Prester John (known also as Presbyter John or John the Elder) was a legendary figure in Europe during the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Europeans
Prester John (known also as Presbyter John or John the Elder) was a legendary figure in Europe during the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Europeans living at that time believed that Prester John was a wealthy and powerful Christian monarch who ruled over a kingdom somewhere in the East, beyond the borders of Medieval Christendom.
This kingdom was thought to be ‘lost’ among the nations of the Muslims and pagans, though no one knew its exact location. Nevertheless, the Europeans were extremely keen on making contact with this legendary ruler, as they were hoping to find a powerful Christian ally in the East in their struggle against the Muslims. Although Prester John’s kingdom was never found, its legend contributed to Portuguese exploration during the Age of Discovery . Thus, indirectly, this fabled ruler had a big impact on world history.
What is the Legend of Prester John?
The legend of Prester John first arose during the 12th century. This was the time of the Crusades, when Christians from Europe attempted to seize the Holy Land from the Muslims by force. The earliest known reference to the legend of Prester John dates to 1145.
It’s important to note that in the previous year, the County of Edessa, the northernmost Crusader state, was captured by Zengi, the Seljuk governor of Mosul. The loss of Edessa sent shockwaves across Europe, leading to the Second Crusade in 1147.
In any case, the legend of Prester John was first reported in Bishop Otto of Freising’s ‘ Chronicon’ a year after the fall of Edessa. Otto claims that he heard this story from Bishop Hugh of Jabala in Syria, who told it to the papal court in Viterbo. Otto’s account of Prester John is as follows:
“He said, indeed, that not many years since, one John, a king and priest living in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia, and who, with his people, is a Christian, but a Nestorian, had warred upon the so-called Samiards, the brother kings of the Medes and Persians. John also attacked Ebactanus, the capital of their kingdom. When the aforesaid kings advanced against him with a force of Persians, Medes, and Assyrians, a three-day struggle ensued, since both sides were willing to die rather than to flee. At length, Prester John so he is usually called put the Persians to flight and emerged from the dreadful slaughter as victor.”
Prester John as depicted in the chronicles of Hartmann Schedel (1493). ( Public Domain )
He goes on to say that Prester John tried to bring his army to aid Jerusalem, but was unable to do so,
“The Bishop said that the aforesaid John moved his army to aid the church of Jerusalem, but that when he came to the Tigris and was unable to take his army across it by any means, be turned aside to the north, where he had been informed that the stream was frozen solid during the winter. There he awaited the ice for several years, but saw none because of the temperate weather. His army lost many men on account of the weather to which they were unaccustomed and he was compelled to return home.”
Lastly, Otto provides some information about Prester John’s lineage, and his qualities as a ruler,
“He is said to be a descendant of the Magi of old, who are mentioned in the Gospel. He governs the same people as they did and is said to enjoy such glory and such plenty that he uses no scepter save one of emerald. Fired by the example of his forefathers, who came to adore Christ in the manger, he proposed to go to Jerusalem, but he was, they say, turned back for the aforementioned reason.”
A depiction of Prester John from 1800. ( Public Domain )
According to one interpretation of the text, the battle mentioned by Hugh may have been the Battle of Qatwan, which was fought to the north of Samarkand in 1141. During the battle, the Seljuks were defeated by Yelü Dashi, the founder of the Qara Khitai . Since the dynasty’s rulers adopted the title Gur-khan or Kor-khan, it has been suggested that this title may have been changed phonetically in Hebrew to Yoḥanan or in Syriac to Yuḥanan, ultimately resulting in Johannes, Latin for John. Although Yelü Dashi was himself a Buddhist, many of the Qara Khitai elite were Nestorians, thus fitting Hugh’s description. If this interpretation were correct, it would mean that the legend of Prester John did have some historical basis.
The Letter of Prester John was a Medieval Bestseller
During the 13th century, a monk and chronicler, Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, recorded that in 1165, a letter, allegedly from Prester John, was sent to several Christian rulers, most notably Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor, and Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. These were the two most powerful secular rulers of Christendom at that time.
Although the Letter of Prester John is today generally believed to be a hoax, the Christians of Medieval Europe may have been convinced of its authenticity. The pope, Alexander III, for instance, even sent a reply to Prester John through his physician, Philip, on September 27, 1177. Philip vanishes from history after that, as he probably did not succeed in his mission. Additionally, the Letter of Prester John was a best-seller during the Middle Ages, and over 100 versions of this letter were published in the centuries after its first appearance.
Letter of Prester John. (Walters Art Museum/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Letter of Prester John is a much longer piece of text compared to Otto’s account of Prester John, and it is a considerable elaboration of the legend. For instance, Otto describes neither the power of Prester John, nor the extent of his kingdom. These details, however, are found in the Letter of Prester John . In one version of the text, for instance, Prester John claims to have 72 kings as his vassals, most of whom are not Christians. As for the extent of his kingdom, it is described as follows:
“And our land stretches from the extremities of India, where the body of Thomas the Apostle rests; and it extends through the wilderness to the setting sun, and reaches back, sloping to deserted Babylon, near the tower of Babylon.”
These details were no doubt meant to portray Prester John as a powerful ruler, which is the chief purpose of the letter. Other details in the letter that serve this purpose include a list and description of the exotic flora and fauna in Prester John’s kingdom, and some of the peoples under his rule.
For example, the letter speaks of an herb that drives evil spirits away , worms that can live only in fire, and people who can live under water for three or four months. The letter also describes the wealth of Prester John, as well as the might of his army:
“Our men have abundance of all kinds of riches; …. We liken none on the face of the earth to us in riches. When we go to war in force against our enemies, we let carry before us fifteen large, magnificent crosses made of gold and silver, with precious stones therein, one in each car, instead of standards, and behind each one of them twelve thousand men of arms, and a hundred thousand foot soldiers, without counting the five thousand who have to do with bearing food and drink.”
