The Peregrinations of Prester John: The Creation of a Global Story Across 600 Years
In the Middle Ages, there are few individuals, fictional or historical, who have exercised a stronger pull than Prester John. A product of anxious cultural imaginings mixed with hope for historical change, Prester John has commanded consistent interest since 1145. Over the course of six centuries, Prester John figured centrally in Christendom’s understanding of what the distant world was like: crusading aspirations depended on his materialization; missionary undertakings in the East leveraged their chances of converting the "heathen" against a presumption of his existence, and, mercantile-minded men from Marco Polo through Christopher Columbus dreamt of the putative riches of his kingdom.
Rather than another political hoax faded from historical memory, Prester John’s kingdom began to appear on maps and in travel narratives and romance tales. The Letter of Prester John grew into a legend upon which generations of writers and adventurers continued to draw. “The Peregrinations of Prester John” affords the opportunity for the viewer to experience the legend’s unfolding, piece-by-piece, as it swept up half of the world, from 1150 to 1700. The project traces the story of Prester John across the centuries during which legendary material accrued alongside the geographies the myth touched and helped shape.
By plotting the proposed locations of John’s kingdom in line with understandings of the globe contemporary to these conjectures, one begins to see the degree to which the Prester John legend helped Europeans explore the peripheries of the world, as understood by the medieval and early modern West. Moreover, as the maps shift over time— and with them, John’s kingdom— the degree to which Prester John’s kingdom itself helped determine the shape of the world begins to materialize. Along with tracing the shifting location of the kingdom and the transformations maps undertook to house it, the project will plot the locations and arrivals of key Prester John texts. This second feature will show how the once-European phenomenon of Prester John spread across the globe as a figure portending a global, Christian empire.
In a tradition born between crusades, during a period of unstable Western leadership, Prester John emerged as a potential savior of Christendom. As both king and priest, John had domesticated much of the vast East and had created a kingdom notable both for its superior wealth and for its diverse, sometimes monstrous inhabitants. In a letter quickly copied and disseminated across Europe, this Priest John (presbyter Iohannes) describes his kingdom and announces his intentions to visit the Sepulcher and help vanquish the threat of Islam once and for all. Although Prester John never arrived in the West, the promise of an exotic, abounding, Christian kingdom did not fade from the minds of Europeans.
Prester John first appears in 1145 within Otto of Friesing’s universal chronicle of Christian history based on a comparison between the heavenly kingdom of Jerusalem and the earthly kingdom of Babel. After this initial appearance in 1145, the notion of an eastern “Priest John” goes unremarked for some twenty years, at which point a letter materializes, reportedly authored by John himself. In what has come to be known as the Letter of Prester John, John professes to be a devout Christian king of an immense, militarily powerful kingdom. According to the Letter, this eastern warrior priest-king possesses the richest kingdom on earth, replete not only with a vast store of jewels, spices, and Christian soldiers, but also home to monsters, Jews, and pagans.
Although the Letter was addressed to the Greek Emperor Manuel Comnenus, its twelfth-century circulation was confined exclusively to the territories of Latin Europe. No Greek “original” has ever been discovered or mentioned by contemporaries, prompting an almost near-consensus among scholars that the Letter was always intended for a Latin Christian audience, and was likely created to suit a political purpose. Despite this near-agreement among readers, scholarship has generated far more questions than it has answered about the Letter. The reason(s) for its generation, its provenance, and the intentions of its creator remain unclear to this day.
Buried under such a burden of historical expectation, John seemed destined to disappoint for any number of reasons, not the least of which because he did not exist. Strangely enough, despite never showing up to defend crusader armies and refusing to reveal himself to European travelers, an increasingly global audience refused to relinquish faith in Prester John, who remained an important cornerstone to Western conceptions of a global Christendom for six centuries. How was this possible?
Even as the Letter concealed, familiarized, or misrepresented Eastern happenings, it also excited those looking to capitalize on the promise of this wealthy Christian outpost. Once increased travel began to reveal a less exotic “India” than the legend’s adherents had anticipated, these comparatively accurate reports risked overtaking the popular belief that had developed around Prester John. And yet Prester John remained fixed in the European imagination or, perhaps more accurately, wandered around it.
As the physical location of John’s kingdom was re-imagined in order to sustain the belief that this kingdom might actually exist, Prester John became something of a nomad. Early modern travelers such as Prince Henry, Christopher Columbus, and Duarte Lopes allude to John’s kingdom as a guarantor of Eastern riches. A related history of John’s kingdom in Ethiopia/Abyssinia held Western attention through the European exploration of Africa from the mid-14th through 16th centuries and resurfaced in Scottish novelist John Buchan’s 1910 pro-colonialist adventure novel, entitled Prester John.
John also makes literary appearances in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, among other texts. In Orlando Furioso, Ariosto features an Ethiopian priest-king called Senapo who rules over an immensely wealthy kingdom and controls the flow of the Nile River—the very river that dashed crusader hopes during the Fifth Crusade. Although Ariosto’s is a highly satirical text, his inclusion of the legend shows how, even in the sixteenth century, writers were still attempting to create a plausible backstory to unite the imaginative interest in the legend with a history from which he may have emerged. Sober efforts to seek out the land of Prester John lasted through the eighteenth century and, despite being written out of world history textbooks (at least in the US), the imaginative import of the legendary figure lives on in twentieth-century adventure novels, comic books, and fantasy fiction.
Christopher E. Taylor
University of Texas at Austin