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Prester John

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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A fabulous medieval Christian monarch of Asia. The history of Prester John no doubt originally gathered round some nucleus of fact, though what that was is extremely difficult to determine. But the name and the figure which it suggested occupied so prominent a place in the mind of Europe for two or three centuries that a real history could hardly have a stronger claim to exposition. Before Prester John appears upon the scene we find the way prepared for his appearance by a kindred fable, which entwined itself with the legends about him. This is the story of the appearance at Rome (1122), in the pontificate of Calixtus II., of a certain Oriental ecclesiastic, whom one account styles "John, the patriarch of the Indians," and another "an archbishop of India." This ecclesiastic related wonderful stories of the shrine of St Thomas in India, and of the miracles wrought there by the body of the apostle, including (fn1) the distribution of the sacramental wafer by his hand. We cannot regard the appearance at Rome of the personage who related these marvels in presence of the pope as a mere popular fiction: it rests on two authorities apparently independent (one of them a letter from Odo of Reims, abbot of St Remy from 1118 to 1151), for their discrepancies show that one was not copied from the other, though in the principal facts they agree.

Nearly a quarter of a century later Prester John appears upon the scene, in the character of a Christian conqueror and potentate who combined the characters of priest and king, and ruled over vast dominions in the Far East. This idea was universal in Europe from about the middle of the 12th century to the end of the 13th or beginning of the 14th. The Asiatic story then died away, but the name remained, and the royal presbyter was now assigned a locus in Ethiopia. Indeed, it is not improbable that from a very early date the title was assigned to the Abyssinian king, though for a time this identification was overshadowed by the prevalence of the Asiatic legend. At the bottom of the double allocation there was, no doubt, that confusion of Ethiopia with India which is as old as Virgil and perhaps older.

The first mention of Prester John occurs in the chronicle of Otto, bishop of Freisingen. This writer states that when at the papal court in 1145 he met with the bishop of Gabala (Jibal in Syria), who related how "not many years before one John, king and priest (rex et sacerdos ), who dwelt in the extreme Orient beyond Persia and Armenia, and was, with his people, a Christian but a Nestorian, had made war against the brother kings of the Persians and Medes, who were called Samiards (or Sanjards), and captured Ecbatana their capital. After this victory Presbyter John - for so he was wont to be styled - advanced to fight for the Church at Jerusalem; but when he arrived at the Tigris and found no means of transport for his army, he turned northward, as he had heard that the river in that quarter was frozen over in winter-time. After halting on its banks for some years in expectation of a frost he was obliged to return home. This personage was said to be of the ancient race of the Magi mentioned in the Gospel, to rule the same nations that they ruled, and to have such wealth that he used a sceptre of solid emerald. Whatever impression was made by this report, or by other rumours of the event on which it was founded, was far exceeded, about 1165, by the circulation of a letter purporting to be addressed by Prester John to the emperor Manuel. This letter, professing to come from "Presbyter Joannes, by the power and virtue of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords,"claimed that he was the greatest monarch under heaven, as well as a devout Christian. The letter dealt at length with the wonders of his empire. It was his desire to visit the Holy Sepulchre with a great host, and to subdue the enemies of the Cross. Seventy-two kings, reigning over as many kingdoms, were his tributaries. His empire extended over the three Indies, including that Farther India, where lay the body of St Thomas, to the sun-rising, and back again down the slope to the ruins of Babylon and the tower of Babel. All the wild beasts and monstrous creatures commemorated in current legend were to be found in his dominions, as well as all the wild and eccentric races of men of whom strange stories were told, including those unclean nations whom Alexander Magnus walled up among the mountains of the north, and who were to come forth at the latter day - and so were the Amazons and the Bragmans. His dominions contained the monstrous ants that dug gold and the fish that gave the purple; they produced all manner of precious stones and all the famous aromatics. Within them was found the Fountain of Youth; the pebbles which give light, restore sight, and render the possessor invisible; the Sea of Sand was there, stored with fish of wondrous savour; and the River of Stones was there also; besides a subterranean stream whose sands were of gems. His territory produced the worm called "salamander," which lived in fire, and which wrought itself an incombustible envelope from which were manufactured robes for the presbyter, which were washed in flaming fire. When the king went forth to war thirteen great crosses made of gold and jewels were carried in wagons before him as his standards, and each was followed by 10,000 knights and 100,000 footmen. There were no poor in his dominions, no thief or robber, no flatterer or miser, no dissensions, no lies, and no vices. His palace was built after the plan of that which St Thomas erected for the Indian king Gondopharus. Of the splendour of this details are given. Before it was a marvellous mirror erected on a many-storeyed pedestal (described in detail); in this speculum he could discern everything that went on throughout his dominions, and detect conspiracies. He was waited on by 7 kings at a time, by 60 dukes and 365 counts; 12 archbishops sat on his right hand, and 20 bishops on his left, besides the patriarch of St Thomas's, the protopope of the Sarmagantians (Samarkand?), and the archprotopope of Susa, where the royal residence was. There was another palace of still more wonderful character, built by the presbyter's father in obedience to a heavenly command, in the city of Bribric. Should it be asked why, with all this power and splendour, he calls himself merely "presbyter," this is because of his humility, and because it was not fitting for one whose sewer was a primate and king, whose butler an archbishop and king, whose chamberlain a bishop and king, whose master of the horse an archimandrite and king, whose chief cook an abbot and king, to be called by such titles as these.

