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History of Vegetarianism - Europe: The Middle Ages to the 18th Century
Food in England Since 1066 -- A Vegetarian Evolution?
Part 1: The Middle Ages


Vegetarianism was known in mediaeval England, particularly in the monasteries:

This was the period in which monasticism flourished most usefully and profitably in England, many monasteries were seats of learning and centres of art. In them noble chronicles were compiled and beautifully illuminated; charity and hospitality were dispensed; abbots were called upon to lend their wisdom to the rulers of the country; kings and nobles made gifts of land and money to respected houses and hoped in return to save their souls; schools and hospitals were established; lovely buildings were erected; the wool industry expanded as sheep, under the skillful care of the monks, cropped the grass of the dales.

Since then however, these earlier virtues of monasticism had been gradually eroded, as religious houses grew so wealthy that their income seems to have been at one time almost a fifth of the whole national income. The original strict rules imposed on the order began to be widely ignored. No longer did monks confine themselves to the cloister, observe the regulations about obedience and poverty, conscientiously say the Masses enjoined upon them by past benefactors, or pay too strict a regard to the rules framed to limit their diet.

Meat, once provided only for the sick, was now enjoyed by all in the infirmary; and when this was forbidden by papal statute, a "misericorde", "the chamber of mercy", between the infirmary and the refectory, where meat was freely allowed on the table. This, too, was prohibited by papal statute; but in 1339 the pope, recognizing that the prohibition was unenforceable, conceded that the monks might continue to relish their meat in the "misericorde" provided that only half their number did so at a time, the other half maintaining the vegetarian rule elsewhere.
[Thomas Wright, The Homes of Other Days: A History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England, 1871]

So the Pope was promoting vegetarianism! The monasteries had apparently been vegetarian during those earlier times of their greatest achievements, and the above seems to imply that the church saw meat eating as a somewhat sinful luxury rather than a necessity. The idea of giving meat to the sick being somewhat at odds with modern thinking on healthy eating! This abstinence from meat eating occurs in various branches of Christianity, particularly during Lent:

The food provided at most colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge was equally spare. There were two meals a day, one at about ten, the other at about five, although at New College, Oxford, only one meal was provided on Fridays and Saturdays and in Lent. No butter was served in Lent; and on Lenten Fridays there were raisins, almonds, honey and rice instead of fish.
[Norman Davis, Paston Papers and Letters of the Fifteenth Century, 1971/76]

Vegetarian students in the 15th century as well! The peasants were also largely vegetarian, though for rather different reasons:

Between each cottage and the village lane grew a few onions, cabbages, peas, beans, leeks or garlic; and, beside the path, there were perhaps a few rows of parsley and other herbs. Behind, in a small enclosed plot, grew more vegetables, a fruit tree or two, cherries, apples and pears. Some cottages had a pig snuffling about, fed on nothing but waste; several had hens, capable of providing, so Walter of Henley said in the middle of the 13th century, as many as 180 eggs a year each; several, also, had geese -- in some villages there were enough of these to warrant the employment of a gooseherd -- and a few, very few, had a cow. By the later middle ages, however, a man with a holding of more than eight or ten acres would probably have a cow, as well as other animals.

In most cottages, though, a bowl of milk was not as often seen on the peasant's table as an earthenware jug of ale; nor was a piece of beef as frequently to be found in the metal pot that hung over his fire as a mess of vegetables and oatmeal pottage which, with a hunk of dark coloured bread, had generally to serve for his evening meal. Sometimes there would be cheese and curds or on special occasions a chicken or a rabbit snared on a poaching expedition.
[Olive Cook, The English Country House, 1974]

It would seem that the peasants also saw meat as a luxury, to relieve the boredom of their diet, and to be obtained in any way they could. Meanwhile the church outside of the monasteries increasingly made a point of displaying its wealth and power, often with what seems like a drunken, flesh-eating orgy:

