Where are the animals in veg-history?

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» Where are the animals in veg-history?

Researcher Network member, Daniel Breeze, discusses his research into the place of animals in 19th and early 20th century history

As someone interested in the 19th and early 20th century vegetarian movement, the following question became the starting point for my PhD research: where are the animals in histories of vegetarianism? Vegetarianism has a long and complex history, dating back to ancient times [1]. However, the history of vegetarianism has hitherto been told from a human-centred perspective, with little attention paid to animals. This, I’ve found, is a significant oversight, because whilst animals might have been absent from the plate of the vegetarian, they were often companions and sources of inspiration, perhaps even revelation. The overall argument of my research, then, is that animals have played a meaningful role in the development of vegetarian ideas and arguments, not simply about diet, but also within broader ethical and political spheres. Here I will discuss some of the methodological quandaries which are pertinent for such an animal history and what animal histories of veg(etari)anism might offer the present-day vegan movement.

Animal history quandaries

To embark on this topic, I realized that I needed to confront certain methodological quandaries. Traditional historical research centres around the discovery and interpretation of human-produced sources: published books, unpublished dairies or letters, visual material, etc. etc. Oftentimes, animals are absent from these records and, if they are not, they are never the producer of such sources. This presents a problem of representation. How can historians rediscover the historical lives of animals when the sources we use are inevitably representations of animals perceived by people. In order to understand the historical development of vegetarianism and its relationship to nonhumans, I thus needed to find ways to incorporate animal perspectives, experiences, and agency into my study.

Turning to theories of agency in historical animal studies, I found a framework within which I could rediscover the importance of animals for vegetarians. From vegetarian-produced sources, I found and compiled instances of human-animal interactions wherein the encounters led to emotional and intellectual development of some kind. There has been an effort in animal studies to decentre humans from the concept of agency, which has traditionally been tied with rationality, intentionality and pre-meditation, aspects that are denied from non-human animals. New theories of agency mirror the popular phraseology of “entanglement” by emphasising agential relationships between humans and nonhumans, wherein agencies are assembled between fellow-beings [2]. This relationality has the power to describe the influence animals have had on history.

I think it’s important to note that I find theories of agency to be problematic at times. I think the concept, as it is used in animal history, has the power to consolidate existing distinctions between animals that are deemed characterful and those that are not. I admire the confidence of animal historian Hilda Kean who has argued, following the ideas of Walter Benjamin, that the “focus […] for animal-human historiography […] is not upon materials as such (or the connotations of those materials constructed by humans) but the function of the history writing and the role of the historian” [3]. The focus, then, shifts from sources themselves to what it is the researcher is seeking to perform through their analysis. There are perhaps other ways as well in which we could seek to go beyond representation (I’m thinking here about a historical use of geography’s non-representational theories), but agency remains the most influential attempt so far, hence my own engagement with the agential encounters between vegetarians and non-human animals.

As an illustration, I will relate one of these encounters between vegetarian and animal. One of the examples I’ve found in my research is the encounter that the vegetarian Constance Lytton had with a sheep. Lytton lived between 1869 and 1923 and became a prominent suffragette during the Edwardian era. The encounter is recorded in Lytton’s memoir, Prisons and Prisoners (1914), which recorded her career as a suffragette and her experience as someone who was sent to prison for the cause. The encounter Lytton had contributed to her conversion to the cause and was intimately connected to her vegetarianism and animal advocacy. In the late summer of 1908, Lytton was staying at The Green Lady Hostel on the seaside front of the Sussex town of Littlehampton. In her memoir, she describes the encounter she had with a sheep and how the experience was a transformative moment:

During my stay at Littlehampton I witnessed a scene which produced a great impression upon my conscience. One morning, while wandering through the little town, I came on a crowd. All kinds of people were forming a ring round a sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughter- house. It looked old and misshapen. […] With growing fear and distress the sheep ran about more clumsily and became a source of amusement to the onlookers, who laughed and jeered at it. At last it was caught by its two gaolers, and as they carried it away one of them, resenting its struggles, gave it a great cuff in the face. At that I felt exasperated. […] From my babyhood I have felt a burning indignation against unkindness to animals, and in their defence I have sometimes acted with a courage not natural to me. But on seeing this sheep it seemed to reveal to me for the first time the position of women throughout the world. I realised how often women are held in contempt as beings outside the pale of human dignity, excluded or confined, laughed at and insulted because of conditions in themselves for which they are not responsible, but which are due to fundamental injustices with regard to them, and to the mistakes of a civilisation in the shaping of which they have had no free share. I was ashamed to remember that although my sympathy had been spontaneous with regard to the wrongs of animals, of children, of men and women who belonged to down-trodden races or classes of society, yet that hitherto I had been blind to the sufferings peculiar to women as such, which are endured by women of every class, every race, every nationality, and that although nearly all the great thinkers and teachers of humanity have preached sex-equality, women have no champions among the various accepted political or moral laws which serve to mould public opinion of the present day [4].