How great was the popularity and diffusion of this letter may be judged in some degree from the fact that Zarncke in his treatise on Prester John gives a list of close on 100 MSS. of it. Of these there are 8 in the British Museum, two at Vienna, 13 in the great Paris library, 15 at Munich. There are also several renderings in old German verse. Many circumstances of the time tended to render such a letter acceptable. Christendom would welcome gladly the intelligence of a counterpoise arising so unexpectedly to the Mahommedan power; while the statements of the letter itself combined a reference to and corroboration of all the romantic figments concerning Asia which already fed the curiosity of Europe, which figured in the world-maps, and filled that fabulous history of Alexander which for nearly a thousand years supplanted the real history of the Macedonian throughout Europe and western Asia.

The only other surviving document of the 12th century bearing on this subject is a letter of which MS. copies are preserved in the Cambridge and Paris libraries, and which is also embedded in the chronicles of several English annalists, including Benedict of Peterborough, Roger Hovedon and Matthew Paris. It purports to have been indited from the Rialto at Venice by Pope Alexander III. on the 5th day before the calends of October (Sept. 27), data which fix the year as 1177. The pope addresses it, carissimo in Christo filio Johanni, illustro et magnifico indorum regi (Hovedon's copy here inserts sacerdoti sanctissimo). He recites how he had heard of the monarch's Christian profession, diligence in good works and piety, by manifold narrators and common report, but also more particularly from his (the pope's) physician and confidant ( medicus et familiaris noster ), Master Philip, who had received information from honourable persons of the monarch's kingdom, with whom he had intercourse in those (Eastern) parts. Philip had also reported the king's anxiety for instruction in Catholic discipline and for reconciliation with the apostolic see in regard to all discrepancies, and his desire to have a church in Rome and an altar at Jerusalem. The pope goes on to say that he found it too difficult, on account of the length and obstructions of the way, to send any one (of ecclesiastical position?) a latere, but he would despatch Philip to communicate instruction to him. And on accepting Philip's communications the king should send back honourable persons bearing letters sealed with his seal, in which his wishes should be fully set forth. "The more nobly and magnanimously thou conductest thyself, and the less thou vauntest of thy wealth and power, the more readily shall we regard thy wishes both as to the concession of a church in the city and of altars in the church of SS. Peter and Paul, and in the church of the Lord's Sepulchre at Jerusalem, and as to other reasonable requests." There is no express mention of the title "Prester John" in what seem the more genuine copies of this letter.. But the address and the expression in the italicized passage just quoted (which evidently alludes to the vaunting epistle of 1165) hardly leave room for doubt that the pope supposed himself to be addressing the author of that letter. We do not know how far the imaginations about Prester John retained their vitality in 1221, forty-four years after the letter of Pope Alexander, for we know of no mention of Prester John in the interval. But in that year again a rumour came out of the East that a great Christian conqueror was taking the hated Moslems in reverse and sweeping away their power. Prophecies current among the Christians in Syria of the destruction of Mahomet's sect after six centuries of duration added to the excitement attending these rumours. The name ascribed to the conqueror was David, and some called him the son or the grandson of Prester John of India. He whose conquests and slaughters now revived the legend was in fact no Christian or King David but the famous Jenghiz Khan. The delusion was dissipated slowly, and even after the great Tatar invasion and devastation of eastern Europe its effects still influenced the mind of Christendom and caused popes and kings to send missions to the Tatar hordes with a lingering feeling that their khans, if not already Christians, were at least always on the verge of conversion.

