Tag Archives: Review

The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart

Standard
 
Stranded in the countryside and confronted with a live chicken which he has to roast, Withnail is paralysed. ‘ I think you should strangle it instantly,’ says his anxious friend Peter, ‘in case it starts trying to make friends with us.’ ‘I can’t,’ he adds, ‘those dreadful, beady eyes’. Any book beginning with allusions to Withnail and I is bound to catch my attention, but one focused on vegetarianism has little chance of holding it. Tristram Stuart has succeeded where many others have failed, and has managed to make this burger-lover consider my relationship with food; he has also enthralled me with a history of a movement that has carried some of the greatest minds of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries along with it. In short, I  enjoyed this book.
 
The history of the vegetarian movement is fascinating. European interest in the vegetarianism originated from contact with India in the 17th century. Society’s collective consciousness was pricked. Franklin, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Shelley all became involved in the debate about man relationship to animals. There were, broadly, three phases of vegetarianism in the period he scrutinises. In 17th-century England, eschewing meat was a means of religious dissent by those who saw the church as corrupt. It was an attempt to purify religion. Isaac Newton, who tried to prove the unity of all religions, viewed ‘being merciful to all animals’ as one of the cross-cultural ethical imperatives.

The second phase, which began in France, was scientific. Was man naturally carnivorous or herbivorous? The penitent Dr George Cheyne, whose weight rose to 34 stone due to indulgence, transformed his life by eating only vegetables and milk. He become an assiduous evangelist of such a diet among the metropolitan classes in London.

The final phase is revolutionary and climaxes with the French Revolution. Meat signified social inequality – only the rich could afford it – as more and more land was enclosed for pasture so the privileged could indulge themselves. Seditious circles in Paris and London were crammed with vegetarians. Underlying it all, philosophers and scientists, savants and rabble-rousers searched for the perfect religion, health and society.

Stuart has the capacity to be informative and passionate, without being preachy, and coupled with an engaging narrative style achieves a fine debut with this book.His fundamental thesis is to demonstrate that the study of attitudes towards food is the gateway to appreciating how people understood their place in society, their relationship to their environment and the significance of being human. Whether you are a carnivore or a herbivore, get your teeth stuck into this soon!

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop €10

Advertisements

Crimea: The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

Standard

  

Published in a media and legal storm following fake anonymous reviews by the author himself, Crimea: The Last Crusade  needed to deliver the sparkling narrative and shrewd analysis that has characterised his previous work. For those who have read Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia or The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, the expectation was very high indeed. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 is the best narrative description of the key period in modern Russian history published to date, and a core text in college courses already. Fortunately, Figes does indeed deliver, and in style.

The Crimean War, or the Eastern War in Russian historiography, has filtered into western consciousness as a pointless, complex struggle, which bisected the long period of relative peace between the French Revolutionary Wars and the First World War. Remembered only for the heroic stupidity of the Light Brigade and the resourcefulness of one Florence Nightingale, the significance of events from 1853-56 for European  history is often forgotten. In many ways, this conflict, which  involved the French, British, Ottoman and Russian Empires, and stretched from Jerusalem to the Caucasus, is as endlessly fascinating as any other.

As Figes writes “ The Crimean War dominated the mid nineteenth century, killed at least 800,000 men and pitted Russia against a formidable coalition of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire. It was a war for territory, provoked by fear that if the Ottoman Empire were to collapse then Russia could control a huge swathe of land from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf. But it was also a war of religion, driven by a fervent, populist and ever more ferocious belief held by the Tsar and his ministers that this was a crusade, the fulfilment of Russia’s destiny to rule all Orthodox Christians and control the Holy Land.”

Figes places great emphasis upon the religious motivations behind the war, especially those of the Tsar, in starting and in the prosecution of the conflict. Whilst this is arguable from the source material, it is difficult to accept religion was a determining factor in the policies of the French and British governments. More interesting is Figes’ exploration of Russophobia in the societies of the coalition, which is evident in contemporary and later accounts. It is because the Crimean War was the first major conflict that was extensively reported on and photographed that makes it so modern; it foreshadows the trenches of Flanders in so many ways. The inability of the western powers to transport and supply large armies resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths through disease and malnourishment. Poor leadership and organisation caused more carnage, and whilst these failures were investigated, few lessons were learned for the future.

Crimea appears a very nineteenth century conflict – a consequence of the great powers’ diplomatic brinkmanship gone awry, but it is more than that. It was evidence that the post-Napoleonic balance of power needed to be readjusted, and this process continued in further conflicts between the major powers across the continent. This effort to preserve a balance of power at the expense of regional and nationalist desires, and unwillingness to accept changes in the real strength of the emergent states, blinded politicians from allowing progressive change. Some states, such as Prussia, managed to redraw the map to their own design, while other peoples, in the Balkans in particular, suffered under the yoke of foreign regimes. These issues came to a head in the First World War, but they are evident throughout the long nineteenth century, and in the Crimean conflict.

Figes manages to interweave the immediate  factors with the broader consequences of the war. He focuses equally on the civilians, soldiers, officers, and rulers. The effect of the war on modern society, on the participants and those at home, is discussed with delicacy and awareness. Figes narrative is enthralling and moving, the chivalric truces are sharply set against the effects of new riflery technology, the incredible bravery against unforgivable inadequacy, and the tragic fate of the soldiers is depicted with true sensitivity. If the Crimean War had been forgotten, Figes has certainly ensured it will be remembered for a little while again.

If you wish to purchase this, or any other of Orlando Figes’ work, please click here.