The Legend of Prester John Spurs European Exploration

views updated

The Legend of Prester John Spurs European Exploration


Few among even the most educated modern people recognize "Prester John," a mythical Eastern Christian king whose existence Europeans widely believed during the late Middle Ages. Fewer still appreciate the enormous impact this strange myth had on the history of the West, particularly inasmuch as it inspired the Portuguese expeditions that inaugurated the Age of Exploration. The story of Prester John's legend encompasses a vast panorama, stretching over a period of some 500 years beginning in the mid-twelfth century; taking place in lands from western China to Italy to Ethiopia; and involving figures as varied as Genghis Khan and Henry the Navigator.


To understand the background of the Prester John story, one must start at the middle, when the tale first made its appearance, then move forward to examine its impact. Only when this is done can one properly delve into the elements from the distant past that spawned it.

In Palestine in 1144, the Christian stronghold at Edessa fell, ending a period of crusader dominance in the Holy Land that had lasted for nearly a half-century, since the First Crusade. Early in 1145, Raymond of Antioch, grandson of the conquering crusader by the same name, sent Bishop Hugh of Jabala to seek help from Pope Eugenius II. In time, Europe would send forces that would wage the disastrous Second Crusade (1147-49), a failed attempt to win back the gains of the first; but the most significant outgrowth of Hugh's audience with the pope was a bizarre tale concerning a king named Presbyter Johannes, or John the Priest.

Present at the meeting between Hugh and Eugenius was one of the medieval world's great historians, Bishop Otto of Freising (c. 1111-1158). In his History of the Two Cities, Otto later wrote that Hugh spoke of "a certain John, a king and priest who lives in the extreme Orient, beyond Persia and Armenia, and who like his people is a Christian...." This Prester John, as he came to be known, subscribed to the Nestorian faith, which maintained that Christ had two separate identities, one human and one divine. The Church had declared Nestorianism a heresy in 431, and in subsequent centuries, the Nestorians had gravitated eastward.

Prester John, however, was on his way west, according to Hugh. He wished to aid the crusaders in Jerusalem, and had won a great victory over a Muslim army in Persia, but had been unable to cross the frozen Tigris River in Mesopotamia. Therefore he and his armies had turned north, hoping to find a place where the river was frozen in winter; but after years of trying, they had finally given up. Near the end of his account, Otto noted that John was "said to be a direct descendant of the Magi, who are mentioned in the Gospel, and to rule over the same peoples they governed, enjoying such glory and prosperity that he uses no scepter but one of emerald."

In The Realm of Prester John—a particularly notable study among dozens on the subject—Robert Silverberg noted that the quest for Prester John's land would last for half a millennium, in the process becoming "one of the great romantic enterprises of the Middle Ages." It was a journey across thousands of miles, first into Asia, and later to Africa; yet, "Tracing the origin of the legend of Prester John leads the scholar on a quest nearly as exhausting and difficult as those undertaken by the medieval explorers."

It seems clear that Hugh did not invent the story he told, Silverberg observed, not least because belief in Prester John would have hurt his cause: as long as there was a powerful Eastern king intent on coming to the crusaders' assistance, there was no need for Rome to help. Instead, it seems that Hugh was actually trying to counteract rumors about Prester John's invincibility that were already beginning to spread throughout Europe. Therefore one must look beyond Hugh, Silverberg wrote, "But to uncover the sources of the tale Hugh told requires a lengthy voyage on a sea of conjecture."


Twenty years after Hugh's meeting with the pope, in 1165, Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus (r. 1143-80) received a letter purportedly from Prester John. In the lengthy missive, the putative monarch discusses the wealth and power of his kingdom, and does so in terms both boastful and condescending: "Our Majesty has been informed that you hold our Excellency in esteem, and that knowledge of our greatness has reached you." The epistle goes on to discuss the wealth of John's land, where all the people are pious and the king himself is served by vassal kings and bishops. Peppering the letter are also descriptions of numerous fantastic elements in John's kingdom: swirling oceans of sand, salamanders that live in fire, and a stone with a cavity holding water that cures all diseases.

As for the location of this fabled land, John identifies it as "the Three Indias." The latter was a vague, confusing expression. Two of the "Indias" were, at least, in or close to what is today known as India, Nearer or Lesser India being the area of mountains from the Caucasus to the Himalayas, and Farther or Greater India the main part of the Indian subcontinent. But "Middle India" was thousands of miles away in Ethiopia, a reflection of the fact that medieval Europeans believed everything east of the Nile to be part of Asia.

Scholars have long recognized the letter as a forgery, probably written by an imaginative monk. There are a number of reasons for this conclusion, not least the fact that the author followed none of the established conventions for diplomatic correspondence in the Middle Ages: for example, the letter includes no date or reference to its place of origin, and more important, its tone is hardly that of one who hopes to maintain the goodwill of his recipient.

Forgery or not, however, the letter began to make the rounds in Europe, appearing in some 100 versions—many with added passages—in a dozen languages. It quickly gained wide acceptance, such that in 1177 Pope Alexander III (c. 1105-1181) apparently attempted to answer the letter. Certainly it is known that the pope wrote a message to a Christian ruler in the East, cautioning him against boastfulness and inviting him to accept the Roman Church as the true one. It is also certain that Alexander gave this letter to his physician, Philippus—but as to where Philippus went with it, or even what became of the messenger himself, historians do not know.

