Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is John Mark of Cyrene, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," Prester John?

The legend of Prester John (also Presbyter John ), popular in Europe from the 12th through the 17th centuries, told of a mythical Christian patriarch (actually JOHN MARK, of Cyrene, friend of Jesus. Ed.) and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient. Written accounts of this kingdom are variegated collections of medieval popular fantasy. Reportedly a descendant of one of the Three Magi , Prester John was said to be a generous ruler and a virtuous man, with a realm full of riches and strange creatures, in which the Patriarch of St. Thomas resided. His kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth , and it even bordered the Earthly Paradise. Among his treasures was a mirror through which every province could be seen.

At first, Prester John was imagined to be in India ; tales of the " Nestorian " Christians' evangelical success there and of St. Thomas ' subcontinental travels as documented in works like the Acts of St. Thomas probably provided the first seeds of the myth. After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world accounts placed the king in Central Asia ; eventually Portuguese explorers convinced themselves they had found him in Ethiopia . Prester John's kingdom was the object of an impossible quest, inspiring generations to search for it, but remaining out of reach.

The stories of St. Thomas proselytizing in India, which date back at least to the 3rd century had obvious influence on the myth's development. Distorted versions of the Assyrian Church of the East 's movements in Asia had a hand as well. This sect, called Nestorianism by Europeans who mistook it as adhering to the teachings of Nestorius , gained a wide following in the eastern nations and allowed Westerners to wonder about its followers, both exotic and Christian. Additionally, a kernel of the myth may have been drawn from Saint Irenaeus 's quotes, recorded by the ecclesiastical historian and bishop Eusebius , on the shadowy early Christian figure John the Presbyter of Syria , supposedly the author of two of the Epistles of John (see the 5th-century Decretum Gelasianum ). The martyr bishop Papias had been Irenaeus' teacher; Papias in turn had received his apostolic tradition from John the Presbyter . Little links this figure to the Prester John legend beyond the name, however.

The legend began in earnest in the early 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. Later, the German chronicler Otto of Freising reports in his Chronicon of 1145 that in 1144 , he had met, in the presence of pope Eugene III in Viterbo , a certain Hugh , bishop of Jabala , an emissary of Prince Raymond of Antioch who was seeking Western aid against the Saracens. Hugh told him that Prester John, a Nestorian Christian who served in the dual position of priest and king 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 ; his holiness by his descent from the Three Magi . During the Second Crusade , there was hope that Prester John would come to the aid of the holy cities and help recapture Edessa from the Muslims, and it is possible Otto recorded the tale to prevent complacency in the Crusade's European backers; according to his account no help could be expected from the powerful Eastern king.

Otto's story appears to be a muddled version of real events. In 1141 , the Kara-Khitan Khanate under Yelu Dashi defeated the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand . The Seljuks ruled Persia at the time, and were the most powerful force in the Muslim world. The defeat at Samarkand damaged their power substantially, encouraging the Crusaders. The Kara-Khitan were not Christians, however, and there is no reason to suppose Yelu Dashi was ever called Prester John.

St. Thomas' tomb, according to the Letter located in Prester John's land. No more of the tale is recorded until about 1165 when copies of the Letter of Prester John started spreading throughout Europe. An epistolary wonder tale with parallels that suggest its author knew the Romance of Alexander and the above-mentioned Acts of St. Thomas , the Letter was supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus ( 1143 - 1180 ) by Prester John, descendant of one of the Three Magi and King of India. The many marvels of richness and magic it contained captured the imagination of Europeans, and it was translated into numerous languages including Hebrew. It circulated in ever more embellished form for centuries in manuscript, a hundred examples of which still exist. The invention of printing carried on the letter's popularity in printed form; it was still current in 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 vastnesses of Central Asia.

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 . Of Phillip, nothing more is recorded, but it is most probable he did not return with word from Prester John. The Letter continued to circulate, accruing more embellishments with each copy. In modern times textual analysis of the letter's variant Hebrew versions have suggested an origin among Jews of Northern Italy or Languedoc : several Italian words remained in the Hebrew texts . At any rate, the Letter 's author was most likely a Westerner, though his or her purpose remains unclear.

In 1221 Jacques de Vitry , Bishop of Acre returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade with good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens. He had already conquered Persia , then under the Khwarezmid Empire 's control, and was moving on towards Baghdad as well. This descendent of the great king who had defeated the Seljuks in 1144 planned to reconquer and rebuild Jerusalem.

"King David", as it turned out, was no benevolent Nestorian monarch nor even a Christian, but Genghis Khan . His reign took the story of Prester John in a new direction. The rise of the Mongol Empire gave western Christians the opportunity to visit lands they had never seen before. The belief that a lost Nestorian kingdom existed in the east, or at least that the Crusader States' salvation depended on an alliance with an Eastern monarch, accounts for the numerous Christian ambassadors and missionaries sent to Mongols, such as the Franciscan explorers Giovanni da Pian del Carpini in 1245 and William of Rubruck in 1253.