While the real author of the Letter of Prester John may never be known, it has been speculated that he / she was a Westerner who was probably familiar with two much older works – the ‘ Alexander Romance ,’ and the ‘ Acts of Thomas .’ The former, though based on the life of Alexander the Great , contains numerous fantastical elements, whereas the latter speaks of Saint Thomas’ mission to spread Christianity in India. The ‘ Acts of Thomas’ could have been the inspiration behind the possibility of a Christian ruler in the East and the ‘ Alexander Romance’ provided details for the marvelous flora, fauna, and peoples in this eastern kingdom.
The Letter of Prester John may have been merely a piece of Medieval travel literature, though the original purpose of its composition, and how its readers received it, is unclear. Apart from the pope’s mission to Prester John, it seems that other Christian rulers did not really bother themselves with the legend.
A Surprising ‘King David’ of India
During the 13th century, however, the legend of Prester John gained popularity once again. In 1221, the Fifth Crusade, which aimed to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land by seizing Cairo, the Ayyubid capital , ended in failure. When the Bishop of Acre, Jacques de Vitry, returned to Europe several years later, he brought with him a piece of good news – a King David of India, apparently the son or grandson of Prester John, had subdued the Muslim Khwarazmian Empire, which ruled over Persia at that time.
Moreover, this King David was rumored to be marching against the other Muslims powers. Thus, the Christians of Europe were hopeful that they would be able to defeat the Muslims with the aid of this Christian monarch from the East.
The rumors of this King David were not entirely false, nor were they entirely true. While King David was a king from the East, he was not a Christian. In fact, the Europeans soon learned that he was Genghis Khan , the founder of the Mongol Empire.
Genghis Khan proclaimed Khagan of all Mongols. Illustration from a 15th-century Jami’ al-tawarikh manuscript. ( Public Domain ) The Europeans soon learned that ‘King David,’ a supposed descendant of Prester John, was Genghis Khan.
The connection between Genghis Khan and Prester John was also elaborated on by Christian writers during that time. The relation between the two figures vary from one author to another. In one version of the tale, for instance, Genghis Khan had been a vassal of Prester John, rebelled against him, and defeated him.
In another, Prester John was identified as Toghrul, Genghis Khan’s foster father. In any case, it is clear that Prester John was no longer seen as the invincible Christian king of the earlier tales, but a human monarch, though mighty, who had been defeated by the Mongols.
Initially, the Europeans tried to form alliances with the Mongols, and hoped that their conversion to Christianity would help them turn the tide against Islam. However, the excessive brutality displayed by the Mongols during their conquests, as well as the fact that some of them converted to Islam, brought an end to the Europeans’ hopes.
Where was the Kingdom of Prester John?
Furthermore, during the 14th century, the Mongol Empire itself was disintegrating. As a consequence, the search for Prester John shifted from Central Asia to Africa, more specifically to Abyssinia, an area which covers modern Ethiopia and Eritrea.
This may be strange, as Prester John is said to be the King of India, which would mean that he came from somewhere in Asia, rather than Africa. The Medieval Europeans, however, have a different view of ‘India’ from us, and Abyssinia is sometimes considered to be part of it.
Map of Africa by Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598). Latin title in box: Presbiteri Johannis, sive, Abissinorum Imperii descriptio (“A Description of the Empire of Prester John, that is to say, of the Abyssinians”). ( Public Domain )
The Europeans were aware that there were Christians in Abyssinia. Following the Islamic conquests during the 7th century AD, however, contact between the two areas was severed. Around the time when the Europeans no longer believed that Central Asia was the land of Prester John, contact between Europe and Abyssinia was re-established.
During the 14th century, Abyssinian embassies had reached the courts of Europe, while Dominican missionaries made it as far as central Africa. Thus, by the end of the century, it was commonly agreed in Europe that Prester John was a ruler of Abyssinia. In one version of the legend, Prester John is said to have retired to Abyssinia after he was defeated by Genghis Khan, thus making a connection between the stories from the 14th and 13th centuries.
The hope that Prester John would be a formidable ally of the Christians against their Muslim enemies continued during the 14th century and beyond. For instance, it was thought that he could have diverted or blocked the Nile, thereby starving the Muslims in Egypt into submission. This, however, was not done – with some arguing that Prester John, being a benevolent ruler, was reluctant to starve the Christians living along the Nile as well. Others, however, claim that Prester John had been paid off by the Muslims.
The Fabled King’s Impact on the Age of Exploration
During the Age of Exploration, which began during the 15th century, one of the factors motivating the Portuguese explorers was the legend of Prester John. They were still hoping to find the kingdom of this legendary ruler, and to form an alliance with him / his descendants against the Muslims. Although the Portuguese never found Prester John, they did find a sea route to Asia, thereby ushering in a new era in world history.
Prester John of the Indies. Close-up from a portolan chart from the late 16th century. (The Bodleian Libraries/ CC BY 4.0 )
Today, it is generally accepted that Prester John was a legendary figure who did not exist, or at least was based partly on actual historical personages. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Prester John and his legend had a huge impact on the people of Medieval Europe. Moreover, by motivating the Portuguese during the Age of Exploration, the legend of Prester John exerted an influence on world history as well.
Finally, Prester John was a literary icon. Apart from the Medieval texts mentioned earlier, he also appears in other, more modern works of literature, including William Shakespeare’s ‘ Much Ado About Nothing ,’ and Umberto Eco’s ‘ Baudolino.’
Top Image: Prester John was a legendary Medieval king. Source: diter / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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