Prestor John

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 2004, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Recently I finished reading Umberto Eco’s book “Baudolino”. The principal trope is Prester John and the title character’s entanglement with this legendary figure. While the events of the book are fictional, they stay close to the historical references of this mythical king. This essay will explore those references.

Prester is a corruption of the word presbyter which is from the Greek word meaning elder. It often refers to a priest.

The first mention of Prester John occurs in 1145 in a German history of the world by Bishop Otto of Freising. In a short section he relates how a Nestorian king named John, descendant of the biblical Magi, defeated a Persian, Mede and Assyrian coalition then moved to go to the aid of Jerusalem but was prevented by his inability to cross the Tigris River. There is a passing reference to his great wealth exemplified by his use of an emerald scepter.

This report came from Bishop Hugh of Jabala who was in Europe seeking help for the crusading states after the fall of Edessa the year before. The report itself is believed to be a distorted account of a battle that took place on September 9, 1141, between the Khitan ruler Yeh-lu Ta-shih and the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar, which took place near Samarkand. It commonly postulated that various phonic translations of Yeh-lu Ta-shih’s name or title resulted in the name of John, though the existence of a preexisting legendary king can not be ruled out. He was most likely a Buddhist.

The Nestorians were a Christian sect that believes that Christ was two persons, divine and human. Declared a heresy in 431, its adherents move east. The bulk of the Nestorian communities were in Persia, but some could be found as far as southern India and eastern China. This branch of Christianity returned to Europe’s awareness in 1122 when a man calling himself Patriarch John appeared in Constantinople and Rome. Who this person was and what his purpose was is obscure. What is important is that the story of the shrine of St. Thomas, Apostle to the Indies, originates with this visit.

What made Prester John famous, however, was a letter that appeared around roughly 1165. It purported to be from Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor Manual. In it, he describes his wealth, his lands and the life found there, glory of his court and palace, and the marvels of St. Thomas. Who produced this fake is unknown. As no Greek version is known to exist, and internal references indicate Latin sources, it is assumed that it was done by a Western European acquainted with the Middle East. His purpose is also known, though there are several conjectures. The three more common ideas are that it was a piece of utopian literature, a political polemic, or a satire.

It took Europe by storm. Over the next four hundred years hundreds of copies were made and translated into the common languages from its original Latin. The printing press furthered its popularity. Over that time variants popped up as well as the occasional updating to contemporary rulers. One of the goals of explorers in the early days of the Age of Exploration was the finding of his kingdom.

There are two principal sources for the contents of the letter. The first are the various romances of Alexander. These are historical fictions about the life of Alexander the Great, on par with the romances of Arthur and Charlemagne. The second were the bestiaries which were the natural history textbooks of the times. However, the author did not limit himself to just these sources, but also lifted pieces from other Latin literature as well as Arabic and Jewish literature.

The first mission to find Prester John’s kingdom occurred in 1177 when Pope Alexander III sent his physician Philip, who promptly disappeared. The second occurred in 1245 when Pope Innocent IV sent several groups of friars east. The best known of these was John of Pain de Carpine who wrote an extensive report of his travels. Their principle task was to find out about the Mongols who had recently suddenly and destructively descended upon Europe. But they were to also look for Prester John and why he did not stop the Mongols. He was told that Prester John had been defeated by Genghis Khan.

In 1247 the Mongols attempted to use Prester John for their own purposes. The Mongol commander in Persia, Eljigidei, had the idea of using the Crusaders to pin the Sultan of Egypt while he took Baghdad. To gain their support, he sent envoys saying that the mother of the Mongol emperor was Prester John’s daughter, and that the emperor had converted to Christianity. King Louis IX of France sent a delegation in response. The scheme died with the emperor and internal Mongol politics interfered.

The return of King Louis’s ambassadors caused another friar east, William of Rubruck. His misunderstanding of central Asian politics resulted in him identifying a Mongolian chief Kuchlug, who dies thirty years previously, as Prester John. Marco Polo makes a similar claim. Confusing the issue was a Turkish tribe called Ongut which had close ties to the ruling Mongol family and were Nestorian.

By 1330 it was clear that Prester John was not to be found in the East. But by then the focus has already begun to focus on Ethiopia. This is not as strange as it seems as knowledge of geography was so poor that Ethiopia was considered a part of India. It did help that Ethiopia was indeed ruled by a Christian king, though of a different heretical doctrine. It was in search of this Prester John that the Portuguese worked their way around Africa. The idea died a slow death in the 16th century.

The appeal of Prester John was the idea of Christianity triumph. He held out hope that there was a force could defeat the resurgent Islam. Later it was the prospect of paradise on earth, of wealth. In either case he created an urgency to find him that would lead to the Age of Exploration. Such was the appeal the he made many a cameo appearance in late period literature and travelogues. Even today, though known to be fictional, his name still evokes a sense of the exotic.



Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. Prester John and Europe's Discovery of East Asia. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1972.

Slessarev, Vsevolod. Prester John: The Letter and the Legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959.


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