The link between Prester John and Genghis Khan was elaborated upon at this time as the Prester became identified with Genghis' foster father, Wang Khan Toghrul of the Kerait . In the accounts of fairly truthful chroniclers and explorers such as Marco Polo , historian and crusader Jean de Joinville , and the Franciscan voyager Odoric of Pordenone , Prester John loses much of his mythical veneer as he becomes a more realistically-portrayed earthly monarch. Joinville describes in his chronicle a "wise man" who unites all the Tartar tribes and leads them to victory against their strongest enemy, Prester John. William of Rubruck says a certain "Vut", lord of the Keraits and brother to the Nestorian King John, was defeated by the Mongols under Genghis. Genghis made off with Vut's daughter and married her to his son, and their union produced Möngke , the Khan at the time William wrote. According to Marco Polo, the war between the Prester and Genghis started when Genghis, new ruler of the rebellious Tartars, asked for the hand of Prester John's daughter in marriage. Angered that his lowly vassal would make such a request, Prester John denied him in no uncertain terms. In the war that followed, Genghis triumphed and Prester John was killed.

The historical figure behind these accounts, Toghrul, was in fact a Christian monarch defeated by Genghis. He had fostered the future Khan after the death of his father and was one of his early allies, but the two had a falling out. After Toghrul rejected a proposal to wed his son and daughter to Genghis' children, the rift between them grew until war broke out in 1203 .

The major characteristic of Prester John tales from this period is the kings' portrayal not as an invincible hero, but merely one of many adversaries defeated by the Mongols. But as the Mongol Empire collapsed, Europeans began to shift away from the idea that Prester John had ever really been a Central Asian king. At any rate they had little hope of finding him there, as travel in the region became dangerous without the security the Empire had provided. In works such as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Historia Trium Regum by John of Hildesheim , Prester John's domain tends to regain its fantastic aspects and finds itself located not on the steppes of Central Asia, but in India proper or some other exotic locale. Wolfram von Eschenbach tied the history of Prester John to the Holy Grail legend in his poem Parzival , where the Prester is the son of the Grail maiden and the Saracen Feirefiz.

Though Prester John had been considered the ruler of India since the legend's beginnings, "India" was a vague concept to the Europeans. Writers often spoke of the "Three Indias", and lacking any real knowledge of the Indian Ocean , they sometimes considered Ethiopia one of the three. Westerners knew Ethiopia was a mighty Christian nation, but contact had been sporadic since the rise of Islam. But since no Prester John was to be found in Asia, European imagination moved him around the blurry frontiers of "India" until they found an appropriately powerful kingdom for him in Ethiopia.

Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a magnificent Christian land and Orthodox Christian s had a legend that Ethiopia would one day rise up and invade Arabia , but they didn't place Prester John there. Then in 1306 thirty Ethiopian ambassadors came to Europe, and Prester John was mentioned as the patriarch of their church in a record of their visit. The first clear description of an African Prester John is in the Mirabilia Descripta of Dominican missionary Jordanus , around 1329 . In discussing the "Third India", Jordanus records a number of fanciful stories about the land and its king, called by Europeans Prester John. After this point, an African location became increasingly popular; by the time the emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact with each other in 1520 , Prester John was the name by which Europeans knew the Emperor of Ethiopia .

The Ethiopians, though, had never called their emperor that. When ambassadors from Emperor Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence in 1441 , they were confused when council prelates insisted on referring to their monarch as Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob's list of regnal names did that title occur. "No matter," says Robert Silverberg , author of The Realm of Prester John . "Prester John was what Europe wanted to call the King of Ethiopia, and Prester John is what Europe called him". Some writers who used the title understood it was not an indigenous honorific, however; for instance Friar Jordanus seems to use it simply because his readers would have been familiar with it, not because it he thought it authentic.

It should be noted that while Ethiopia has been argued as the genesis of the Prester John legend for many years, most experts today believe the myth was simply adapted to fit that nation in the same fashion it had been projected upon Wang Khan and Central Asia during the 13th century . Modern scholars find nothing about the Prester or his country in the early material that would make Ethiopia a more suitable indentification than any place else, and furthermore, specialists in Ethiopian history have effectively demonstrated the story was not widely known there until well after European contact. When the Czech Franciscan Remedius Prutky asked Emperor Iyasus II about this identification in 1751 , Prutky states the man was "astonished, and told me that the kings of Abyssinia had never been accustomed to call themselves by this name." In a footnote to this passage, Richard Pankhurst opines that this is apparently the first recorded statement by an Ethiopian monarch about this tale, and they were likely ignorant of this title until Prutky's inquiry.

When 17th century academics like the German orientalist Hiob Ludolf proved that there was no actual native connection between Prester John and the Ethiopian monarchs, the fabled king left the maps for good. But the legend had affected several hundred years of European and world history, directly and indirectly, by encouraging Europe's explorers, missionaries, scholars and treasure hunters.

Though the prospect of finding Prester John had long since vanished, the myth continued to inspire through the 20th century . In 1910 British novel ist and politician John Buchan used the legend in his sixth book, Prester John , to supplement a plot about a Zulu uprising in South Africa . Though tainted with the common racial stereotype s and caricatures of its day, the book was popular, and exists as an excellent example of the early 20th century adventure novel . Perhaps due to Buchan's work, Prester John appeared in pulp fiction and comics , such as Prince Valiant , throughout the century.

Prester John and his kingdom figure prominently in Umberto Eco 's 2000 novel Baudolino . The titular protagonist enlists his friends to write the "Letter of Prester John", which he plans on sending to his stepfather Frederick Barbarossa to enhance his glory in the eyes of Europe. Eventually Baudolino and his friends determine to visit the priest's wonderful kindom, which turns out to be everything and nothing like they expected it to be.

