Prester John

Name of a legendary Eastern priest and king.


The mythical journey to Rome of a certain Patriarch John of India in 1122, and his visit to Callistus II, cannot have been the origin of the legend. Not until much later, in a manuscript dating from the latter part of the fifteenth-century "Tractatus pulcherrimus" (Zarncke), do we find the patriarch and priest united in one person. The first combination of the two legends appears at the end of the twelfth century, in an apocryphal book of devotions called the "Narrative of Eliseus". The first authentic mention of Prester John is to be found in the "Chronicle" of Otto, Bishop of Freising, in 1145. Otto gives as his authority Hugo, Bishop of Gabala. The latter, by order of the Christian prince, Raymond of Antioch, went in 1144 (after the fall of Edessa) to Pope Eugene II, to report the grievous position of Jerusalem, and to induce the West to send another crusade. Otto met the Syrian prelate at Viterbo, where in the pope's presence he learned that a certain John, who governed as priest and king in the Far East, had with his people become converted to Nestorianism. A few years earlier he had conquered the brother monarchs of Media and Persia, Samiardi. Prester John had emerged victorious from the terrible battle that lasted three days, and ended with the conquest of Ecbatana; after which the victor started for Jerusalem to rescue the Holy Land, but the swollen waters of the Tigris compelled him to return to his own country. He belonged to the race of the three Magi, their former kingdoms being subject to him. His enormous wealth was demonstrated by the fact that he carried a sceptre of pure emeralds.

It is doubtful if the West gave unreserved credence to this tale, judging from the long silence of its chronicles. Some twenty years later there came to light in unaccountable ways letters from this mysterious personage to the Byzantine emperor Manuel, Barbarossa, and other princes, which roused extravagant hopes. About a hundred manuscripts of the letter to Manuel of Constantinople are still extant (with many variants), and afford an interesting insight into this exceedingly complicated fiction. This wild medieval tale contains the principal incidents of the long Alexander legend. This letter is probably a Nestorian forgery. From that time it was believed that a Christian kingdom existed in the Far East, or in the heart of Asia. The legend furnished a wealth of material for the poets, writers, and explorers of the Middle Ages. In England Sir John Mandeville exploited it to excess. In Germany Wolfram von Eschenbach, in "Parsifal", was the first to unite the legend of the Holy Grail with this history of Prester John. He found many and more extravagant imitators (e.g. Albrecht von Scharfenstein in "Jüngere Titurel").

It is questionable whether the letter of Pope Alexander III, dated from the Rialto in Venice in 1177 and beginning with the words "Alexander episcopus (or Papa), servus servorum Dei, carissimo in Christi filio Joanni, illustro et magnifico Indorum regi", has anything to do with Prester John. The pope had heard many rumours of a powerful Christian ruler in the East. His physician in ordinary, Philippus, on returning from those parts, brought him further information. The pope sent his confidant to the king with the much-discussed letter, and an invitation to enter the Roman Church; also a caution against boastfulness about his vast power and wealth. Provided that he listened to this warning, the pope would willingly grant his two requests (apparently, to cede him a church in Rome, and to accord him certain rights in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem). The result of this mission is not known; but judging from the details in the letter, it is certain that the recipient was no mythical personage. The pope may have recognized him as the Presbyter of the legend, but this is uncertain.

Historical foundation of the origin of the legend. Otto von Freising does not mention the exact year of the battle between the Eastern conqueror and the Persian sultan; he only remarks that in 1145 it had taken place "ante non multos annos". On the other hand, there is found in the Annals of Admont (1181), part of which, as far as 1141, are a continuation of Otto's chronicle, the following note: "Johannes presbyter rex Armeniae et Indiae cum duobus regibus fratribus Persarum et Medorum pugnavit et vicit". Minute research has shown that in that year the Persian Sultan Sanjar was completely vanquished by a conqueror from the east, not very far from the ancient Ecbatana. The Arabic historian Ibn-el-Athir (1160-1233) says that, in the year of the Hegira of 536 (1141), Sanjar, the most powerful of the Seljuk princes, had mortally offended his vassal the Shah of Kharezm. The latter called to his assistance Ku Khan, or Korkhan of China (Chinese, Yeliutasche), who had come in 1122 from Northern China at the head of a mighty army. Korkhan killed Sanjar and l00,000 of his men. The Arabic versions are substantially corroborated by other Asiatic historians of that epoch: by the Syrian writer Abulfaradsch (on account of his Jewish descent called Bar Hebraeus, 1226-86), by the Arabic Abulfeda (1273-1331), the Persian Mirkhond (1432-89) etc. It is not certain whether the Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, who travelled in Central Asia in 1171, refers to this event. If so, the hypothesis based on the researches of d'Avezac, Oppert, Zarncke, and Yule becomes a certainty, i.e. the land of this uncertain and shifting legend is the kingdom of Karakhitai (1141-1218), founded in Central Asia by the priest-king of the tale. The disputed points are the name, the religion, and the priestly character of the mysterious personage.