The amount of food consumed during these feasts, which might continue over a number of days, was enormous. When, in September 1465, the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York was celebrated at Cawood Castle to demonstrate the riches and power of his family, 28 peers, 59 knights, 10 abbots, 7 bishops, numerous lawyers, clergy, esquires and ladies, together with their attendants and servants arrived at the castle. Counting the archbishop's own family and servants there were about 2500 to be fed at each meal. They consumed 4000 pigeons and 4000 crays, 2000 chickens, 204 cranes, 104 peacocks, 100 dozen quails, 400 swans, 400 herons, 113 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 608 pikes and bream, 12 porpoises and seals, 1000 sheep, 304 calves, 2000 pigs, 1000 capons, 400 plovers, 200 dozen of the birds called "rees", 4000 mallards and teals, 204 kids, 204 bitterns, 200 pheasants, 500 partridges, 400 woodcocks, 100 curlews, 1000 egrets, over 500 stags, bucks and roes, 4000 cold and 1500 hot venison pies, 4000 dishes of jelly, 4000 baked tarts, 2000 hot custards with a proportionate quantity of bread, sugared delicacies and cakes. 300 tuns of ale were drunk, and 100 tuns of wine, a tun containing 252 gallons according to the usual reckoning. There must have been well over 60 pints of wine for each person.
[R. Mitchell and M. Leys, A History of the English People, 1950]

Not a lot of fresh fruit or vegetables in that lot! Most modern meat eaters would think twice about eating swans, porpoises or seals, but the earlier lords in their castles were even less squeamish:

By the end of the fourteenth century it had become a common practice to commit recipes and suggested bills of fare to writing. One such, in the reign of Richard II, which has survived, lists three courses beginning with larded boar's head and a pottage made from slowly boiled pork liver and kidneys. The first course also included beef, mutton, pork, swan, roasted rabbit and "tart". The second course comprised duck, pheasant, chicken, and two other pottages. One of these pottages was made of ground almonds seethed with good meat broth, minced onions, small parboiled birds -- sparrows, thrushes, starlings and linnets were all consumed as well as magpies, rooks and jackdaws. The third and last course included rabbits, hares, teals, woodcocks and snipe.

This was a relatively modest dinner. For a more ambitious meal the recommended bill of fare, again arranged in three courses, included duck; teals; herons; roasted veal, pork and capon; small birds in an almond milk sauce and a mixed meat tart. Finally there came a "sarsed browet" into which, in a most complicated recipe, was stirred a wild mixture of herbs and spices, rabbits, squirrels, and partridges. That was the first course. With the second course came more ducks and rabbits; pheasant; venison and hedgehog. The third course provided more partridges and boar; roasted cranes, kids and curlews; a peacock served in the skin which was sown back on to the roast flesh complete with feathers, head and tail.
[W. Mead, The English Medieval Feast, 1931]

Admittedly the range of vegetables in England at that time was rather limited compared to the Mediterranean area, but they managed to import status items:

The variety of vegetables, though it became much wider from the 14th century onwards, was far narrower than it is today. Dried peas and beans were served often enough, so were onions, leeks, turnips and garlic; but the early medieval gardener was much more likely to concentrate on herbs, and the medieval cook on spices, than they were on the kinds of fresh green vegetables which were enjoyed in France. Sage, parsley, fennel and borage, were all widely grown in England; while the amounts of spices handed over to the cook from the wardrobe were immense. Both mustard and pepper were used lavishly in cooking; so was ginger which was valued for its medicinal properties as well as its culinary effects. Cummin, cloves, saffron, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander and galingale, an aromatic root from East Asia, were to be found in the wardrobes of all households which could afford them. So were such exotic spices as zedoary, a ginger-like substance made from the rootstock of an East Indian plant, and cubebs, the pungent and peppery berries of a Javanese shrub, though these had to be used more sparingly, being so costly. One 14th century recipe for a preserve containing nuts, carrots, turnips, pumpkins, peaches and pears required 1lb of mustard seed for every 500 nuts, half a pound each of anise and horseradish, as well as liberal measures of fennel, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, red cedar, grain of Paradise, caraways (pounded and soaked in vinegar), two pounds of mashed raisins, wine, and twelve pounds of honey.