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 for his claims to a 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.
J. H. Arrowsmith-Brown (translator), Prutky's travels to Ethiopia and other countries . London: Hakluyt Society, 1991. The section concerning Prester John is pp. 115-117.

Otto of Freising on Prester John
According to Sir John Mandeville, 14th century
The Letter of Prester John in modern English (abridged)
Meir Bar-Ilan, "Prester John: Fiction and History"

John Buchan , Prester John An adventure tale.
Catholic Encyclopedia : Prester John
Encyclopedia Britannica (the 1911 edition)
Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography : Prester John

This text, attribuuted to "Sir John Mandeville" was written circa 1366, and presents a series of picturesque fables about the east. These stories fascinated Western Europeans, as did the more reliable [slightly!] stories of Marco Polo. One way of understanding Western interest in the rest of the world is to see the process by which interest became research, research became knowledge, and knowledge became power. By the time Europe was able to expand in the 16th century and later, it was far better equipped to understand, and if necessary undermine, other cultures than other cultures were to understand Europe.

Chapter XXX
Of the Royal Estate of Prester John. And of a rich man that made a marvellous castle and cleped it Paradise and of his subtlety.

This emperor, Prester John, holds full great land, and hath many full noble cities and good towns in his realm and many great diverse isles and large. For all the country of Ind is devised in isles for the great floods that come from Paradise, that depart all the land in many parts. And also in the sea he hath full many isles. And the best city in the Isle of Pentexoire is Nyse, that is a full royal city and a noble, and full rich.

This Prester John hath under him many kings and many isles and many diverse folk of diverse conditions. And this land is full good and rich, but not so rich as is the land of the great Chan. For the merchants come not thither so commonly for to buy merchandises, as they do in the land of the great Chan, for it is too far to travel to. And on that other part, in the Isle of Cathay, men find all manner thing that is need to man--cloths of gold, of silk, of spicery and all manner avoirdupois. And therefore, albeit that men have greater cheap in the Isle of Prester John, natheles, men dread the long way and the great perils m the sea in those parts.

For in many places of the sea be great rocks of stones of the adamant, that of his proper nature draweth iron to him. And therefore there pass no ships that have either bonds or nails of iron within them. And if there do, anon the rocks of the adamants draw them to them, that never they may go thence. I myself have seen afar in that sea, as though it had been a great isle full of trees and buscaylle, full of thorns and briars, great plenty. And the shipmen told us, that all that was of ships that were drawn thither by the adamants, for the iron that was in them. And of the rotten-ness, and other thing that was within the ships, grew such buscaylle, and thorns and briars and green grass, and such manner of thing; and of the masts and the sail-yards; it seemed a great wood or a grove. And such rocks be in many places thereabout. And therefore dare not the merchants pass there, but if they know well the passages, or else that they have good lodes men.

And also they dread the long way. And therefore they go to Cathay, for it is more nigh. And yet it is not so nigh, but that men must be travelling by sea and land, eleven months or twelve, from Genoa or from Venice, or he come to Cathay. And yet is the land of Prester John more far by many dreadful journeys.

And the merchants pass by the kingdom of Persia, and go to a city that is clept Hermes, for Hermes the philosopher founded it. And after that they pass an arm of the sea, and then they go to another city that is clept Golbache. And there they find merchandises, and of popinjays, as great plenty as men find here of geese. And if they will pass further, they may go sikerly enough. In that country is but little wheat or barley, and therefore they eat rice and honey and milk and cheese and fruit.

This Emperor Prester John taketh always to his wife the daughter of the great Chan; and the great Chan also, in the same wise, the daughter of Prester John. For these two be the greatest lords under the firmament.

In the land of Prester John be many diverse things and many precious stones, so great and so large, that men make of them vessels, as platters, dishes, and cups. And many other marvels be there, that it were too cumbrous and too long to put it in scripture of books; but of the principal isles and of his estate and of his law, I shall tell you some part.

This Emperor Prester John is Christian, and a great part of his country also. But yet, they have not all the articles of our faith as we have. They believe well in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. And they be full devout and right true one to another. And they set not by no barretts, ne by cautels, nor of no deceits.

And he hath under him seventy-two provinces, and in every province is a king. And these kings have kings under them, and all be tributaries to Prester John. And he hath in his lordships many great marvels.

For in his country is the sea that men clepe the Gravelly Sea, that is all gravel and sand, without any drop of water and it ebbeth and floweth in great waves as other seas do and it is never still ne in peace, in no manner season. And no man may pass that sea by navy, ne by no manner of craft, and therefore may no man know what land is beyond that sea. And albeit that it have no water, yet men find therein and on the banks full good fish of other manner of kind and shape, than men find in any other sea and they be of right good taste and delicious to man's meat.

And a three journeys long from that sea be great mountains, out of the which goeth out a great flood that cometh out of Paradise. And it is full of precious stones without any drop of water, and it runneth through the desert on that one side, so that it maketh the sea gravelly; and it beareth into that sea, and there it endeth. And that flome runneth, also, three days in the week and bringeth with him great stones and the rocks also therewith, and that great plenty. And anon, as they be entered into the Gravelly Sea, they be seen no more, but lost for evermore.

And in those three days that that river runneth, no man dare enter into it; but in the other days men dare enter well enough.

