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The vegan hermit, 1654
One man describes his battle of body and soul
A week ago as I write this, I found myself wandering around the graveyard of St Dunstan’s church in Stepney, East London. (It was St Dunstan’s Day, in fact, and you can read here about the historical walk across London I was making in his honour.) I was looking in particular for these words:
Tread gently, reader, near the dust
Committed to this tomb-stone’s trust:
For while ’twas flesh, it held a guest
With universal love possest…
Alas I didn’t find them, and I’m not the only one who has tried and failed (and there are no pictures I can find of it), although supposedly the tomb bearing this epitaph is still there somewhere set into a path.
Anyway, who was this particular ‘guest’, described later in the epitaph as “a soul that stemmed opinion’s tide” and “a friend to everything that’s good” who lived “separate from the giddy crowd”? His name was Roger Crab.
Crab was a man of many parts. We don’t know much of his early life, nor even the date of his birth – Wikipedia’s source, Christopher Hill, says 1621, but the Dictionary of National Biography says c.1616; Crab’s own tomb apparently said he was in his 60th year when he died on 11th September 1680, which does corroborate 1621 for his birth. He said he was “brought forth in the South-West of England” and was of “the lowest sort, and unlearned, being amongst day-labourers and journeymen”. Hill asserts he was born in Buckinghamshire, but that’s not in the south-west, and he offers no evidence for this.1 Crab says he became a soldier, fighting on the parliamentary side for seven years during the English Civil War and receiving a nasty injury to his skull. Contemporary sources suggest he lived in Southwark, London and became a felt-maker and a radical preacher, and we know he was imprisoned for speaking openly against the king and then not paying the fine (although he also upset Cromwell, who sentenced him to death, which Crab somehow evaded). A few years later he was briefly in prison again, in Clerkenwell, and he generally seems to have had a knack for upsetting people, notwithstanding the plaudits of his epitaph.
In 1652, we know he was in Chesham (which is in Buckinghamshire) primarily working as a “haberdasher of hats” (Christopher Hill ran with this and Crab’s eccentricities to suggest he was Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for the Mad Hatter). A satirical pamphlet of the time says Crab was also a “barber” and a “horse-doctor”, so make of this portfolio career what you will. But sometime in the 1650s, Crab had some sort of epiphany, which led him to sell his worldly goods, build a humble cottage and live as a hermit off what we would now call a vegan diet; he became known locally as a herbalist, too.
Much of what we know of Crab comes from his published writings, particularly The English Hermit, or Wonder of this Age, printed in 1655 but written “from my poor cottage, near Uxbridge, January 1654”.2 This document mostly serves to explain the theological basis for his not eating meat, although it is a rather rambling business. Slightly frustratingly, the clearest part is the foreword by his publisher, whose name we don’t know and who gives a much clearer account of Crab’s life and diet “which I had from his own mouth”:
This Roger Crab is well known to many in this city, and the county; and, while this book was printing, he staid purposely here, in the city, till it was published, and, I think, is in town still; he lodged at the Golden Anchor, in Whitecross-street, at one Mr. Carter’s house, a glover, where divers people resorted to see him, where such, as doubt of it, may be satisfied. I am informed by himself, and others, how that, three years since, he was a haberdasher of hats, and kept a shop at Chesham, in Buckinghamshire; and hath since given over his trade, and sold his estate, and given it to the poor, reserving a small matter to himself, being a single man; and now liveth at Icknam [Ickenham], near Uxbridge, on a small rood of ground, for which he payeth fifty shillings a year, and hath a mean cottage, of his own building, to it; but that which is most strange, and most to be admired, is his strange, reserved, and hermetical kind of life… his apparel is as mean also; he wears a sackcloth frock, and no band on his neck; and this, he saith, is out of conscience…
But let’s hear from Crab himself a little anyway!
Seeing I am become a gazing stock to the nation, and a wonderment to many friends, in this my reserved life, I shall, therefore, indite a few lines, as the Most High shall direct me; wherein I shall give an account of this my undoing, owning Christ and the prophets to be exemplary, both in prophesying and practising, as far as God shalt give power to any man… But first I shall begin with myself, who have transgressed the commands of God, and so am found guilty of the whole law; living in pride, drunkenness, and gluttony, which I upheld by dissembling and lying, cheating and cozening my neighbours. But, now, that light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world, according to John’s writing, hath discovered the love of'God to my understanding, which causeth me to withdraw from what I have done; and, instead of strong drinks and wines, I gave the old man [see below] a cup of water; and, instead of roast mutton and rabbits, and other dainty dishes, I gave him broth, thickened with bran, pudding made with bran, and turnip-leaves, chopped together, and grass; at which the old man (meaning my body) being moved, would know what he had done, that I used him so hardly.
Then I shewed him his transgression, as aforesaid; so the wars began, the law of the old man, in my fleshly members, rebelled against the law of my mind, and had a shrewd skirmish; but the mind, being well enlightened, held it, so that the old man grew sick and weak with the flux [dysentery or gastroenteritis], like to fall to the dust. But the wonderful love of God, well pleased with the battle, raised him up again, and filled him full of love, peace, and content in mind, and is now become more humble; for now he will eat dock-leaves, mallows, or grass, and yields, that he ought to give God more thanks for it, than, formerly, for roast flesh and wines; and certainly concludes, that this must be of God, if it be done out of love, and not out of self-ends; for, before, the old man fought with his steel sword, with his fleshly power against old men, and that envy in him begat envy in them, and both of the devil, in pretence of liberty and peace, it is easily judged of by the event; for our fighting, to regulate government in the old men, we see it still as bad, if not worse, than it was before.
Therefore, let us put off the old man, with his fleshly laws, which reached no farther than the government of carthly bodies; so that every one, for their obedience to God in this fleshly law, receiveth a reward, to uphold his fleshly body here upon earth, and would go no further, than reason could reach, in the organs of flesh…
This moves the butcher [by which he means the meat eater] to the question, to know why I would forbear eating of flesh: to which I answer:
First, I do it exemplarily from the prophet Daniel, chap. i. who saith, the King’s meat defileth his body, and beseecheth, that he might eat pulse, and drink water. This, first, we ought to believe, because the Scripture saith so. 2. I believe it from experience. 3. From reason.
Crab apparently attracted a small band of followers, who called themselves the Rationals, and continued to wind up various authorities. He married one Amy Markham from Holborn in 1663. And if nothing else, he was a pioneer of avoiding meat (though of course far from the first to do so) – even if we might not want to wage war against our own bodies via the weaponry of turnip leaves and bran!
Hill wrote about Crab in his 1958 book Puritanism and Revolution and says he has consulted the DNB, so the disparities of date and place are a bit odd.