In this extract, Lytton lays bare the debt she owes to that sheep who invoked in her feelings of a shared injustice between animals and women. It is almost inconsequential to argue for why such a moment is illustrative of the assembled agencies between a vegetarian and non-human animal. Simply put, Lytton’s appreciation of the sheep’s plight incited a new perspective in her on the victimhood of women in society. These are the types of histories that have been largely forgotten when cultural historians have written histories of vegetarianism and they are the ones that I seek to rediscover. They can also, as is the case with Lytton’s sheep, illustrate the connections between vegetarianism and other political causes like suffrage [5]. This brings me onto some brief reflections on how these animal histories might be relevant to the present-day vegan movement.

Relevance of animal histories of veg(etari)anism for veganism

It’s perhaps not easily grasped how such histories might help better inform the current vegan movement. Here I will offer a few reflections on that point. I briefly explore two reflections: firstly, that these histories provide narratives which strengthen the vegan tradition through a sense of historical continuity; and secondly, that they offer up alternative ways of being in the world alongside animals, which are highly relevant for our current ecological moment.

Ask a vegan about the reasons for their vegan lifestyle and you will most likely receive an answer that directly involves animals. Environmental factors have become more prominent recently, but – according to surveys – it is the cruelty of animal agriculture that remains the main reason for most vegans [6]. Beyond this, veganism is not simply a principle, but also an embodied practice; it cannot be merely held, it must be acted upon in our daily lives. It is for similar reasons why I am interested in the quotidian encounters between Victorian vegetarians (some proto-vegan in their practice) and non-human animals. Anecdotally, I believe that these encounters and relationships are important for the embodied practice of veganism today, just as they were for my historical subjects. Drawing these histories out, then, provides the current social, cultural and political vegan movement with a historical account of its antecedents.

I have also been struck by the forward-thinking nature of some of my subjects concerning how they relate to non-human animals and the broader environment. The vegetarian Henry Salt (1851-1939), for example – whose Animals’ Rights (1892) was a provocation for many – wrote not of pets, or even companions, but animal cousins. In a post-Darwinian age, vegetarians drew on the latest in evolutionary science to highlight the cruelties inflicted on our fellow-beings. Salt, like many other vegetarians of his time, was what could be best described as an amateur naturalist; alongside his humanitarian and animal rights works, he wrote on “vanishing wildflowers” and a charming travelogue On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908). One of Salt’s abiding messages in these works is to slow down and experiences the joys of being in the world. In The Call of the Wildflower (1922), he laments the proliferation of the motor car:

The wild animal life on the hills, so noteworthy in the later spring, seems as yet to have hardly awakened. […] But if bird-life is still somewhat dormant in these lofty regions, there have been plenty of human migrants on the wing. From our high watch tower, we saw daily, far below us, the long line of motorists – those terrestrial birds of prey – speeding along the white roads, and flying past a hundred entrancing spots, as if their object was to see as little as possible of what they presumably came to see [7].

Salt’s disapproval of the motor car was more than purely Luddite. It was a protest against the ways in which our modern technological age separate us from the living world around us, a concern shared by other vegetarians at the time, including his friend Edward Carpenter. These anxieties remain, in fact they have only consolidated and grown over the past century, so recovering these more-than-human concerns of past vegetarians ought to be of interest for current vegans. Hopefully my research will play a small part in that.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


[1] For long histories of vegetarianism, see: Janet Barkas, The Vegetable Passion: A History of the Vegetarian State of Mind (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975); Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (London: Fourth Estate, 1993); Rod Preece, Sins of the Flesh: A History of Ethical Vegetarian Thought (Victoria, BC: UBC Press, 2008) A good anthology of vegetarian writing throughout history is Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, edited by Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999).

[2] Vinciane Despret, “From Secret Agents to Interagency,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (2013): 29-44 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/24542957].

[3] Hilda Kean, “Challenges for Historians Writing Animal-Human History,” Anthrozoös 25, sup. 1 (2012): s63. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303712X13353430377011.

[4] Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences (London: William Heinemann, 1914), 12-14.

[5] Of course, the link between vegetarianism and feminism is well-trodden ground. The most influential work here is Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York, NY: Continuum, 1990). For further reading on vegetarianism and the suffrage movement during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, see: Leah Leneman, “The Awakened Instinct: Vegetarianism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain,” Women’s History Review 6, no. 2 (1997): 271-287 [https://doi.org/10.1080/09612029700200144]; and Elsa Richardson, “Cranks, Clerks, and Suffragettes: The Vegetarian Restaurant in British Culture and Fiction 1880-1914,” Literature and Medicine 39, no. 1 (2021): 133-153 [https://doi.org/10.1353/lm.2021.0010].

[6] Sarah Prescott-Smith and Matthew Smith, “Meet Britain’s Vegans and Vegetarians,” YouGov, January 20, 2022, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/society/articles-reports/2022/01/20/meet-britains-vegans-and-vegetarians.

[7] Henry Salt, The Call of the Wildflower (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922), 162-163.



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