Before proceeding further we must go back to the bishop of Gabala's story. M. d'Avezac first showed to whom the story must apply. The only conqueror whose career suits in time and approximates in circumstances is the founder of Kara-Khitai, which existed as a great empire in Central Asia during the latter two-thirds of the 13th century. This personage was a prince of the Khitai or Khitaian dynasty of Liao, which had reigned over northern China and the regions beyond the Wall during a great part of the 10th and 11th centuries, and from which came the name Khitai (Cathay), by which China was once known in Europe and still is known in Russia. On the overthrow of the dynasty about 1125 this prince, who is called by the Chinese Yeliu Tashi, and had gone through a complete Chinese education, escaped westward with a body of followers. Being well received by the Uighurs and other tribes west of the desert, subjects of his family, he gathered an army and commenced a course of conquest which eventually extended over eastern and western Turkestan. He took the title of Gur Khan or Kor Khan, said to mean "universal" or "supreme" khan, and fixed at Balasaghurl, north of the T'ian Shan range, the capital of his empire, which became known as that of Kara-Khitai (Black Cathay). In 1141 the assistance of this Khitaian prince was invoked by the shah of Kharezm against Sanjar, the Seljuk sovereign of Persia, who had expelled the shah from his kingdom and killed his son. The Gur Khan came with a vast army of Turks, Khitaians, and others, and defeated Sanjar near Samarkand (Sept. 1141) in a battle which the historian Ibn al-Athir calls the greatest defeat that Islam had ever undergone in those regions. Though the Gur Khan himself is not described as having extended his conquests into Persia, the shah of Kharezm followed up the victory by invading Khorasan and plundering the cities and treasuries of Sanjar. In this event - the defeat of Sanjar, whose brother's son, Mas'ud, reigned over western Persia - occurring four years before the story of the Eastern conqueror was told at Rome to Bishop Otto, we seem to have the destruction of the Samiardi fratres or Sanjar brothers, which was the germ of the story of Prester John.

There is no evidence of any profession of Christianity on the part of the Gur Khan, though the daughter of the last of his race is recorded to have been a Christian. The hosts of the Gur Khan are called by Moslem historians Al-Turk-al-Kuffar, the kafir or infidel Turks; and in later days the use of this term "kafir" led to misapprehensions, as when Vasco da Gama's people were led to take for Christians the Banyan traders on the African coast, and to describe as Christian sovereigns so many princes of the Farther East of whom they heard at Calicut. How the name John arose is one of the obscure points. Oppert supposes the title "Gur Khan" to have been confounded with Yukhanan or Johannes; and it is probable that even in the Levant the stories of "John the patriarch of the Indies," repeated in the early part of this article, may have already mingled with the rumours from the East.

The failure in the history of the Gur Khan to meet all points in the story of the bishop of Gabala led Professor Bruun of Odessa to bring forward another candidate for identity with the original Prester John, in the person of the Georgian prince John Orbelian, the "sbasalar," or generalissimo under several kings of Georgia in that age. He shows instances, in documents of the 15th century, of the association of Prester John with the Caucasus. In one at least of these the title is applied to the king of Abassia, i.e. of the Abhasians of Caucasus. Some confusion between Abash (Abyssinia) and Abhas seems to be possibly at the bottom of the imbroglio. An abstract of Professor Bruun's argument will be found in the 2nd edition of Sir H. Yule's Marco Polo, ii. 539-542

As regards any real foundation for the title of "Presbyter" we may observe that nothing worth mentioning has been alleged on behalf of any candidate.