Also beyond that flome, more upward to the deserts, is a great plain all gravelly, between the mountains. And in that plain, every day at the sun-rising, begin to grow small trees, and they grow till mid-day, bearing fruit--but no man dare take of that fruit, for it is a thing of faerie. And after mid-day, they decrease and enter again into the earth, so that at the going down of the sun they appear no more. And so they do, every day. And that is a great marvel.

In that desert be many wild men, that be hideous to look on; for they be horned, and they speak nought, but they grunt, as pigs. And there is also great plenty of wild hounds. And there be many popinjays, that they clepe psittakes in their language. And they speak of their proper nature, and salute men that go through the deserts, and speak to them as apertly as though it were a man.

And they that speak well have a large tongue, and have five toes upon a foot. And there be also of another manner, that have but three toes upon a foot, and they speak not, or but little, for they can not but cry.

This Emperor Prester John when he goeth into battle against any other lord, he hath no banners borne before him; but he hath three crosses of gold, fine, great and high, full of precious stones, and every of those crosses be set in a chariot, full richly arrayed. And for to keep every cross, be ordained 10,000 men of arms and more than 100,000 men on foot, in manner as men would keep a standard in our countries, when that we be in land of war. And this number of folk is without the principal host and without wings ordained for the battle. And when he hath no war, but rideth with a privy meinie, then he hath borne before him but one cross of tree, without painting and without gold or silver or precious stones, in remembrance that Jesu Christ suffered death upon a cross of tree. And he hath borne before him also a platter of gold full of earth, in token that his noblesse and his might and his flesh shall turn to earth. And he hath borne before him also a vessel of silver, full of noble jewels of gold full rich and of precious stones, in token of his lordship and of his noblesse and of his might.

He dwelleth commonly in the city of Susa. And there is his principal palace, that is so rich and so noble, that no man will trow it by estimation, but he had seen it. And above the chief tower of the palace be two round pommels of gold, and in everych of them be two carbuncles great and large, that shine full bright upon the night. And the principal gates of his palace be of precious stone that men clepe sardonyx, and the border and the bars be of ivory. And the windows of the halls and chambers be of crystal. And the tables whereon men eat, some be of emeralds, some of amethyst, and some of gold, full of precious stones; and the pillars that bear up the tables be of the same precious stones. And the degrees to go up to his throne, where he sitteth at the meat, one is of onyx, another is of crystal, and another of jasper green, another of amethyst, another of sardine, another of cornelian, and the seventh, that he setteth on his feet, is of chrysolite. And all these degrees be bordered with fine gold, with the tother precious stones, set with great pearls orient. And the sides of the siege of his throne be of emeralds, and bordered with gold full nobly, and dubbed with other precious stones and great pearls. And all the pillars in his chamber be of fine gold with precious stones, and with many carbuncles, that give great light upon the night to all people. And albeit that the carbuncles give light right enough, natheles, at all times burneth a vessel of crystal full of balm, for to give good smell and odour to the emperor, and to void away all wicked airs and corruptions. And the form of his bed is of fine sapphires, bended with gold, for to make him sleep well and to refrain him from lechery; for he will not lie with his wives, but four sithes in the year, after the four seasons, and that is only for to engender children.

He hath also a full fair palace and a noble at the city of Nyse, where that he dwelleth, when him best liketh; but the air is not so attempre, as it is at the city of Susa.

And ye shall understand, that in all his country nor in the countries there all about, men eat not but once in the day, as they do in the court of the great Chan. And so they eat every day in his court, more than 30,000 persons, without goers and comers. But the 30,000 persons of his country, ne of the country of the great Chan, ne spend not so much good as do 12,000 of our country.

This Emperor Prester John hath evermore seven kings with him to serve him, and they depart their service by certain months. And with these kings serve always seventy-two dukes and three hundred and sixty earls. And all the days of the year, there eat in his household and in his court, twelve archbishops and twenty bishops. And the patriarch of Saint Thomas is there as is the pope here. And the archbishops and the bishops and the abbots in that country be all kings. And everych of these great lords know well enough the attendance of their service. The one is master of his household, another is his chamberlain, another serveth him of a dish, another of the cup, another is steward, another is marshal, another is prince of his arms, and thus is he full nobly and royally served. And his land dureth in very breadth four months' journeys, and in length out of measure, that is to say, all the isles under earth that we suppose to be under us.

Beside the isle of Pentexoire, that is the land of Prester John, is a great isle, long and broad, that men clepe Mistorak; and it is in the lordship of Prester John. In that isle is great plenty of goods.

There was dwelling, sometime, a rich man; and it is not long since; and men clept him Gatholonabes. And he was full of cautels and of subtle deceits. And he had a full fair castle and a strong in a mountain, so strong and so noble, that no man could devise a fairer ne stronger. And he had let mure all the mountain about with a strong wall and a fair. And within those walls he had the fairest garden that any man might behold. And therein were trees bearing all manner of fruits, that any man could devise. And therein were also all manner virtuous herbs of good smell, and all other herbs also that bear fair flowers. And he had also in that garden many fair wells; and beside those wells he had let make fair halls and fair chambers, depainted all with gold and azure; and there were in that place many diverse things, and many diverse stories: and of beasts, and of birds that sung full delectably and moved by craft, that it seemed that they were quick. And he had also in his garden all manner of fowls and of beasts that any man might think on, for to have play or sport to behold them.

