Tag Archives: Revolution

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

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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

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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

There is a popular myth that regional minorities in France were dropped into a blender and emerged as part of a nation France. Through exhaustive research and a witty, engaging narrative style, Robb corrects this misconception by showing how, even as modern developments like democracy and the steam engine transformed France from “a land of ancient tribal divisions” into a centralized nation-state, a wealth of regional particularities persisted in “disparate, concurrent spheres.” In its pivotal years between the revolution and World War I, France emerges in Robb’s telling as a land where the past did not morph seamlessly into the future; a land where diversity existed in a permanent tug of war with uniformity; “a land in which mule trains coincided with railway trains, and where witches and explorers were still gainfully employed when Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris.”

Also, it has become conventional to argue that France has been in slow, inexorable decline since 1900. This is true with regard to the loss of empire and political prestige around the world, but it is also true of all the formerly ‘great’ powers. What has really been happening in France, Robb argues, is the erosion of centralised political control in Paris as the plural identities of France – linguistic, cultural and even religious – re-emerge from the margins.

Written as a “social and geographical history” in which “‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals,” “The Discovery of France” draws its material not just from the usual array of scholarly sources, but from the author’s own back-road explorations on his bicycle. (“This book,” Robb notes, “is the result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”) Although Robb eschews the orthodox map of French history, his book covers roughly the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day. This is the era usually defined as the France of heroic modernity – the years when French ideas, from Revolution to art, urbanism and poetry, were exported across the world as universal truths.

In fact it has proved difficult to demonstrate that this unit, or Grand France, has ever occurred, that it was possible to “forge this swarming continent of microscopic kingdoms into a single nation.” Robb shows that regional peculiarity has always survived despite the convulsions that France has undergone, and that these unique ethnic and cultural traits are re-emerging in the national consciousness.

The Discovery of France is the sort of history that seems almost to have disappeared from the world of professional academic historians: written in a light and pleasant style, crammed with colorful and unexpected details, it offers what seem like tantalizing glimpses into a vanished, forgotten past. Robb possesses a masterly narrative style, which floats the reader on a sea of conflicting national identity and linguistic development, while interspersing personal experience with historical analysis. Nonetheless, this is not an academic work to be avoided by francophiles and amateur historians. It is a romantic, slightly nostalgic look at a complex nation still trying to find itself after centuries of nationhood. Most importantly, it is an engrossing read!

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop € 10