Believing in Prester John

This Post has been written by a guest, Keagan Joel Brewer. Keagan Brewer is a medievalist whose research considers the structure of medieval beliefs and disbeliefs, with particular interest in marvels, wonder, monsters, legends, travel texts, the supernatural, and religious disbelief. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

As a historian, it annoys me when people talk about the Middle Ages as though it was a time of universal credulity. This is something that is part and parcel of the experience of being a medievalist, it seems. But in reality, then as now, there were those who readily believed certain things, and those who disbelieved them. The legend of Prester John was the same; some believed, some did not.

At the outset it must be stated that it is extremely difficult for the historian to convincingly argue whether or not people believed or disbelieved based on the texts we have access to. This is especially the case for the medieval period because the authorial ideal was generally one that did not promote detailed first-person discussions of precisely what they believed and what they did not. One gets the sense that first-person intrusions were almost considered presumptuous and rude, implying that one knew more than one did. But this raises an issue for historians now. How is one to take, for example, the bland repetition of ancient Greek monsters in medieval encyclopedias, if there is no personal comment? Repetition does not prove belief. Nor does popularity. The Prester John Letter, written by an anonymous European c.1165-70 from the perspective of the marvelous Eastern priest-king about his land full of monsters and marvels, was extremely popular. 468 manuscript copies of this letter are known, with 235 in Latin, and the rest in languages including the usual French, German, Italian, and Spanish, but also the unusual Old Church Slavonic, Serbian, Swedish, Irish, Russian, Welsh, Hebrew, and more. Although this Letter was abundant, abundance does not prove belief. God knows Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code will be pretty abundant too, and I hope future historians won’t think we all thought it was true!

What does help prove belief is either a clear affirmative statement to that effect, or an action predicated on the belief. Throughout the roughly 800-year history of the Prester John legend (from 1122 to c.1800), we can probably convincingly argue, based on their subsequent actions, that five people believed in Prester John, and possibly two more. These are:

  • Jacques de Vitry and Pelagius of Albano. These two leaders of the Fifth Crusade, while in Damietta (Egypt) in 1220-21, heard news of Chingis Khan’s conquest of much of Central Asia and the Middle East; they interpreted this to mean that Prester John was coming to help them fight the Muslims. They were also influenced by a prophetic text they had found in Egypt, written by a Jew in Arabic, which predicted that the end of the world would come about should a king from the East and a king from the West meet in Jerusalem in a year when Easter fell on 3rd April. The year in question (1221) was just such a year, and so they waited for the king from the East (Prester John) and the king from the West (Frederick II); neither came. When the crusaders eventually pushed on (six months or so later), the Nile was in flood, the Saracens took advantage, cornered the Crusaders at a bend in the river, and decimated them. Here, belief in Prester John had a major impact on world history.

  • João II, King of Portugal, and his two emissary/explorers Pero da Covilhã and Afonso da Paiva. In 1487, João II sent these two men the East with a number of aims, including to find the origin of spices like cinnamon, and to find Prester John and procure his aid against the Muslim Mamluks. This is the only journey which we can be certain had finding Prester John as one of its primary aims (though perhaps also Master Philip’s journey; more on this below). Pero and Afonso journeyed together from Portugal to Yemen. Here they parted; Afonso went to Ethiopia and passed away in unknown circumstances, and Pero went to India, then Ethiopia. Pero concluded that the Ethiopian leader was Prester John (indeed, this association had been current in Europe for more than a hundred and fifty years before Pero made the link). Pero settled in Ethiopia and lived there for four decades until his death, and much of our knowledge of him comes from a later Portuguese explorer (Francisco Álvares), who met Pero in 1520 and recorded their meeting in his own Verdadeira Informação das Terras do Preste João das Índias (True Information of the Lands of the Prester John of the Indies).

  • Master Philip and Pope Alexander III. This is an extremely problematic incident, about which we know little for certain. In c.1165-70, the Prester John Letter was penned. On 27 September 1177, it is often claimed that Alexander III sent a letter of reply to Prester John to be delivered by a messenger of Alexander’s own household (a doctor) by the name of Master Philip. This letter survives in a number of English chronicles and independently in manuscript form. However, there are a few problems. First, the 1177 date given might be wrong. Second, Alexander’s letter is not a reply to the Prester John Letter and makes no mention of it. Third, we know nothing about who Master Philip might have been, where he might have gone, or whether he was a real person at all. This letter thus far eludes explanation, although myself and Bernard Hamilton are working together to try to elucidate the identity of this Master Philip who has thus far eluded historians. The possibility also remains that it was all merely a form of allegory, a way to take a stab at papal detractors like Frederick Barbarossa, one of whose partisans is thought to have written the original Prester John Letter.

So if those are the believers, who are the disbelievers?

  • A number of travellers from the thirteenth century onwards, who, while in Asia, claimed to have passed through Prester John’s kingdom and found it to be nothing like its marvellous reputation for riches, monsters, and magic mirrors (William of Rubruck, Roger Bacon, Odoric of Pordenone). There is, however, no convincing proof that these people had read the Prester John Letter; indeed, although the Letter was extremely widespread in manuscript form, there are almost no direct discussions of it in the legend’s eight-hundred-year history. Also notable is that these travellers did not completely reject Prester John’s existence – they say they even passed through his lands – they merely rejected his marvellous reputation.

  • A number of scribes who annotated the Prester John Letter with claims that suggested it was doubtful; for example: “If you want to believe it, believe it”; “Believe it if you wish; it is not the gospel [truth]”.

  • The earliest known record of somebody claiming that Prester John did not exist, and never had existed, occurs in the writings of Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro, writing in the middle of the eighteenth century.

What then can we say of belief in Prester John? Unfortunately, making wide claims about ‘they believed it’ or ‘they did not’ would be unconvincing. Some believed it; some did not. In the world of medieval epistemology, before exploration, they could never know for certain, and they probably knew that. And unfortunately, we as historians do not have access to the conversations had between medieval and early modern people about Prester John. Herein would lie more firm evidence about belief and disbelief. Alas!

The texts and arguments discussed can all be read and described in further detail in my forthcoming book: Keagan Brewer, Prester John: The Legend and its Sources (forthcoming with Ashgate, either 2014 or early 2015).


One comment

  1. Jack

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    Prester John figures prominently in my fantasy/myth novels, The Other World. So I have done much research on the subject, and the character.

    In those books he appears as the Samarl of Samarkand.

    So I found this post extremely interesting.


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