Independently of the much earlier work of d Avezac, Oppert thinks that Ku-Khan, Korkhan or Corchan (Coirchan), as the East-Asian conqueror is called in the chronicles, could easily have become Jorchan, Jochanan, or in Western parlance, John; this name was then very popular, and was often given to Christian and Mohammedan princes (Zarncke). History knows nothing about the Christianity of Yeliutasche. Yet it is clear that the league of the West against the Mohammedans stirred up the oppressed Christians on the borders of Tatar Asia to look for a deliverer. The sacerdotal character of the legendary king still offers an unsolved riddle.


The political aspect of the legend again came forward in the thirteenth century. In November 1219, Damietta was conquered by the crusaders. In the spring of 1221 the report was circulated among the victors that in the East, King David, either the son or nephew of the Presbyter, had placed himself at the head of three powerful armies, and was moving upon the Mohammedan countries. An Arabic prophecy foretold that when Easter fell on 3 April, the religion of Mohammed would be abolished. This occurred in 1222, and many expected that King David and his host would offer their support to the long-awaiting army of Frederick II. The enthusiasm that this announcement created in the camp at Damietta led to a premature outbreak of the Franks against Cairo, and the defeat of the army. The historical germ is easily discovered. King David is no other than the Mongolian conqueror Jenghiz Khan, who at this time with three legions pushed forward towards the West, and in a most sanguinary battle annihilated the power of Islam in Central Asia. He and many of his successors were favourable to the Christians, and averse to the Mohammedans; the Mongol Kingdom also surpassed all Asiatic principalities by its display; but the name of David given to the Eastern conqueror still remains unexplained.


The horrible slaughter committed by the Mongols soon proved that they were no pious pilgrims bound for the Holy Sepulchre, still less were they Christians. After a short time the legend assumed another form. It said that the Mongolians were the wild hordes mentioned in the Presbyter's letter to Manuel. They had risen up against their own ruler, King David, murdering both him and his father. The "Speculum historiale" of Vincent of Beauvais says: "In the year of our Lord 1202, after murdering their ruler [David] the Tatars set about destroying thc people". Certain historical facts form the basis of this remarkable report. Bar Hebraeus mentions that in 1006 the Mongolian tribe of the Keriats in Upper Asia had become Christians (Nestorians). According to the account of Rubruquis, thc Franciscan, these Keriats were related to the Naymans, another Mongolian shepherd tribe, and paid tribute to their ruler Coirchan; they also were Nestorian Christians, and in that vicinity were considered the countrymen of Prester John. The prince of thc Keriats, Unc-Khan, was in 1202 completely subject to the superior power of Jenghiz Khan, who meanwhile was on the friendliest terms with his family, thus giving the Keriats a certain amount of independence. Marco Polo speaks of Unc-Khan as the great prince who is called Prester John, the whole world speaking of his great power". In 1229 the celebrated missionary John of Monte Corvino converted a Nestorian prince belonging to this tribe, who afterwards served Mass for him (Rex Gregorius de illustri genere Magni Regis qui dictus fuit Presbyter Johannes)). And yet neither he nor the other missionaries, who at this time were trying to convert the Mongolian princes of Upper Asia, paid much attention to the extravagant embellishments of the legend. One of these missionaries, Odoricus de Foro Julii, wrote "that not a hundredth part of the things related of Prester John were true". For centuries the Prince of the Keria was looked upon as the Prester John of the legend. The papal librarian Assemani and the geographer Ritter justified this scientific hypothesis by a mass of original documents. It is undoubtedly true, that in this explanation of the legend many of its peculiarities are more clearly brought out; e.g. the sacerdotal character of the hero; for according to Rubruquis, the Nestorians of that locality were accustomed to dedicate to the priesthood even the children in their cradles. The main point, however, is still unexplained, namely, the origin of the legend; the account of Rubruquis, however, carefully considered, supports the Oppert-Zarncke hypothesis, and elucidates the transition of the legend from the Karakhitai, to the Keria. Zarncke meanwhile agrees with Oppert only in essentials, and in many points sharply and unjustly criticizes his colleague. Oppert is an Orientalist, Zarncke is not.