And he had also, in that place, the fairest damsels that might be found, under the age of fifteen years, and the fairest young striplings that men might get, of that same age. And all they were clothed in cloths of gold, full richly. And he said that those were angels.

And he had also let make three wells, fair and noble and all environed with stone of jasper, of crystal, diapered with gold, and set with precious stones and great orient pearls. And he had made a conduit under earth, so that the three wells, at his list, one should run milk another wine and another honey. And that place he clept paradise.

And when that any good knight, that was hardy and noble, came to see this royalty, he would lead him into his paradise, and show him these wonderful things to his disport, and the marvellous and delicious song of diverse birds, and the fair damsels, and the fair wells of milk, of wine, and of honey, plenteously running. And he would let make divers instruments of music to sound in an high tower, so merrily, that it was joy for to hear; and no man should see the craft thereof. And those, he said, were angels of God, and that place was paradise, that God had behight to his friends, saying, Dabo vobis terram fluentem lacte et melle. And then would he make them to drink of certain drink, whereof anon they should be drunk. And then would them think greater delight than they had before. And then would he say to them that if they would die for him and for his love, that after their death they should come to his paradise; and they should be of the age of those damosels, and they should play with them, and yet be maidens. And after that yet should he put them in a fairer paradise, where that they should see God of nature visibly, in his majesty and in his bliss And then would he shew them his intent, and say them; that if they would go slay such a lord, or such a man that was his enemy or contrarious to his list, that they should not dread to do it and for to be slain therefore themselves. For after their death, he would put them into another paradise, that was an hundred-fold fairer than any of the tother; and there should they dwell with the most fairest damosels that might be, and play with them ever-more.

And thus went many diverse lusty bachelors for to slay great lords in diverse countries, that were his enemies, and made themselves to be slain, in hope to have that paradise. And thus, often-time, he was revenged of his enemies by his subtle deceits and false cautels.

And when the worthy men of the country had perceived this subtle falsehood of this Gatholonabes, they assembled them with force, and assailed his castle, and slew him, and destroyed all the fair places and all the nobilities of that paradise. The place of the wells and of the walls and of many other things be yet apertly seen, but the riches is voided clean. And it is not long gone, since that place was destroyed. .

This text is widely available on the Internet, with no reference to its printed origins. This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996

Prester John: Fiction and History
Meir Bar-Ilan


A Hebrew book of Ben-Sira was published in 1519 in Constantinople, and its appendix includes 'a copy of the letter that Priesty Juan sent to the Pope in Rome'. Although this story has several versions, its main theme is: Once upon a time, in a very remote land there was a king who was not only a great king, but a Christian priest as well. The name of that king was Prester John, and he ruled over 72 countries. His land was rich in silver and gold, and many wonderful creatures lived there. That king wrote letters to several Popes in Rome, telling them that he was a faithful Christian, and was acquainted with all kinds of unknown beasts, such as: men with horns on their foreheads and three eyes, women who fought while mounted on horses, men that lived 200 years, unicorns, etc.

This legend, like many others, can be interpreted, though not without difficulty. Indeed, early scholars who investigated the subject proved that this legend has an historical nucleus, and it is possible to distinguish between fiction and history. However, to make the whole story clear will not be easy, and this paper aims to advance, only partly, the discussion of this historical legend.1

The story of Prester John is known today from almost 100 manuscripts, written in several languages, including Hebrew, which are scattered throughout the libraries of Europe. Since there is no possibility or room to deal with all the details of this story, or all its versions, the discussion below will be based only on the Hebrew letters of Prester John as they were edited a few years ago.2

It is believed that the historical nucleus of the story is rooted in the coming of one 'John, the Patriarch of the Indians', who came to Rome in the pontificate of Calixtus II in 1122. From the middle of the 12th century onward it was accepted in Europe that Prester John, king and priest, was a ruler over territories in the East, though the area of his reign was not precisely defined. It is not an easy task to separate fiction and history in this legend, and therefore three subjects only will be discussed here: the geographical location of Prester John, the relationship between his letters and the Romance of Alexander, and the origin of the circulation of his Hebrew letters in Europe.

I. Where Prester John Resided: India or Ethiopia

The former editors of the letters of Prester John, E. Ullendorff and C. F. Beckingham still wonder where Prester John lived. On page 10 they write:

The Hebrew letters give no indication of identifying Prester John with the ruler of Ethiopia.

Though it is true that Ethiopia is not mentioned in the letters, it will be seen later that this statement is misleading. The editors for their part are consistent: in pp. 32-33 they present a Latin text with its Hebrew translation (and an English text where the Latin is missing) as follows: Praete janni invenitur ascendendo in Kalicut in arida... and this is true proof and well-known knowledge about the Jews who are found there near Prester John...
The editors make this comment on the text:

If this refers to India, see W. J. Fischel article COCHIN in Encycl. Jud. ...If it relates to Abyssinia, the reference may well be to the Falashas.

This indecisive statement seems to be both the result of the learned scholars' long interest in Ethiopia, and the background of the legend that placed Prester John either in Africa or more specifically in Ethiopia. However, reading the Hebrew letters of Prester John shows that this assumption concerning the vague location of Prester John cannot, regretfully, be taken seriously. Evidence emerging clearly from the text will immediately show that Prester John lived in India, or to be more precise, in Malabar (southern India).

