The legends of Prester John (also Presbyter John), popular in Europe from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries, told of a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient. Prester John, through his characterization as a benevolent and moral Christian monarch presiding over a community of believers far from the Christian ecumene, inspired the religious imagination of a people toiling through the European Dark Ages, an era of stifling religious conformity and parochial vision.
At first, Prester John was imagined to be in India, with tales of the "Nestorian" Christians and of Thomas the Apostle's subcontinental travels, described in the Acts of Thomas, providing the first seeds of the legend. A purported letter of Prester John fed medieval popular fantasy and inspired the papacy to send an embassy to the shadowy Christian king. After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world, accounts placed Prester John in Central Asia, and eventually Portuguese explorers convinced themselves they had found him in Ethiopia.
The search for Prester John's fabled kingdom was the goal of numerous religious and secular quests, firing the imaginations of generations of adventurers, but remaining out of reach. He was a symbol to European Christians of the Church's universality, transcending culture and geography to encompass all humanity, in a time when ethnic and inter-religious tension made such a vision seem remote.
The legend of Prester John owes its genesis to the confluence of numerous hagiographies, legends, and travel accounts, all of which combined in the public imagination of Africa/Asia in the Middle Ages. One point of origin for these popular beliefs was the hagiography of Saint Thomas, with its various tales of proselytizing in India, which date back to at least the third century. Also relevant to this development were the distorted reports of the Assyrian Church's establishment throughout Asia. This sect, called "Nestorianism" by Europeans (who mistook it for an adherence to the teachings of Nestorius), gained a wide following in the Eastern nations and engaged the Western imagination as an assemblage both exotic and familiarly Christian. Additionally, a kernel of the tradition may have been drawn from the preaching of Saint Irenaeus, as recorded by the ecclesiastical historian and bishop Eusebius, on the shadowy early Christian figure John the Presbyter of Syria, supposedly the author of two of the Epistles of John. The martyr bishop Papias had been Irenaeus' teacher; Papias, in turn, had supposedly received his apostolic tradition from John the Presbyter. However, little links this figure to the Prester John legend beyond the name. Finally, recent scholarship suggests that source material for the Christian legend was also provided by medieval Jewish beliefs surrounding the continued thriving of the Lost Tribes of Israel in Africa and Asia, especially as described in Eldad ha-Dani's mythical travelogue.
Whatever its influences, the legend began to be propagated in earnest in the early twelfth century with two reports of visits of an Archbishop of India to Constantinople and of a Patriarch of India to Rome, both during the reign of Pope Callixtus II (1119 – 1124). These visits, apparently sponsored by the Saint Thomas Christians of India, cannot be confirmed, evidence of both being secondhand reports. Later in the century, the first instance of a more developed form of the legend can be found in the Chronicon (1145) of German chronicler Otto of Freising, where he reports a fascinating conversation between Hugh, bishop of Jabala in Syria, and Pope Eugene III. Hugh was an emissary of Prince Raymond of Antioch seeking Western aid against the Saracens after the Siege of Edessa, and his counsel incited Eugene to call for the commencement of the Second Crusade. In making his case, he told Otto, in the presence of the pope, that Prester John, a Nestorian Christian who served in the dual position of priest and king, had regained the city of Ecbatana from the brother monarchs of Media and Persia, the Samiardi, in a great battle "not many years ago." Further, Hugh alleged that Prester John, following this victory, set out for Jerusalem to rescue the Holy Land, but that "the swollen waters of the Tigris compelled him to return to his own country." Even in this early form, the mythical monarch's holiness was attributed to his descent from the Biblical Magi.
Intriguingly, Otto's story appears to have a legitimate (though muddled) origin in actual events. In 1141, the Kara-Khitan Khanate under Yelü Dashi defeated the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand. The Seljuks ruled over Persia at the time and were the most powerful force in the Muslim world, and the defeat at Samarkand weakened them substantially. The Kara-Khitan were not Christians, however, and there is no reason to suppose Yelü Dashi was ever called Prester John. However, several vassals of the Kara-Khitan practiced Nestorian Christianity, which may have contributed to the legend. This realization of the historical basis for Otto's account was introduced into the academic mainstream by Lev Gumilev in his popular book about Prester John, "Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom" (1970).
Regardless of whether Gumilev's contention is accurate, the defeat of the Seljuk's provided undeniable encouragement to the Crusaders and inspired a notion of Christian deliverance arising from the East. For this reason, it is possible Otto recorded Hugh's confused report to prevent complacency in the Crusade's European backers; as, according to his account, no help could be expected from a powerful Eastern king.
