“Among the many crazy sectaries produced from the yeasty froth of the fermenting caldron of the great civil war, there was not one more oddly crazy than Roger Crab… His wandering mind, probably not improved by the skull-cleaving operation, then imbibed the idea, that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food, or to drink anything stronger than water.”
(The Book of Days, ed. Robert Chambers)
Roger Crab (1621 – September 11, 1680) was an English soldier, haberdasher, herbal doctor and writer, best known for his ascetic lifestyle which included Christian vegetarianism. Crab fought in the Parliamentary Army in the English Civil War before becoming a haberdasher. But later became a hermit and worked as a herbal doctor. He then joined the Philadelphian Sect and began promoting asceticism through his writings.
Crab was born in Buckinghamshire in 1621. At the time of his birth his mother had an annual income of £20. As a young man, he began trying to find a way to live a perfect life. In 1641 he ceased eating meat, dairy and eggs. He also chose to be celibate.
At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Crab joined the Parliamentary Army under Oliver Cromwell. During a battle in 1645 he received a serious head wound from a sword. He was convinced that his life had been spared only by an act of God and he subsequently underwent a religious conversion, turning to vegetarianism as a form of spiritual purification.
At some point, he was apparently sentenced to death by Cromwell, but was later sentenced to two years in prison by Parliament. Christopher Hill has suggested that Crab may have been involved with the Levellers in the late 1640s and that his imprisonment resulted from this.
After leaving the army Crab moved to Chesham, where he started work as a haberdasher, which he continued between 1649 and 1652. In 1652 he moved to Ickenham, west of London, where he lived as a hermit:
“Determined to follow, literally, the injunctions given to the young man in the gospel, he sold off his stock in trade, distributing the proceeds among the poor, and took up his residence in a hut, situated on a rood of ground near Ickenham, where for some time he lived on the small sum of three-farthings a week”
Around this time he published his autobiography: “The English hermite, or, Wonder of this age”: subtitled “Being a relation of the life of Roger Crab, living neer Uxbridge, taken from his own mouth, shewing his strange reserved and unparallel’d kind of life, who counteth it a sin against his body and soule to eate any sort of flesh, fish, or living creature, or to drinke any wine, ale, or beere. He can live with three farthings a week. His constant food is roots and hearbs, as cabbage, turneps, carrets, dock-leaves, and grasse; also bread and bran, without butter or cheese: his cloathing is sack-cloath. He left the Army, and kept a shop at Chesham, and hath now left off that, and sold a considerable estate to give to the poore, shewing his reasons from the Scripture, Mark. 10. 21. Jer. 35.” (London: Printed, and are to be sold in Popes-head Alley, and at the Exchange 1655)
Holding that profit was sinful, Crab gave away most of his possessions, and attempted to live modestly, wearing homemade sackcloth clothes. Building up a practice as a herbal doctor, he advised his patients to avoid meat and alcohol. He was said to be a popular doctor among the village women. However, he was accused of witchcraft by a clergyman, possibly because he issued prophecies. He moved to Bethnal Green in 1657, and joined the Philadelphians, a local sect founded by John Pordage.
In common with many of the religious radicals of the era, Crab was an anti-sabbatarian, refusing to observe Sunday as a non-working day. Apparently he was at some point put in the stocks for it. He was also a pacifist (presumably after his stint in the army), and had radical views on the evils of property, the Church and universities.
Crab ate a vegan diet from 1641 until his death in 1680, holding that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal for food. Though unusual in the context of the political and religious upsurge of the mid-17th century, this form of personal stand did crop up among the many radical sects and individuals of the English Revolution. Forgoing the roast mutton, rabbit and other ‘dainty’ dishes of his former life, he lived on an ascetic menu of vegetables. Crab initially included potatoes and carrots in his diet, but later gave them up, eating mostly bran and turnips, before reducing his intake to only rumex (a kind of sorrel leaf) and grass, claiming to spend just 3/4 d. (three farthings a week) a week on food. Late in his life he pushed the boat out and added parsnips to his diet. Sellout. He also refused to drink anything stronger than water. Crab’s asceticism and vegan diet developed from a vow of poverty inspired by the figure of John the Baptist (whom Crab regarded as the first Leveller).
After his death he was buried at St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, London. His grave is no longer seen, but the slab was imbedded in the walkway. Wikipedia has a transcription of his epitaph:
“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:
A soul that stemmed opinion’s tide,
Did over sects in triumph ride;
Yet separate from the giddy crowd,
And paths tradition had allowed.
Through good and ill reports he past,
Oft censured, yet approved at last.
Wouldst thou his religion know?
In brief ’twas this: to all to do
Just as he would be done unto.
So in kind Nature’s law he stood,
A temple, undefiled with blood,
A friend to everything that ‘s good.
The rest angels alone can fitly tell;
Haste then to them and him; and so farewell!”
Much of what of known of the life of Roger Crab is derived from the four pamphlets he printed in his lifetime, most notably The English Hermite (1655) and Dragons-Downfall (1657).
Read Crab’s The English Hermite
Some interesting observations on English Civil War era vegetarianism:
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.