Connecting Prester John with India is inevitable from the Hebrew text on the one hand, while data from the legend will support the Indian origin on the other.

First of all, India is mentioned several times in these letters (pp. 41, 89, 107, 119, and more). Second, Kalicut which was one of the most important port-cities in Malabar in southern India (the place where Vasco da Gama was sent), is mentioned in one of the letters.

Third, these facts would definitely suffice but further evidence appears in the form of statement:

and in the large India is buried the body of St. Thomas the Apostle.3
That is, the author knew that St. Thomas was buried in India, a belief held by the Christians of southern India.4 Not only that, but the author of the letters knew (p. 133) about 'St. Thomas holiday', that is, apparently, St. Thomas memorial day held by the same Christians on July 3rd.5

Fourth, the author of the letters mentioned that pepper grew in his land (pp. 55, 91, 131), vegetation typical to Malabar in southern India, and not to Ethiopia.6 Fifth, there are some stories in the letters concerning warriors riding elephants (pp. 71, 101, 123). It is well known that unlike the African elephant only the Asian elephant could be trained. That is to say that the letters include information about India (with which the West is more familiar than it is with Burma or Siam where trained elephants live as well), and has nothing to do with Ethiopia.7

Hence, after studying all the features independently and then together it is inevitable to reach the unquestionable conclusion that Prester John hailed from India. That is: the letters of Prester John tell a story about India, not Ethiopia, and it is unfortunate that legendary medieval opinions have survived and can still be found in modern scholarship.

It will not be out of place here to stress that the confusion between India and Ethiopia is ancient, and was generated by the two countries' geographic location which is beyond Egypt and the Red Sea, so totally remote from Europe.8 This naive European confusion of two different countries (so far from each other), was enhanced by traders from eastern Africa (Somali and Ethiopia), who sold goods without revealing that they were middlemen only. For example, in Ancient Rome many thought that cinnamon was imported from eastern Africa, though it actually came from India.9

Apparently, this confusion persisted as a result of the fact that both in India and Ethiopia, 'eastern' Christians lived in their own kingdom, surrounded by pagans. And, if this is not enough to confuse any medieval man whose geographical knowledge was limited anyhow, there is another fact that adds to the confusion: the letters of Prester John tell about black priests. For example: '...about the Jews... as we have heard all the time from the black priests who have come and are coming daily' (p. 33). Any layman might associate these black priests with Africa, without knowing that a major part of the population in southern India is black. Since Christians lived there, it would not be unreasonable to assume that black priests lived there as well (it should be kept in mind that the Jewish community in Cochin, on the coast of Malabar, was divided into 'white' and 'black' Jews).10 Here are a few reasons why Prester John was searched for in Africa, though, as is claimed above, a careful reading of the text reveals that the search should have been made in India, not Africa (which even in medieval Europe could have been known).

However, in the Middle Ages it was not known where Prester John lived, and adventurers went looking for him. In the 13th century Marco Polo identified Prester John with the Khan of the Kereit, a tribe in Mongolia which was then Nestorian Christian. Others continued searching for him in China. In the 15th century the Portugese looked for Prester John all over Africa, when others were sure that the legendary king was living in Ethiopia. In the middle of the 16th century the King of Ethiopia was nicknamed 'Prester John' by the Europeans, and it should be noted that the description of the search for Prester John reads like a detective story.11 Apparently, in the 17th century, after the Europeans had learned that there was no one by the name of Presterr John living in Ethiopia, the story was abandoned and considered a legend until the beginning of historical research in the 19th century.

Whatever the facts were, it is important to stress that according to the Hebrew letters of Prester John, there is no doubt that he lived in India. If it was not known until then, probably because experts in the subject concentrated on retracing the medieval search for Prester John, thus disregarding the geographical facts appearing in the letters, and failing to analyze the Hebrew letters with the necessary care.

II. The Romance of Alexander and Prester John

One of the sub-subjects in the study of the letters of Prester John is their relationships with the Romance of Alexander, the story of Alexander the Great.12 The story of the adventures and conquests of Alexander the Great was well known in Hellenistic times, and it is important to mention here that the story had several Hebrew 'adaptations' and translations that were widespread among Medieval Jews. However, the point is that this story and the letters of Prester John have several motifs in common, and this resemblance that reflects some kind of relationship, though partial, needs to be dealt with.

Both stories originated not in Hebrew, but were translated into Hebrew by Jews in Medieval Europe. In both stories the hero is not a Jew, though he has contacts with Jews, so there is a 'Jewish' element in the story. Both stories are of the same genre, though not precisely the same, of wars and wonders in remote places, and few of the folkloristic motifs are identical. In both cases, part of the story takes place in India which was the wonderland of the Middle Ages (and Antiquity). Both stories are written mostly in the epistolary genre, letters to one person or another (actually: to the reader). What is more relevant, however, is that the author of the letters of Prester John knew the 'history' of Alexander the Great, in one version or another, and he drew attention to this familiarity by stating explicitly (pp. 56-57): 'as Alexander did when he fought with the fortress Incanodo'.