With the collapse of the Mongol Kingdom, hitherto the setting for this legend, the latter, finding no favourable background in Upper or Middle Asia, was shifted to the hill country of the Caucasus, or to indefinite parts of India. It is true that all earlier accounts of the Presbyter designated India as his kingdom, but in the Middle Ages the term India was so vague that the legend obtained in this way no definite location. But in the fourteenth century there appeared many real or fictitious accounts of voyages (Zarncke), which pointed to the modern East Indies as the kingdom of the Priest-King. The most important document of this, or a somewhat later period, is the afore-mentioned "Tractatus pulcherrimus". In some maps, especially a Catalonian published in 1375, we find Christian kingdoms given in India. In another map of 1447, towers are to be found at the foot of the Caucasus, and underneath is written: "The Presbyter, King John built these towers to prevent [the Tatars] from reaching him". The Admont Annals (1181) had already spoken of the Presbyter as King of Armenia. Professor Brun of Odessa supports the hypothesis founded on these and other plausible grounds, namely that the Armenian general, Ivane, who in 1124 gained a great victory over the Crescent, was the first Presbyter John (Zeitsch. f. Erdkunde, 1876, 279).


Marco Polo speaks of the country called Abascia as part of India, meaning probably Abyssinia. Many scholars (among others Yule) are of the opinion that Pope Alexander's enigmatical letter was sent to the Negus of Ethiopia; at a much earlier time it was customary to see in him the Presbyter of the legend. In 1328 the Christian bishop John of Columbo (not Colombo) in India, designated the Negus as Prester John: quem vos vocatis Prestre Johan. In Jerusalem at the beginning of the fifteenth century the Abyssinian priests described their country to the Christian Portuguese merchants as the Kingdom of Prester John. The Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes expressed the same opinion in a letter written to King Charles VII of France in 1448. This interpretation was most popular at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, on account of the voyages of discovery made by the Portuguese, who at first persistently sought the Presbyter's kingdom along the whole African coast (Vasco de Gama even carried with him letters of introduction to this supposed Christian ruler), and believed that in Ethiopia they had at last fallen in with him. As a matter of fact, the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia had for centuries successfully withstood the onslaughts of Islam. The Negus combined in his person a kind of spiritual with temporal power, and the name of John recurs in a remarkable manner in the long line of princes of that land. The oldest map, discovered by P. Joseph Fischer, on which America is mentioned (1507), places the Presbyter's country in Asia (Province of Thebet; Tibet) in the following words: "This is the land of the good King and lord, known as Prester John, lord of all Eastern and Southern India, lord of all the kings of India, in whose mountains are found all kinds of precious stones." On the Carta Marina (1516) it is placed in Africa: "Regnum Habesch et Habacci Presbiteri Joh. sive India Maior Ethiopie" etc. In later times it was the general opinion that Abyssinia was the Presbyter's native land, "Terra do Preste", as the Portuguese called it. Only towards the end of the seventeenth century did this opinion disappear. In Leutholf's great work on Abyssinia (Frankfort, 1681) it is said that the land had been wrongly named the Presbyter's kingdom. The legend had a stimulating effect on Portuguese discoverers, and indirectly encouraged the missionary activity of Franciscans and Dominicans in Central Asia and China, the conversion of the Mongolian ruler being often their goal. Some also exhibited a certain scientific interest in the solution of the legend; the narrative of Rubruquis, for instance, is still the starting point for all modern research.

YULE, Cathay and the Way Thither, 173 sq.; Marco Polo (2nd ed.), I, 229-33; II, 539-43; RITTER, Erdkunde von Asien (2nd ed., Berlin, l838); D'AVEZAC, Recueil de Voyages et de Mémoires publié par la Société de Géographie, IV (Paris, 1839), 547-64; OPPERT, Der Presbyter Johannes in Sage und Gesch. (2nd ed., Berlin, 1870); ZARNCKE, Fünf Leipziger Programme (1873-75), the first four revised by the same author in vol. XVII of Abhandl. der k. sächs. Gesellsch. d. Wissenschaften, vol. Vll, phil-histor. Klasse 1879, Der Priester Johannes, I. Abh., p. 827-1030, II. Abh. in vol. XIX, vol. VIII, phil-histor. Klasse 1883-86; Ostasiatischer Loyd, XV (1902), 1819 sq.

Alois Stockmann.

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