Prester John

From Academic Kids

pl:Prester John Prester John (also Presbyter John) was a legendary Christian ruler in the East combining the roles of patriarch and king.

"If I want him to remain alive until I return what is that to you? Because of this the rumour spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die." (Gospel of John 21:22-23)

A kernel of the myth may have been drawn from Eusebius' quotes from Irenaeus, whose teacher in Syria had been the martyr bishop Papias, whose apostolic tradition had been imparted by John the Presbyter, a shadowy early Christian figure in Syria, who was credited with two of the Epistles of John (see the 5th-century Decretum Gelasianum).

The legend of Prester John began in earnest in the 12th century with two reports of visits of an archbishop of India to Constantinople and of a Patriarch of India to Rome at the time of Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124). These visits apparently from the St. Thomas Christians of India cannot be confirmed, evidence of both being secondhand reports.

Otto of Freising in his Chronicon of 1145 [1] ( reports that in 1144, he had met, in the presence of pope Eugene II in Viterbo, a certain Hugo, bishop of Gabala, an emissary of Raymond of Antioch who was seeking Western aid against the Saracens. Hugo told him that Prester John was a Nestorian Christian, both priest and king, descended from one of the Three Magi, and had defeated the brother monarchs of Media and Persia, the Samiardi, in a great battle "not many years ago" and had regained Ecbatana. After this battle, Prester John allegedly set out for Jerusalem to rescue the Holy Land, but the swollen waters of the Tigris compelled him to return to his own country. His fabulous wealth was demonstrated by his emerald scepter. During the ensuing Second Crusade, there was hope that Prester John would come to the aid of the holy cities and help recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims (CE: Prester John).

What is very definite is a letter, the Letter of Prester John, an epistolary wonder tale with parallels that suggest its author knew the Romance of Alexander. The Letter was supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180) by Prester John, the King of India. This letter, appearing around 1165, which recounted many marvels of richness and magic, captured the imagination of Europeans, and was translated into numerous languages including Hebrew; itcirculated in ever more embellished form for centuries in manuscript—a hundred examples still exist— and shortly after the invention of printing in printed form as well, being still current in the popular culture during the period of European exploration. Part of the essence of the letter was that a lost kingdom of Nestorian Christians still existed in the fastnesses of Central Asia.

In modern times textual analysis of the letter's variant Hebrew versions have suggested an origin anmong Jews of Northern Italy or Languedoc: several Italian words remained in the Hebrew texts [2] (

The reports were so far believed that Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John via his emissary Phillip, his physician, on September 27, 1177. Phillip was never heard of again. The more successful journey of the Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, despatched by Innocent IV to the Great Khan (1245), found no Prester John. Several Asian tribes were identified with Prester John by travellers, but from the 14th century onward his empire was sometimes placed in Africa, and in the 15th and 16th centuries it began to be considered equivalent to the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia.

Prester John was often identified as a descendant of the Magi, or a descendant of Christians of Saint Thomas, who had supposedly founded an early (and therefore more pure) church in India (see St. Thomas Christians. When the Mongols invaded Palestine in the 13th century, the Christians inhabiting the remnants of the Crusader States also believed at first that Genghis Khan was Prester John, coming to rescue them from the Muslims. The lingering belief in a lost Nestorian kingdom in the east accounts for several Christian embassies to the Mongols, in particular the one of William of Rubruck, who was sent to the Tartars by Louis IX in 1253.

An excessively fanciful version of the tale of Prester John was made available to English readers by Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century [3] ( In Bavaria, Wolfram von Eschenbach, in Parzival, was the first to unite the legend of the Holy Grail with this history of Prester John.

Later attempts to specify Prester John's kingdom moved it from India and the East to Ethiopia, equally a distant land beyond the Red Sea where distant Christians lived, and easily confused in the European geographical imagination. Such confusions were aided by the prevarications of traders protecting their sources: in Roman times [[cinnamon[]] was thought to come from Ethiopia via the Red Sea [4] (

Further reading

  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science: During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, Volume II, pp. 236-245, Columbia University Press, 1923, New York and London, Hardcover, 1036 pages ISBN 0231087950
  • (Johannes Presbyter) Edition and study of the "Letter of Prester John to the Emperor Manuel of Constantinople": The Anglo-Norman rhymed version, Robert Anthony Vitale,editor, College Park, Maryland, 1975
  • Wilhelm Baum, Die Verwandlungen des Mythos vom Reich des Priesterkönigs Johannes, Klagenfurt 1999
  • Umberto Eco, Baudolino ISBN 0156029065 -- Baudolino and his ragtag friends engage in typical scholastic debates of the period, trying to determine the dimensions of Solomon's Temple and the location of the Earthly Paradise. And when the Emperor needs support in his claims for saintly lineage, who but Baudolino can craft the perfect letter of homage from the legendary Prester John, Holy (and wholly fictitious) Christian King of the East?
  • Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, which tells much of Prester John's supposed history, written in 1298. See especially Book I, Chapters 46-50, 59; and Book II,Chapters 38-39.
  • Robert Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John ISBN 1842124099
  • Charles Beckingham, Prester John, the Mongols and the Ten Lost Tribes, Aldershot 1996, ISBN 086078553X -- Assembly of the essential source texts and studies.

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