Honey was frequently employed for sweetening and for the making of gingerbread; but sugar, expensive though it was at up to 2 shillings a pound, was as familiar to cooks as honey in all large households. The Countess of Leicester's household was getting through about eight pounds of sugar a month in 1265. Her accounts also reveal purchases of rice, another delicacy; and large amounts of almonds which were often eaten with rice and, when dried, were served with other dried fruits such as dates, raisins and figs, mostly imported from Spain.
[Margaret Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, 1965]

But the opportunities to "grow your own" were there for those that wanted them:

Beyond the walls of most manor houses were orchards, sheltered by the walls from the winds, there grew not only the herbs which were such essential ingredients of medieval cookery, but also flowers. Ideally, so Alexander Neckham wrote in his "De Naturis Rerum" towards the beginning of the thirteenth century: "The garden should be adorned with roses and lillies, the turnsole or heliotrope, violets, and mandrake, there you should have parsley, cost fennel, southernwood, coriander, sage, savery, hysop, mint, rue, ditanny, smallage, pellitory, lettuce, garden cress, and peonies. There should also be beds planted with onions, leeks, garlic, pumpkins, and shallots. The cucumber, the poppy, the daffodil, and brank-ursine ought to be in a good garden. There should also be pottage herbs, such as beets, herb mercury, orach, sorrel, and mallows."

There should also be, Neckham added, a good supply of medicinal herbs including borage, purslane, hazelwort, colewort, ragwort, valerian, myrtle, thyme and saffron. Recent archaeological work, has shown that a large variety of plants and fruits were, indeed grown in gardens. In addition to those already named, goosefoot and sorrel were grown, penny-cress and whortleberry, borage, black mustard and, for use as a laxative, corncockle, as well as strawberries and blackberries, sloes, plums and raspberries. In the nearby orchard grew apples, plums and pears, cherries and quinces.
[Thomas Wright, The Homes of Other Days, 1871]

There were even some thoughts about a health conscious diet though, like the monks, they seemed to see meat a cure for various ills rather than the cause that we now know it can be. But they understood that diet influenced health and, apart from a few strange ideas, were surprisingly close to current thinking:

Some more enlightened doctors emphasized the importance of diet and exercise. J. Mirfield of St. Bart's suggested that invalids should be encouraged to drink wine and barley water and to eat honey, river-crab and dried figs.

Milk is of the greatest possible value (he also suggested for consumptives) especially if it be that of women; asses milk is next to be preferred, and then that of goats. The milk ought to be imbibed direct from the udder; but should this be impossible, the take a salver, which has been washed in hot water, and allow it to stand over another full of hot water; then let the animal be milked into the salver and the milk immediately proffered...

Moreover, wine should not be drunk during the whole period in which the milk remains in the stomach, for the wine causes the milk to coagulate, and this changes it into the nature of poison... The patient can also eat the flesh of all the usual kinds of fowl which fly, except those which live on the water; likewise the flesh of kids, lambs, unweaned calves, or the young rabbit; also the extremities of animals (such as the feet and legs of little pigs), hens and their chickens, and of all these only a little should be taken, and but rarely, except in the case of flying fowl, and even this should be taken only in such small quantity as to be digestible.

In the sixteenth century Andrew Boorde, the physician, whose "Dyetary of Health" and "Brevyary of Health" were both highly influential, emphasizes the importance of a balanced diet and of ensuring that patients were given food suited to their temperaments. The phlegmatic man, for instance, should avoid white meat and fruit, the choleric hot spices; while fried meat was bad for the melancholic man, and garlic for the sanguine.

A good cook is half physician (Boorde wrote). For the chief physic (the counsil of a physician excepted) doth come from the kitchen; wherefor the physician and the cook must consult together for the preparation of meat... For if the physician, without the cook, prepare any meat except he be very expert, he will make a worse dish of meat, that which the sick cannot take.
[Margaret Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, 1965]