The Middle Ages in Europe were characterized by intense religious warfare, both within Christian states and against the Muslim empires of the Middle East. This perfect storm of religious conflict and curiosity for foreign riches birthed one of the greatest legends of the era: the story of Prester John. Said to be a wealthy Christian ruler located in “the Indies,” Prester John captured the imagination of European explorers and leaders. Yet the fabled king never actually existed. He was a fictional creation.
The Roots of the Prester John Legend
The legend of Prester John originated during the twelfth century. German Catholic bishop Otto of Freising’s Chronica de duabus civitatibus is the oldest surviving documentary source for the story. In this document, which was compiled around 1145, Bishop Otto claims to have heard from a Syrian counterpart about a Christian monarch to the east of the Byzantine Empire. However, after the publication of the Chronica, mentions of Prester John fade from the documentary record.
Everything would change during the 1160s, when a letter supposedly written by the mysterious king surfaced in Europe. The letter went into great detail describing Prester John’s kingdom. Despite claims of modesty, the eastern ruler appeared to brag about his land’s riches, claiming to lead the wealthiest kingdom on Earth. In Prester John’s lands, no poverty or violent crime existed. Sexual impropriety was unheard of. The kingdom was also home to a dizzying array of animals, from elephants and lions to fantastical Cyclopes. For all intents and purposes, Prester John ruled humanity’s perfect society.
To say that European elites were intrigued by the letter would be an understatement. Translations appeared by the end of the century and even attracted the attention of Pope Alexander III. Alexander was so intrigued that he wrote his own letter to “Prester John” and sent a confidant named Master Philip to find the king. Philip apparently returned to the Pope empty-handed.
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Modern scholars agree that Prester John’s letter was a forgery. Although it was addressed to the Byzantine emperor, only Latin Christendom appears to have received it. “Prester John” described his kingdom as being located in “the Three Indies” but did not specify further. To this day, the author of the original letter is unknown.
A Christian King Among the Pagans
Prester John’s initial allure to Europeans must be viewed in the context of one of the medieval period’s most defining events — the Crusades. Driven by both religious zeal and a desire to strengthen their power at home, kings across Europe committed to reclaiming Jerusalem from the Muslims. Thousands of European Christian warriors traveled to the Middle East in search of God and glory.
The Prester John story cut to the heart of both the greatest fears and most treasured dreams of Latin Christendom. The mythical king’s wealth could be a great help to the crusading nations. At no time was this idea more salient to Christian hopes than during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). Some theologians had prophesized that Prester John would rescue the Christians in North Africa from the forces of Islam. This ultimately did not happen.
If Prester John didn’t come to Europe’s aid, though, wouldn’t the legend lose its power? As it turns out, the exact opposite happened. The tale of the priest-king only shifted focus. After all, another threat to Christian Europe lay on the horizon: the Mongols.
The Mongol Conquests
Not long after the Fifth Crusade ended, the Mongols under Genghis Khan invaded eastern Europe. After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongols intensified their military efforts. The empire’s fearsome cavalry rained arrows down on Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary. Europeans wouldn’t regain the initiative until 1242, with the death of Genghis Khan’s successor, Ögedei Khan.
The legend of Prester John became entangled with the Mongols afterward. In 1245, Pope Innocent IV sent an envoy to try to convert the Mongol khan to the Catholic Church. He made his belief clear that the Khan was not the same as Prester John. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo similarly did not equate the elusive priest-king with the Mongol ruler. Polo went a step further, however, by stating his belief that Prester John had existed but had fallen to the Mongol conquest of central Asia. Travel narratives started to downplay the significance of the legend.
Yet the tale still did not die. Europeans had given up on locating Prester John in Asia, but other lands remained largely unexplored. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries would change the legend’s trajectory once again, this time to Africa.
Prester John Moves to Ethiopia
Part of the reason that the story of Prester John was so enduring was because of medieval Europeans’ imperfect understanding of geography. Medieval cartographers often had not personally traveled to the places they depicted in their maps. “The Indies” was actually an incredibly nebulous term. It could describe a number of places east of Latin Europe, from India and central Asia to Africa. This imprecise geographical knowledge allowed for the Prester John legend to change over time and thrive in different places.
By the fourteenth century, Prester John’s kingdom had changed location to Ethiopia. Europeans had become aware of Ethiopia’s status as an isolated Christian empire, surrounded by pagans and Muslims. New versions of the original letter circulated, emphasizing the priest-king’s African identity. The idea of Ethiopia as the homeland of Prester John was only fortified by the Portuguese voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Had Prester John finally been found?
The idea that Prester John’s kingdom lay in Ethiopia proved to be the most enduring version of the legend. Even in the fourteenth century, European religious leaders drew links between the Emperor of Ethiopia and the fabled king. New interpretations of the birth of Jesus Christ cast one of the Magi as having come from Ethiopia. During the fifteenth century, Ethiopian pilgrims made the journey over land and sea to Rome, seeking relics and aid (Salvadore, 2017). The sight of foreign believers practicing rites so different from their own wasn’t lost on ordinary Romans.
Despite Europeans’ insistence that they had finally located Prester John and his subjects, the Ethiopians did not corroborate their counterparts’ suspicions. Relations between Roman Catholicism and Ethiopian Christianity would deteriorate in the late sixteenth century. The Jesuit Order’s failed attempts to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism produced civil war in Africa, leading Ethiopia’s emperor to ban foreign missionaries after 1636. Prester John had not been found after all.
The Decline of the Prester John Legend
By the end of the seventeenth century, the legend of Prester John had started to lose its appeal in Europe. European rulers and intellectuals started to question whether the king existed. Writing in 1684, the German scholar Hiob Ludolf dismissed the idea that Ethiopia was Prester John’s kingdom. His close contact and friend, the Ethiopian Abba Gorgoryos, probably only lent credence to this belief.
Other leading thinkers of the era attempted to salvage the Christian king’s name. The English cleric Samuel Purchas wrote in 1614 that the Portuguese had been incorrect to think Prester John was the Ethiopian emperor. Instead, he returned to the older idea that Prester John really had once existed in Asia (Brewer, 2015). In 1669, the Portuguese priest Jerónimo Lobo, who had actively tried to convert Ethiopians to Catholicism in the 1620s, agreed. Europeans had gained greater knowledge of the world beyond their continent but old conceptions returned in full force.
Other writers tried to link Prester John to newly observed Tibet and China. In the eighteenth century, however, the quest for the Eastern Christian patriarch had gradually ceased. Prester John wasn’t real, and Europe had more pressing concerns to deal with.
The Legacy of Prester John: Exploration, Imperialism, and Cultural Contact
The later European Imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not consider the Prester John story important. European powers’ colonial ambitions in Africa were more linked to the concept of a “civilizing mission” to conquer African peoples. Interestingly, Ethiopia ultimately did not fall to Europe’s colonialism — and it was the only country in Africa not to do so.
Although the legend of Prester John proved to be a fiction, it still managed to take on a life and history of its own. The story moved explorers and conquerors from across Europe to go out into the unknown for five centuries. It was like a chameleon, changing form to suit the needs and times of its listeners. Without the legend of Prester John, along with the European quest to locate him, the world as we now know it might have turned out very differently.
Brewer, Keagan, ed. Prester John: The Legend and Its Sources. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2015.
Salvadore, Matteo. The African Prester John and the Birth of Ethiopian-European Relations, 1402-1555. New York: Routledge, 2017.