Here are a few parallels between both stories (page number in the columns):

The Romance of Alex. Prester John
fighting with elephants 80 101
cannibals 77 125
amazons 84-85, 127 82
rivers that flow from Eden 57, 89 55, 92, 104
people that Alex. sealed in the mountains 77 125
pygmies 141-142 127
fountain of life/youth 156 93
men without heads (head in the chest) 119 67

These parallels need to be studied, discussing the literature motif, analyzing more parallels, and so on. However, the fact that the author of the letters of Prester John knew the Romance of Alexander stories that originated in Antiquity, shows the dependence of the later story on the early one, and enhances the conclusion reached above concerning the geographical site of Prester John - India, and not Ethiopia.13

This is not the place to discuss all the parallels between the stories, nor is there room to discuss the relationships between both stories and the story of Eldad haDani. Hence, the European origin of the letters of Prester John will hereafter be discussed.

III. The geographical origin of the letters of Prester John

Compared with the confusion about India and Ethiopia, it seems that tracing the geographical origin of the letters of Prester John will be much easier since most sources hint that the letters were composed in Italy.

It was S. Krauss who claimed that several Hebrew words in these letters reflect Italian, as is easily seen.14 To this linguistic conclusion one should add the fact that historically, Italian Jews were mostly familiar with the letters as is seen in several letters written by Italian Jewish sages writing from the Land of Israel, letters that show some knowledge of Prester John (Pietro Juan, Priesti Juani).15

It is evident in the book of Yosipon, a book that was written in 10th century Italy,16 that Italian Jews were acquainted with the Romance of Alexander which influenced the letters of Prester John, as stated above. Besides, it seems that the interest the author(s) found in letters sent to different Popes reflects his geographical proximity to Rome. Needless to say that from these facts no definite conclusion can be drawn, though they all strengthen the Italian origin of the letters. However, there are two pieces of evidence that tie Italy with Prester John's kingdom in India.

In a book written in 16th century Italy, Masoret haMasoret, by R. Eliahu Levita, this story is written:

Now, when I was in Rome, I saw three Chaldeans, who arrived from the country of Prester John, having been sent for by Pope Leo X. They were masters of the Syriac language and literature, though their vernacular language was Arabic. The special language, however, wherin the books were written, as well as that of the gospels of the Christians which they brought with them was Syriac, which is also called Aramean, Babylonian, Assyrian... Pope Leo X. had sent for them, in order to correct by their Codices his exemplar of his New Testament, which was written in Latin. ...Now I saw them reading this (Syriac) Psalter without points, and asked them, Have you points, or any signs to indicate the vowels? and they answered me: "No! but we have been conversant with that language from our youth till now, and therefore, know how to read without points.17

Here is a direct contact of a Jew of Rome with people (that is: priests), from the country of Prester John in the pontificate of Pope Leo X (1513- 21). Though the precise location of these people is not mentioned, it is clear that Eliahu Levita wrote of Nestorians, that is Christians that lived in northern Syria, southern Iraq and India. There is evidence that in the 18th century a rich Jew from Cochin financed bringing a Nestorian patriarch from Iraq to Malabar, India,18 and it is assumed that there were strong relationships between Christians in Iraq and India even centuries earlier. That is to say that an Italian Jew identified the location of Prester John with a place where Christians read the New Testament in Aramaic, that is Syriac. This does not specifically indicate that India was the location of the legend, though Christians there used to read Syriac but it is needless to say that Ethiopia is not under consideration here.
Another example of evidence that connects Prester John in India to Italy is seen in the famous Hebrew book Igeret Orhot Olam, written by Abraham Farissol (1452-1528) a few years before his death:

In the library I found in chapter 58 of the second part of the book (F. Montalboddo, Paesi Novamente Retrovati) E Novo Mondo (etc., Milano 1508) that from Lisbon the capital of Portugal to Kalicut in Asia, the beginning of India there are 3800 parasangs... and in that chapter it is explicit that Praeti Jiani (=Prester John) is beyond Kalicut in the land far from the sea. And this is real evidence and famous knowledge concerning the Jews that dwell there near Praeti Jiani as we have already heard all our lives from black brothers that come every day and tell in clarity the presence of many Jews with them. Of these brothers there are in Rome a sect of some thirty of them dwelling in a new stage (monastery) established for them.19
That is, in the 16th century a learned Rabbi from Ferrara identified the place of Prester John in the vicinity of Kalicut (Malabar, India), with the help of an Italian book.20 Whatever were Farissol's ideas concerning identification of the Jews under Prester John with the lost ten tribes, he was right in his conclusion that in the Kalicut area there were Jews, those who are known today as the Jews of Cochin.
All this means that the Hebrew letters of Prester John on the wonders of India, and the Jews peacefully living there, originated among Jews in Italy. On the one hand, these letters continued legendary traditions about India, while on the other hand they were the first to tell the story of the Jews in India (supposedly of the lost ten tribes).


Obviously, in the above discussion there is no definitive solution to all the problems raised in the letters of Prester John. More assignments await the scholar, which will entail such a detailed comparison between the different versions of the letters, especially between the different languages involved, identifying more historical events in the letters (such as wars), and finding more parameters separating fiction from history in the letters. In any event, the kingdom of Prester John should be identified with India, and if this identification has been vague until now, it seems that connecting the letters to the Romance of Alexander together with other Indian issues cancels all probability of finding Prester John in Africa. It is really high time to find out how the confusion between India and Africa as the land of Prester John came into being.