Though little written evidence of the legend can be traced to the following two decades (1145-1165), the continued prevalence of the tale is attested to by the subsequent wide circulation of the Letter of Prester John, a document that transmitted the lore of the Oriental Christian monarch throughout Europe. As Michael Uebel notes, "the Letter of Prester John, existing in over 250 Latin and vernacular manuscripts, was a medieval bestseller." An epistolary wonder tale with parallels suggesting its author knew the Romance of Alexander and the above-mentioned Acts of Thomas, the Letter was supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143 – 1180) by Prester John, descendant of one of the Three Magi and King of India.
The plethora of worldly riches and miraculous wonders it described captured the imagination of Europeans, and it was translated into numerous languages. The reports were so far believed that Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John via his emissary Philip, his physician, on September 27, 1177. Of Philip, nothing more is recorded, but it is most probable he did not return with word from Prester John. As for the Letter, it continued to circulate, accruing more embellishments with each copy. The invention of printing perpetuated the letter's popularity, ensuring that it was still in general circulation during the period of European exploration. Regardless of the various elaborations, all versions centered around a lost kingdom of Nestorian Christians that existed (and in fact thrived) in the vastnesses of Africa or Asia. A later example of these tales of wonder and excess can be found in the writings of John Mandeville:
In modern times, textual analysis of the letter's variant Hebrew versions have suggested an origin among the Jews of northern Italy or Languedoc: several Italian words remained in the Hebrew texts. At any rate, the Letter’s author was most likely a Westerner, though his or her purpose remains unclear.
In 1221, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade with good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens. He had already conquered Persia, then under the Khwarezmian Empire's control, and was moving on towards Baghdad as well. This descendent of the great king who had defeated the Seljuks in 1141 planned to reconquer and rebuild Jerusalem.
Much to the surprise of Christian Europe, this "King David" was no benevolent Nestorian monarch nor even a Christian, but Genghis Khan! However, instead of destroying the mythic complex surrounding Prester John, it merely caused it to develop in a new direction. The Mongol Empire's rise gave Western Christians the opportunity to visit lands they had never seen before, and they set out in large numbers along the Empire's secure roads. The belief that a lost Nestorian kingdom existed in the east, or at least that the Crusader states' salvation depended on an alliance with an Eastern monarch, explains the numerous Christian ambassadors and missionaries sent to the Mongols, such as the Franciscan explorers Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in 1245 and William of Rubruck in 1253.
More specifically, this period saw the mythic link between Prester John and Genghis Khan becoming elaborated upon, as the Prester came to be identified with Genghis' foster father, Toghrul, king of the Keraits (given the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) title "Wang Khan Toghrul"). Chroniclers and explorers whose writings were generally seen as authoritative, such as Marco Polo, Crusader-historian Jean de Joinville, and the Franciscan voyager Odoric of Pordenone stripped Prester John of much of his otherworldly veneer, portraying him more realistically as a powerful (though utterly human) monarch. For instance, Joinville's chronicle describes him as the strongest enemy of the Mongols, until a "wise man" united all the Tartar tribes and led them to victory against him. William of Rubruck build upon these these with various elaborations concerning the relationship between the Prester and the Asian conquerors. In his account, he suggests that a certain "Vut," lord of the Keraits and brother to the Nestorian King John, was defeated by the Mongols under Genghis. Genghis made off with Vut's daughter and married her to his son, and their union produced Möngke, the Khan at the time William wrote. According to Marco Polo, the war between the Prester and Genghis started when Genghis, new ruler of the rebellious Tartars, asked for the hand of Prester John's daughter in marriage. Angered that his lowly vassal would make such a request, Prester John denied him in no uncertain terms. In the war that followed, Genghis triumphed and Prester John perished.
The major characteristic of Prester John tales from this period is that the king is portrayed not as an invincible hero, but merely one of many rulers defeated by the unassailable advance of the Mongols. However, as the Mongol Empire collapsed, Europeans began to shift away from the idea that Prester John had ever really been a Central Asian king. Further, they had little hope of finding him there in the post-Mongolian period, as travel through the region became dangerous without the security the Empire had provided. In works such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Historia Trium Regum by John of Hildesheim, Prester John's domain tends to regain its fantastic aspects and finds itself located not on the steppes of Central Asia, but back in India proper, or some other exotic locale (often Ethiopia).
As one example of these newly decontextualized depictions of the Holy Ruler, we can turn to Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, which tied the history of Prester John to the Holy Grail legend by suggesting that the Prester is the son of the Grail maiden and the (converted) Saracen knight, Feirefiz. In this way, the legend managed to survive both the rise and fall of the Mongols, despite early identifications between their titular hero and the Central Asian conquerors.
