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The Bloodless Revolution

[San Francisco Chronicle]

The Bloodless Revolution

A Cultural History of Vegetarianism From 1600 to Modern Times

By Tristram Stuart

NORTON; 628 Pages; $29.95
In "Animal Liberation," the bible of the modern animal rights movement, philosopher Peter Singer bluntly claims that "[t]he attitudes toward animals of previous generations are no longer convincing because they draw on presuppositions -- religious, moral, metaphysical -- that are now obsolete." Singer was referring to earlier rationales for eating meat, but the claim also implicitly dismisses the history of vegetarianism, which is fascinating and telling. Did you know, for instance, that many 17th century Britons abstained from meat in order to feel closer to Eden, where fruits and vegetables provided sustenance, and Adam and Eve interacted peacefully with animals?

Tristram Stuart, a precocious young British writer, has no doubt read "Animal Liberation." In fact, judging from his 65-page bibliography, he appears to have read just about every word ever written about vegetarianism. His book, "The Bloodless Revolution" (a pun from an alternative name for the Glorious Revolution of 1688) is an intellectual history of vegetarianism in 17th and 18th century Europe, with nods to the years since. It is a beautifully written work of impressive scholarship, perhaps the most erudite yet to appear on the subject of vegetarian history. Previous authors have sketched major vegetarian thinkers, but Stuart goes further, interacting extensively with primary-source materials, thoughtfully challenging the conclusions of other scholars and bolstering his own credibility by outing a few closet meat eaters, such as Alexander Pope.
The rejection of meat has frequently been accompanied by political and social radicalism. Reformers such as Roger Crab in the 17th century and John Oswald in the 18th saw meat as a symbol of unjust luxury and renounced it in solidarity with the poor. Foes of the Catholic Church courted heresy by abjuring food from animals and extending their moral concern beyond the one anointed species. In the years after the French Revolution, students (many of them vegetarians) made their way across the English Channel in search of other barricades to storm; in response, the Crown resisted animal welfare laws as a form of "patriotic opposition to the onion-eating French and their radical allies in Britain."
Vegetarian thought certainly has had its share of characters, and in less able hands this history might come off as a series of maladjusted kooks whose radical ideas needn't be taken seriously. But the picture that emerges from "The Bloodless Revolution" is a group of individuals troubled enough to take action against a practice -- the killing and eating of animals -- that unquestionably has profound moral implications. In an age in which a staggering 50 billion farm animals each year are reared in appalling conditions, slaughtered for our food and thoughtlessly consumed, any book that sets out an alternative is welcome. An excellent book that does so is indispensable.

Michael O'Donnell is a writer and lawyer in Chicago.

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