if necessary. But, more to the point, I found that so many of the views of these early writers, who had limited access to empirical data, to be remarkably well confirmed with the highly technical findings gathered in recent years. With my son, Tom, we write about these findings in our own book, "The China Study. Startling Implications of Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health".
There are many other impressive and largely unknown findings told in this book. I especially enjoyed the views on diet and health of these writers that were at the core of philosophical discussions that were to shape Renaissance thinking, especially on matters that led to political reform.
I highly recommend this book--it is full of enormously impressive content that says so much about what we are now experiencing in this field. Tristram Stuart is a remarkably capable young writer and I very much hope that he will continue writing more such material!
In the meanwhile, we now desperately need some of the courage and creativity of these early writers--a revolution in health could hardly be more needed. Thank you, Tristram Stuart, for sharing your thoughts.
Stuart writes intellectual history in the old-fashioned graceful way of a Basil Wiley, Keith Thomas, or Carolyn Merchant. He excels at showing the cultural, economic, moral, and religious influences from Francis Bacon through the nineteenth century romantic period on attitudes towards a meatless diet. I was especially intrigued to discover that some of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century utilitarians and economists regarded vegetarianism as a means of overcoming the Malthusian disparity between population and resources--a very forward-looking strategy indeed. Stuart's epilogue, in which he discusses the early twentieth-century's "post-Rousseauist" back-to-nature movement that inspired folks as diverse as Gandhi and Hitler, is fascinating. I hope that it serves as the seed for Stuart's next book.
All in all, highly recommended for those interested in the history and culture of vegetarianism as well as those interested in modern British intellectual history. For collections of some of the primary sources referred to by Stuart, the reader may wish to consult Ethical Vegetarianism from Pythagoras to Peter Singer and Religious Vegetarianism from Hesiod to the Dalai Lama.
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