Though Prester John had been considered the ruler of India since the legend's beginnings, "India" was a vague concept to the Europeans. Writers often spoke of the "Three Indias," and lacking any real knowledge of the Indian Ocean, they sometimes considered Ethiopia one of the three. Westerners knew Ethiopia was a mighty Christian nation, but contact had been sporadic since the rise of Islam. Since no Prester John was to be found in Asia, European imagination moved him around the blurry frontiers of "India" until they found an appropriately powerful kingdom for him in Ethiopia.
Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a magnificent Christian land and Orthodox Christians had a legend that the nation would one day rise up and invade Arabia, but they did not place Prester John there. All of this changed in 1306, when the mythic imagination of the Europe was inflamed by the arrival of 30 Ethiopian ambassadors from Emperor Wedem Arad—especially as Prester John was mentioned as the patriarch of their church in a record of their visit. Building upon this, the first clear description of an African Prester John emerged 23 years later, in the Mirabilia Descripta of Dominican missionary Jordanus (1329). In discussing the "Third India," Jordanus records a number of fanciful stories about the land and its king, whom he says Europeans call Prester John. Following the propagation of this account, an African location became increasingly popular home for the legendary Hero King; by the time Ethiopian emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact with each other in 1520, Prester John was the name by which Europeans knew the Emperor of Ethiopia (despite the fact that this term was unfamiliar to the Ethiopians themselves). The relationship between the legendary Prester (and his utopian Christian kingdom) and the Portugese impetus towards world-spanning navigation is explored at length in Francis M. Rogers's The Quest for Eastern Christians: Travels and Rumor in the Age of Discovery.
This trend in nomenclature (with respect to Ethiopian royalty) was also evidenced elsewhere Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When ambassadors from Emperor Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence in 1441, they were confused when council prelates insisted on referring to their monarch as Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob's list of regnal names did that title occur. "No matter," says Robert Silverberg, author of The Realm of Prester John, "Prester John was what Europe wanted to call the King of Ethiopia, and Prester John is what Europe called him." Some writers who used the title did understand it was not an indigenous honorific; for instance Friar Jordanus seems to use it simply because his readers would have been familiar with it, not because he thought it authentic.
It should be noted that while Ethiopia has been argued as the genesis of the Prester John legend for many years, most experts today believe the legend was simply adapted to fit that nation in the same fashion it had been projected upon Wang Khan and Central Asia during the thirteenth century. Modern scholars find nothing about the Prester or his country in the early material that would make Ethiopia a more suitable identification than any place else, and furthermore, specialists in Ethiopian history have effectively demonstrated the story was not widely known there until well after European contact. When the Czech Franciscan Remedius Prutky asked Emperor Iyasus II about this identification in 1751, Prutky states the man was "astonished, and told me that the kings of Abyssinia had never been accustomed to call themselves by this name." In a footnote to this passage, Richard Pankhurst opines that this is apparently the first recorded statement by an Ethiopian monarch about this tale, and they were likely ignorant of the title until Prutky's inquiry.
When the newly developed (or discovered) principles of scientific investigation came to be applied to historiography in the seventeenth century, as by academics like the German Orientalist Hiob Ludolf, it was conclusively proved that there was no actual native connection between Prester John and the Ethiopian monarchs. With this, the fabled king (and his Utopian kingdom) was stricken from the maps. Despite its eventual demise, the legend was a notable historical force, as it affected several hundred years of European and world history (both directly and indirectly) by encouraging the far-ranging exploits of European explorers, missionaries, scholars and treasure hunters.
Though the prospect of finding Prester John had long since vanished, the tales continued to inspire through the 20th century. William Shakespeare's 1600 play Much Ado About Nothing contains an early modern reference to the legendary king, and in 1910 British novelist and politician John Buchan used the legend in his sixth book, Prester John, to supplement a plot about a Zulu uprising in South Africa. The book was popular, and exists as an excellent example of the early 20th-century adventure novel. Perhaps due to Buchan's work, Prester John appeared in pulp fiction and comics throughout the century. For example, Marvel Comics has featured "Prester John" in issues of Fantastic Four and Thor.
Charles Williams, a prominent member of the 20th-century literary group the Inklings, made Prester John a messianic protector of the Holy Grail in his 1930 novel War in Heaven. The Prester and his kingdom also figure prominently in Umberto Eco's 2000 novel Baudolino, in which the titular protagonist enlists his friends to write the Letter of Prester John for his stepfather Frederick Barbarossa, but it is stolen before they can send it out. Eventually Baudolino and company determine to visit the priest's wonderful kingdom which turns out to be everything and nothing like they expected.
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