Over the next two centuries, the Prester John legend went through numerous permutations, disappearing periodically, then reappearing in new forms. The next stage in the legend's development came in 1222, after yet another failed crusade, the fifth (1217-21). It was then that Jacques de Vitry (c. 1170-1240), bishop of Acre in the Holy Land, reported rumors that a certain King David, son or grandson of Prester John, was about to come to the crusaders' aid from the East. This was true, at least in part: a new, powerful king was on his way, and his host would indeed smash the power of Muslim rulers in the Middle East. But he was no Christian, and his name was not David; it was Genghis Khan (1162-1227).

As they, like their Muslim foes, faced the Mongol onslaught, Europeans soon realized that Genghis Khan was not their promised savior. Thus the early thirteenth-century version of the legend depicted Genghis as a usurper who had seized the throne from the real Prester John. For example, Marco Polo (1254-1324), in his account of his travels among Mongol lands, stated matter-of-factly that Toghrul or Unc Khan, a chieftain overthrown by the young Genghis, was in fact Prester John.

By the mid-thirteenth century, the legend had again become attached to a Mongol leader, Genghis's grandson Kuyuk, who had taken an interest in Nestorian Christianity. Other travelers among the Mongols, including Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (1182-1252), Giovanni da Montecorvino (1246-1328), Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1265-1331), and John de' Marignolli (c. 1290-c. 1357), would add new elements to the tale of Prester John, as would the scholar Johannes of Hildesheim (d. 1375). So too would "Sir John Mandeville," alleged author of a fictionalized—but nonetheless highly popular—travelogue in c. 1360.

As Mongol power waned, however, new accounts depicted John as coming from Armenia. Then, in the early 1330s, the Description of Marvels, a travel memoir by Jordanus of Séverac (1290-1354), depicted a new location for John's kingdom: Ethiopia. Thus was born the final version of the legend, one that would open the curtain on the modern era of exploration.

Born a century after Jordanus, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) grew up intrigued by the idea of searching for Prester John in Africa, and his desire to find the legendary Christian king spurred him to send explorers along the African coast. In time this aim became tied with a quest for a sea route to India. Thus in 1487, the same year Portugal's King John II (r. 1481-95) sent Bartholomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) and Pero da Covilhã (c. 1460-c. 1526) on expeditions to find routes to India, he ordered Afonso da Paiva to seek out Prester John in Ethiopia.

Paiva died in Cairo, so Covilhã, having completed his own mission along the Horn of Africa, was sent in his place to Ethiopia. There he did indeed meet up with a Christian monarch, the emperor of Ethiopia, who refused to let him leave; thus when a group of Portuguese explorers arrived in Ethiopia in 1520, they were met by an aging Covilhã. By then another Portuguese adventurer, Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524), had long since completed his successful 1497 voyage to India around the Cape of Good Hope—an expedition in which he carried with him a letter from his king to Prester John.

The myth would persist in one form or another for at least a century more, during which it continued to inspire European exploration, a great (if little-known) influence on the course of history. But where did it have its origins? What inspired the legend Hugh of Jabala passed on to Otto of Freising in 1145? A number of historical, semihistorical, and literary elements appear to have informed the tale.

There were, first of all, legends concerning St. Thomas, or "Doubting Thomas," the apostle who had supposedly gone to India as a missionary. There is indeed a native Indian Christian community in India, as well as a grave that supposedly is Thomas's; as for whether the apostle is truly buried there, or whether the ancient community of Indian Christians owes its existence to Thomas's missionary work, these matters are not known.

Legends of Thomas were bound up with those of his erstwhile colleague, the original "Priest John"—that is, St. John the disciple. Combined with the established fact of the Nestorian community, these elements all contributed to the idea of a Christian king from the East. But when Prester John failed to materialize in that direction, it was only logical that Europeans should look for him in Ethiopia, a land that had been Christian since the fourth century a.d.

Fantastic elements in the Prester John legend owe much to the considerable body of fiction and mythology concerning Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.), writings collectively described as "the Romance of Alexander." This literature, an example of which is Christian Legend Concerning Alexander (c. 514), arose long after Alexander's time, and usually depicts the Macedonian conqueror alongside fixtures of Christian apocalyptic writing, such as the fierce giants Gog and Magog from the Book of Revelation.

Finally, there is the most clearly historical and concrete element of the Prester John legend, the defeat of a Muslim prince by forces from the East in 1141. These forces were the Kara-Khitai, a nomadic tribe from northern China under the leadership of Yeh-lü Ta-shih (1098-1135). On September 9 near Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan, they won a victory over an army led by the Seljuk leader Sanjar from Persia. The story soon made its way westward, and as it passed from one reteller to another, it gained new elements and ultimately became an entirely different, and truly fantastic, tale.


Further Reading


Alvares, Francisco. Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia During the Years 1520-1527, translated and edited by Lord Stanley of Alderley. London: Hakluyt Society, 1881.

Buchan, John. Prester John. Edited and with an introduction by David Daniell. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gumilev, L. N. Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John. Translated by R. E. F. Smith. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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

Sanceau, Elaine. The Land of Prester John: A Chronicle of Portuguese Exploration. New York City: Knopf, 1944.

Silverberg, Robert. The Realm of Prester John. Athens: University of Ohio Press, 1972.

Internet Sites

Philadelphia Print Shop. "Mythical Geography: The Kingdom of Prester John."

About this article

The Legend of Prester John Spurs European Exploration

Updated About content Print Article