When the Mongol conquests threw Asia open to Frank travellers in the middle of the 13th century their minds were full of Prester John; they sought in vain for an adequate representative, nor was it in the nature of things that they should not find some representative. In fact they found several. Apparently no real tradition existed among the Eastern Christians of such a personage; the myth had taken shape from the clouds of rumour as they rolled westward from Asia. But the persistent demand produced a supply; and the honour of identification with Prester John, after hovering over one head and another, settled for a long time upon that of the king of the Nestorian tribe of Kerait, famous in the histories of Jenghiz under the name of Ung or Awang Khan.

In Carpini's (1248) single mention of Prester John as the king of the Christians of India the Greater, who defeats the Tatars by an elaborate stratagem, Oppert recognizes Jalaluddin of Kharezm and his brief success over the Mongols in Afghanistan. In the Armenian prince Sempad's account (1248), on the other hand, this Christian king of India is aided by the Tatars to defeat and harass the Saracens, and becomes the vassal of the Mongols. In the narrative of William Rubruquis (1253), though distinct reference is made to the conquering Gur Khan under the name of Coir Cham of Caracatay, the title of "King John" is assigned to Kushluk, king of the Naimans, who had married the daughter of the last lineal representative of the gur khans.(fn 2) And from the remarks which Rubruquis makes in connexion with this King John, on the habit of the Nestorians to spin wonderful stories out of nothing, and of the great tales that went forth about King John, it is evident that the intelligent traveller supposed this king of the Naimans to be the original of the widely spread legend. He mentions, however, a brother of this John called Unc who ruled over the Crit and Merkit (or Kerait and Mekrit, two of the great tribes of Mongolia), whose history he associates with that of Jenghiz Khan. Unc Khan reappears in Marco Polo, who tells much about him as "a great prince, the same that we call Prester John, him in fact about whose great dominion all the world talks." This Unc was in fact the prince of the Kerait, called by the Chinese Tuli, and by the Persian historians of the Mongols Toghral, on whom the Kin emperor of north China had conferred the title of "wang" or king, whence his coming to be known as Awang or Ung Khan. He was long the ally of Jenghiz, but a breach occurred between them, and they were mortal enemies till the death of Ung Khan in 1203. In the narrative of Marco Polo "Unc Can," alias Prester John, is the liege lord of the Tatars, to whom they paid tribute until Jenghiz arose. And this is substantially the story repeated by other European writers of the end of the 13th century, such as Ricold of Montecroce and the sieur de Joinville, as well as by one Asiatic, the famous Christian writer, Gregory Abulfaraj. We can find no Oriental corroboration of the claims of Ung Khan to supremacy over the Mongols. But that his power and dignity were considerable appears from the term "Padshah," which is applied to him by the historian Rashiduddin.