The letters of Prester John were translated into Hebrew and spread in Italy, letters that dealt with the connection between certain Popes and Christians in India, Christians who were well-acquainted with Jews who unlike their contemporaries in Europe were not persecuted. Not only was India considered as a wonderland in that era, with exotic unknown animals, black Christians and other miracles, but even Jews lived there. They were later to be known as the Jews of Cochin, and who is the man who would not like to visit that wonderland of a king and a priest, Prester John in India?


1 On the whole subject, see: H. Yule, 'Prester John', Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1910-1911), XXII, colms. 304-307; S. Krauss, 'Priesti Juani', Luah Eres-Israel (Lunz), IX (1904), pp. 107-111 (Hebrew); Karl F. Helleiner, 'Prester John's Letter: A Mediaeval Utopia', The Phoenix, XIII (1959), pp. 47-57; Robert Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John, Garden City: Doubleday & Company 1972.

2 The Hebrew letters of Prester John were printed in Constantinople 1519, and later in: A. Neubauer, 'Collections on the Lost Ten Tribes and the Children of Moses', Qobes al Yad, IX (1888), pp. 1-74 (Hebrew); E. Ullendorff and C. F. Beckingham, The Hebrew Letters of Prester John, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

3 Actually, the Hebrew text reads 'the unclean Thomas', because the Hebrew translator did not want to admit the holiness of one of the apostles, and therefore changed the title.

4 On the Christians of southern India that relate their beginning to St. Thomas, see: L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St Thomas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

5 See: Brown. p. 50; Silverberg (n. 1), pp. 16-35.

6 Pepper was one of the exports of India from ancient times. See: R. H. Warmington, The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India, second revised edition, London: Curzon Press, 1974, pp. 180 ff. On the export of exotic animals from India, see there p. 145 ff.

7 See: Warmington, pp. 150-152.

8 See: Yule (n. 1); A. M. Haberman (ed.), The Writings of R. Abraham Epstein, Jerusalem: Mosad haRav Kook, 1950, I. pp. 58-60 (Hebrew); S. Krauss, 'New Light on Geographical Informations of Eldad Hadani and Benjamin of Tudela', Tarbiz, VIII (1937), pp. 208-232 (Hebrew).

9 See: Warmington (n. 6), pp. 187-188, 216.

10 J. B. Segal, 'The Jews of Cochin and Their Neighbours', H. J. Zimmels and J. Rabbinowitz (eds.), Essays presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, Jews' College Publications, London: The Soncino Press, 1967, pp. 381-397; Shalva Weil, 'Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: The Cnanite Christians and the Cochin Jews of Kerala', Thomas H. Timberg (ed.), Jews in India, New York - London: Advent Books Inc., 1986, pp. 177-204.

11 For the search for Prester John, especially in Africa, see: E. D. Ross, 'Prester John and the Empire of Ethiopia', Arthur P. Newton (ed.), Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968 (first published in 1926), pp. 174-194; C. F. Beckingham, 'The Quest for Prester John', Bulletin of The John Rylands University Library, LXII (1980), pp. 290-310.

12 Y. Dan, 'Alilot Alexander Mokdon, Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1969 (Hebrew); idem, Hasipur Ha'Ibri beYemei haBinaim, Jerusalem: Keter, 1974, pp. 100-108 (Hebrew).

13 Compare: C. E. Nowell, 'The Historical Prester John', Speculum, XXVIII (1953), pp. 435-445.

14 Several Italian words remained in the Hebrew text. For example: 'sea Orinosho' (p. 59); 'that I am great princip in the world' (p. 71); 'kingdom of Women, that is regno femminorio' (pp. 126-127); 'many precious stones, like carbuncles, amethysts, zaffiri, diaspiri', etc. (pp. 130-131). However, the editors were aware of the possibility that some words were taken from ancient French, Provencal, and so on.

15 See: A. Yaari, Igerot Eres Israel, Ramat-Gan: Massadah, 1971 (Hebrew), p. 93 (a letter by R. Joseph da Montagna near Venice); pp. 118, 132, 133, 136, 141 (letters of R. Obadia of Bertinoro); p. 176 (a letter by R. Israel of Perugia). Prester John is mentioned several times in connection with David Reubeni, though it is possible that he heard the whole issue from his Christian investigators. See: A. Z. Eshkoli, Sipur David Reubeni, Jerusalem: The Israeli Society for History and Ethnology, 1940 (index); and in p. 188 'alli indiani di prete Giani', which was translated into Hebrew as 'similar to the Indians of Prieti Jani (Ethiopians)'.

16 See: D. Flusser, Sefer Yosipon, Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1981, II. pp. 136, 216 ff.

17 Eliahu ben Asher Ashkenazi (Elias Levita), Masoret HaMasoret (first published: Venice 1538), edited by C. D. Ginsburg, in: Harry M. Orlinsky (ed.), The Library of Biblical Studies, New York: Ktav, 1968, pp. 130-131.

18 Walter J. Fischel, 'Cochin in Jewish History', Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 30 (1962), pp. 37-59 (esp. p. 51).

19 Abraham Farissol, Igeret Orhot Olam, Venice 1587, ch. 25 (Hebrew).

20 David B. Ruderman, The World of a Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham ben Mordecai Farissol, Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981, pp. 134 ff.

This paper was published as: M. Bar-Ilan, 'Prester John: Fiction and History', History of European Ideas, 20/1-3 (1995), pp. 291-298.