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Vegans in History – Walking in the Steps of Europe’s First Vegans

Have you ever heard of Europe’s first vegans, the Cathars? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either, until recently. 

In the past year-and-a-half of journeying around the world I’ve gotten hundreds of weird looks from people and an endless number of questions regarding veganism.

A few people have even decided to make it their personal mission to try and prove to me why veganism is illogical, or unnatural, or unhealthy, or just simply something they could never do. At times this can get a bit annoying, as you can probably imagine. Having to constantly explain a lifestyle choice gets weary for anyone who experiences it on a daily basis.

Luckily, however, I have never had to flee a country or city because I feared being murdered for my vegan beliefs, unlike the ancient European group, the Cathars.

I first heard about the Cathars over dinner in Berguedà, Spain. The Cathars, or the “Bons Hommes” (the Good Men) were a religious group whose origins trace back to the Byzantine empire, and whose existence ended tragically and brutally in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Hiking the Cami dels Bons Homes as a Vegan

Over a special vegan meal, which included a spectacularly creamy mushroom cannelloni, one of our hosts, Imma, told us tales about the now almost mythical people, and explained that their diet was nearly vegan.

Many of the Cathars, including their clergy, abstained from eating animals and their byproducts. Their belief in a complex system of reincarnation meant they thought human souls could exist within all animals. Because of this they despised killing in any form. A lack of scientific knowledge meant that some Cathars ate fish because they didn’t realize they were animals but instead thought they were spontaneously existing fruit of the sea.

But nevermind that…their intentions were good and I’ll still consider them to be the the earliest group in history I know of to follow a vegan diet.

Walking in the Steps of Europe’s First Vegans – The Cathars

In the days that followed I learned that their diet wasn’t the only fascinating thing about the Cathars. They also considered gender to be meaningless because of the reincarnation thing. Therefore women had equal rights to men and could even be priests. The Cathars also rejected marriage and the material world in general.

Unfortunately, the Cathars’ unorthodox views drew the extreme ire of the Catholic Church who labeled them heretics. Apparently back then it was heretical to deny the consumption of flesh, as the accepted view was that God had granted man dominion over beasts, and their flesh was his to consume. So everyone ate meat, especially if they were rich and could have a pig slain, gutted, and spitted at will.

The quasi veganism of the Cathars was only one of many reasons the church decided to rid the world of them, but it certainly is the one that resonated with me the most. Killed for refusing to eat flesh, amongst other things. Hmmm…thank god we have moved on as a society, huh?

So, anyway, the Pope commanded King Philip Augustus of France to carry out an inquisition against the Good Men, and he acquiesced. A brutal extermination began, often involving torture and burning at the stake, and the Good Men were driven out of France. The surviving Cathars traveled 200 kilometers through the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain on a path that is now called the Cami dels Bons Homes (Path of the Good Men and Women).

Walking in the Steps of the Cathars

Walking in the Steps of Europe’s First Vegans – The Cathars

After hearing the fascinating story of the Cathars and learning about their divergent beliefs Michael and I decided to follow in the footsteps of this progressive, some-what vegan, some-what feminist group. We set out to walk a five day section of the Cami Dels Bons Homes[link], from the upper reaches of Catalonia, 90 kilometers south through the mountains and valleys.

get up to $35 off Airbnb

Even though the lifestyle of the Cathars was based on some sort of religious beliefs that I cannot relate to, I felt a connection to these ghosts of the past. My journey in life, especially in the last year and a half, has given me a similar outlook on life. I’ve become vegan, I’ve rejected most material possessions, have no desire to marry, and believe in equal rights for all.

There were moments along the way that I felt I was walking in the footsteps of kindred souls, walking quite literally on a path they paved 800 years before. My persecution is not at all comparable to theirs, of course, and my veganism is far stricter and a product borne of completely different reasons from theirs, but never you mind that. We, in some ways, kin.

Thankfully I had no problems sticking to my vegan diet due to the efforts of the wonderful people at Cami dels Bons Homes Regulatory Counsel and I ate marvelous food along the way, as our trek took us from one small town to the next.

Eathing with Europe's first Vegans - the Cathars

Earl Carr

Sunday 11th of July 2021

My name is Earl Carr In Irish Gaelic it means servant of the son of Cathar

Shivya Nath

Saturday 9th of April 2016

What a discovery! I can totally identify with the Cathars too, and though this gives me hope, it also takes away some - have we moved backward as a society?

Such a great read. Going to check out the books Marianne above has suggested.

Marianne van der Ende

Wednesday 26th of August 2015

Hi, if you are interested to know more about the Cathars, I would like to advise you to read books written by Antonin Gadal. He was born and bred in the area of the Pyrenees and he wrote several books about their beliefs. He did research about them all his life. But apart from this, if you actually visit the area of the northern Pyrenees (in France) you will find some books in French which contains quite some information which is actually not far from the truth.

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Tuesday 7th of July 2015

Hi Randi, Ooh, I had read that the Cathars were pescatarian, but I didn't know they were actually kind of quasi-vegan. How exciting! My husband and I really want to walk the Cathar Way one of these days. And there are even restaurants that serve traditional Cathar fare! That's amazing. I'm so in!


Wednesday 8th of July 2015

Hi Wendy, Yes, it was very cool to learn about them. They are a super interesting sect. Check out our series of articles over at Just a Pack on the hike we did. The Cami dels Bons Homes has some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever experienced in my life. It was a wonderful five days. If you do it, just contact your accommodations in advance and explain that you are vegan so they can prepare for you. :D