We find Prester John in one more phase before he vanishes from Asiatic history, real or mythical. Marco Polo in the latter part of the 13th century, and Friar John of Montecorvino, afterwards archbishop of Cambaluc, in the beginning of the 14th, speak of the descendants of Prester John as holding territory under the great khan in a locality which can be identified with the plain of KukuKhotan, north of the great bend of the Yellow river and about 280 m. north-west of Peking. The prince reigning in the time of these two writers was named King George, and was the "6th in descent from Prester John," i.e. no doubt from Awang Khan. Friar Odoric, about 1326, visited the country still ruled by the prince whom he calls Prester John; "but," he says, "as regards him, not one-hundredth part is true that is told of him." With this mention Prester John ceases to have any pretension to historical existence in Asia (for we need not turn aside to Mandeville's fabulous revival of old stories or to the barefaced fictions of his contemporary, John of Hese, which bring in the old tales of the miraculous body of St Thomas), and his connexion with that quarter of the world gradually died out of the memory of Europe.(fn 3) When next we begin to hear his name it is as an African, not as an Asiatic prince; and the personage so styled is in fact the Christian king of Abyssinia. Ludolf has asserted that this application was an invention of the Portuguese and arose only in the 15th century. But this is a mistake; for in fact the application had begun much earlier, and probably long before the name had ceased to be attached by writers on Asia to the descendants of the king of the Kerait. It is true that the Florentine Simone Sigoli, who visited Cairo in 1384, in his Viaggio al Monte Sinai still speaks of "Presto Giovanni" as a monarch dwelling in India; but it is the India which is conterminous with the dominions of the soldan of Egypt, and whose lord is master of the Nile, to close or open its discharge upon Egypt. Thirty years earlier ( c. 1352) the Franciscan Giovanni de' Marignolli, apostolic legate in Asia, speaks in his Chronica of Ethiopia where the Negroes are, and which is called the land of Prester John.(fn 4) Going back still further, Friar Jordanus, who returned from the East before 1328, speaks of the emperor of the Ethiopians "quem vos vocatis Prestre Johan." But, indeed, we shall have strong probability on our side if we go back much further still, and say that, however vague may have been the ideas of Pope Alexander III. respecting the geographical position of the potentate whom he addressed from Venice in 1177, the only real person to whom the letter can have been sent was the king of Abyssinia. Let it be observed that the "honourable persons of the monarch's kingdom" whom the leech Philip had met with in the East must have been the representatives of some real power, and not of a phantom. It must have been a real king who professed to desire reconciliation with the Catholic Church and the assignation of a church at Rome and of an altar at Jerusalem. Moreover, we know that the Ethiopic Church did long possess a chapel and altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and, though we have been unable to find travellers' testimony to this older than about 1497, it is quite possible that the appropriation may have originated much earlier.(fn 5) We know from Marco Polo that about a century after the date of Pope Alexander's epistle a mission was sent by the king of Abyssinia to Jerusalem to make offerings on his part at the Church of the Sepulchre. It must be remembered that at the time of the pope's letter Jerusalem, which had been taken from the Moslem in 1099, was still in Christian possession. Abyssinia had been going through a long period of vicissitude and distraction. In the 10th century the royal line had been superseded by a dynasty of Falasha Jews, followed by other Christian families; but weakness and disorder continued till the restoration of the "House of Solomon" ( c. 1268). Nothing is more likely than that the princes of the "Christian families" who had got possession of the throne of northern Abyssinia should have wished to strengthen themselves by a connexion with European Christendom, and to establish relations with Jerusalem, then in Christian hands. We do not know whether the leech Philip ever reached his destination, or whether a reply ever came back to the Lateran.(fn 6) Baronius, who takes the view for which we have been arguing, supposes it possible that the church in Rome possessed in his own time by the Abyssinians (St Stephen's in the Vatican) might have been granted on this occasion. But we may be sure that this was a modern concession during the attempts to master the Ethiopian Church early in the 16th century. Ludolf intimates that its occupancy had been taken from them in his own time after it had been held "for more than a century." In the legendary history of the Translation of the three Blessed Kings by John of Hildesheim ( c. 1370), of which an account and extracts are given by Zarncke ( Abhandl. ii. 154 seq.), we have an evident jumble in the writer's mind between the Asiatic and the African location of Prester John; among other matters it is stated that Prester John and the Nubians dug a chapel out of the rock under Calvary in honour of the three kings: "et vocatur illa capella in partibus illis capella Nubiyanorum ad reges in praesentem diem, sed Sarracini.. ob invidiam obstruxerunt" (p. 158).

From the 14th century onwards Prester John had found his seat in Abyssinia. It is there that Fra Mauro's great map (1459) presents a fine city with the rubric, "Qui it Preste Janni fa residentia principal." When, nearer the end of the century (1481-1495), King pitch, and brand themselves with the sign of the cross in token of their baptism "(Libro del conocimiento de todos reynos, &c., printed at Madrid, 1877).

