If you think the plethora of recipes for vegetarians is a modern phenomenon you may be surprised to hear that vegetarianism has been practiced since at least the 6th century BC. The ancient Greek and father of mathematics, Pythagoras, eschewed meat, and there's some evidence that before then ancient Babylonians and Egyptians also abstained – usually, it’s believed to cleanse or purify before a ritual, or to aid health.
India has always been a forerunner of vegetarianism. Vegetarian recipes were – and still are – a practical way of life when meat’s scarce, but it’s also an ideology in Buddhism, Hinduism and other Asian religions to lead a meat-free existence.
It seems the demise of vegetarianism in Europe can be attributed to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. Although medieval monks sometimes chose to forgo meat they rarely denied themselves fish – this included dolphins and seals (mammals that a contemporary western society wouldn’t dream of consuming). St David, Patron Saint of Wales, and St Francis of Assisi were vegetarians, though they were condemned for it, it being seen as an act of heresy.
Vegetarianism seems to have slowly made a comeback during the Renaissance (14th-17th century) but this was borne from necessity rather than fashion – this was a time of great upheaval and famine. Famous vegetarians of the 19th century include the radical thinker and poet Shelley who, in 1812, denounced meat as an indulgence of the rich, upper classes.
In 1847, aided by the temperance movement and the Bible Christian Church, Great Britain became the first European country to found a Vegetarian Society. It was created to “support, represent and increase the number of vegetarians in the UK.” The Netherlands, Germany, and other countries soon followed suit.
Today it's thought that between 3-5% of British people are vegetarian. There are many variations, including veganism (no animal meat or products, including honey and dairy), fruitarianism (only plant matter that doesn’t harm the plant on removal) and macrobiotic diets, which focus on wholegrains and beans. Most people are ovo-lacto-vegetarians, eating dairy and eggs but no animal meat.