Legendary ruler of a Christian kingdom in the East. The name of Prester (priest) John appears first in 1145, in the chronicle of Otto of Freising, where John is described as a Christian king reigning "in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia," the vanquisher of the Moslem kings of Iran. It was hoped he would come to the aid of the Holy Land. The victory alluded to here was actually that of the Khan of the Kara-Khitay over the Seljuk King of Persia (1141). But the name "Prester John" was certainly in use prior to 1141 and doubtless designated the Christian emperor of Ethiopia, whose existence was vaguely known in Palestine. After the victory of 1141, the Christian West tended to localize the kingdom of Prester John in the Indies. An apocryphal letter, widely disseminated from 1165 on, from this ruler to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus made Prester John the guardian of the tomb of the Apostle Thomas in Mylapore.
In the 13th century, John's name was interspersed throughout the West's information on the Mongol conquest. A text disseminated c. 1220 made Genghis Khan, under the name "King David," the son of Prester John and a Christian as well. Later it was supposed by some that Genghis Khan had destroyed the kingdom of Prester John, a kingdom identified by some with that of one of the Christian peoples in Central Asia, the Kéraït, or the Naimans; and by others believed to be a kingdom located in India. The latter group further believed that the kingdom had escaped the Mongol conquest thanks to the miraculous intervention of the three royal Magi, or Wise Men, whose heir Prester John was reputed to be. Finally, John of Monte Corvino affirmed that Ongüt, king of the Turks, was the descendant of Prester John.
Another tradition, however, persisted in identifying Prester John with the emperor of Ethiopia; and when Western Christendom actually came into direct contact with this emperor in the 14th century, he seemed willing to seize the Muslim states from the rear in order to back up the Crusades and to aid in freeing the Holy Land. And so the name of Prester John survived until the 17th century.
Bibliography: e. cerulli, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 5:1072. j. richard, "L'Extrême-Orient légendaire au moyen âge," Annales d'Éthiopie 2 (1957) 225–244.
According to medieval legend, Prester John was a Christian king who ruled over an Asian land. The story of Prester John started around the time of the Crusades, the military campaigns undertaken by European Christians to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims.
A report written in 1145 called Prester John a mighty priest and king, who defeated the Persian Muslims and planned to help the Crusaders free Jerusalem. Twenty years later, a letter supposedly written by Prester John circulated in Europe. In it, he described his kingdom as a paradise on earth. He also promised to defeat the Muslims and recapture Christian holy places.
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about a.d. 500 to 1500
In 1177 Pope Alexander III sent a group to locate Prester John, but they were unsuccessful. Over the next few hundred years, many explorers and missionaries searched for him as they traveled throughout Asia. In the l400s, a Portuguese traveler claimed to have found Prester John's kingdom in the present-day African country of Ethiopia.