John II. of Portugal was prosecuting inquiries regarding access to India his first object was to open communication with "Prester John of the Indies," who was understood to be a Christian potentate in Africa. And when Vasco da Gama went on his voyage from Mozambique northwards he began to hear of "Preste Joham" as reigning in the interior - or rather, probably, by the light of his preconceptions of the existence of that personage in East Africa he thus interpreted what was told him. More than twenty years later, when the first book on Abyssinia was composed - that of Alvarez - the title designating the king of Abyssinia is "Prester John," or simply "the Preste."


On the whole subject in its older aspects, see Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica and its Commentary, passim. The excellent remarks of M. d'Avezac, comprising a conspectus of almost the whole essence of the subject, are in the Recueil de voyages et de memoires published by the Societe de Geographie, iv. 547-5 6 4 (Paris, 1839). Two German works of importance which have been used in this article are the interesting and suggestive Der Presbyter Johannes in Sage and Geschichte, by Dr Gustav Oppert (2nd ed., Berlin, 1870), and, most important of all in its learned, careful and critical collection and discussion of all the passages bearing on the subject, Der Priester Johannes, by Friedrich Zarncke of Leipzig (1876-1879). See also Sir H. Yule's Cathay and the Way Thither, p. 173 seq., and in Marco Polo (2nd ed.), i. 229-233, ii. 539-543. (H. Y.)


fn1 See Ticknor, Hist. of Span. Lit. i. 422 seq., iii. 366

fn2 It has been pointed out by Alexander Wylie that Kushluk was son of a powerful king of the Naimans, whose name Ta-Yang-Khan is precisely" Great King John "as nearly as that could be expressed in Chinese.

fn3 The stories of Khitai as a Christian empire, which led the Jesuits at the court of Akbar to despatch Benedict Goes in search of it (1601), did, however, suggest to Jerome Xavier, their chief, that the country in question "was the Cathay of Marco Polo, and its Christian king the representative of the famous Prester John" - a jumble of inaccuracy.

fn4 In a Spanish work of about the same date, by an anonymous Franciscan, we are told that the emperor called "Abdeselib, which means servant of the Cross," is a protector of Preste Juan, who is the patriarch of Nubia and Ethiopia, and is lord of many great lands, and many cities of Christians, though they be black as "Catalani."

fn5 Indeed, we can carry the date back half a century further by the evidence of a letter translated in Ludolf (Comment. p. 303). This is addressed from Shoa by the king Zara Jacob in the eighth year of his reign (1442) to the Abyssinian monks, dwellers at Jerusalem. The king desires them to light certain lamps in the Church of the Sepulchre, including "three in our chapel." In the Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harff (1496-1499: Cologne, 1860, p. 175), we find it stated that the Abyssinians had their chapel, &c., to the left of the Holy Sepulchre, between two pillars of the Temple, whilst the Armenian chapel was over theirs, reached by a stone staircase alongside of the Indians (or Abyssinians). This exactly corresponds with the plan and reference given in Sandys's Travels (1615), p. 162, which show the different chapels. The first on the south, i.e. the left looking from the body of the church, is "No. 35. - The chappell of the Abisines, over which the chappell of the Armenians." A reference to Jerusalem, which we procured through the kindness of Mr Walter Besant, shows that the Abyssinians no longer have a chapel or privileges in the Church of the Sepulchre. Between the Armenians and the Copts they have been deprived of these, and even of the keys of their convent. The resentment of King Theodore at the loss of these privileges was one of the indirect causes which led to the war between him and England in 1867-68.

fn6 Matthew Paris gives a letter from Philip, prior of the Dominicans in Palestine, which reached the pope in 1237, and which speaks of a prelate from whom he had received several letters, "qui praeest omnibus quos Nestoriana haeresis ab ecclesia separavit (cujus praelatio per Indiam Majorem, et per regnum sacerdotis Johannis, et per regna magis proxima Orienti dilatatur)." We have little doubt that Abyssinia was the "regnum" here indicated, though it was a mistake to identify the Abyssinian Church with the Nestorians.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Prester John'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​p/prester-john.html. 1910.
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