1/25/10 - prester john

In today's excerpt - in the Middle Ages, the leaders of Europe—popes, bishops, and kings—held a firm belief in the existence of a mysterious Christian king from the Far East named Prester John. This belief gave them comfort in the years after the Muslims captured Jerusalem and gained dominance over the Middle East and the Mediterranean:

"For decades Christians in the area had been nurturing a religious fantasy, and ... fantasy was this: A wealthy and powerful Christian priest-king from the East had for some time been making his way toward the West. A direct descendant of the Magi, he was known as Prester John, and he was on a mission: to unite the Christians of East and West, to defeat Muslims armies everywhere he found them, and to take back Jerusalem for all time. ...

"The first surviving mention of Prester John dates from 1145. It derives from a Syrian prelate named Hugh, who had traveled to Europe that year to make an appeal for a new Crusade. Christian forces had successfully established themselves in the Holy Land at the turn of the century, but those forces were now quickly losing ground to advancing Muslim armies, and desperately needed help. Hugh [portrayed Prester John as a potential ally.] ...

"The story of Prester John would be told repeatedly in the decades that followed, but it might well have vanished from memory had not a curious letter—one of the great literary hoaxes of all time—begun to circulate in Europe in 1165, purportedly written by Prester John himself ... The letter may have been composed to generate support for a new Crusade or it may simply have been a joke. Whatever it was, it seems to have been accepted as genuine, and in the decades and centuries that followed, it would circulate widely, translated into many different languages—and would exert a lasting influence on the ways in which Europeans imagined the East.

"Prester John introduced himself imperiously in the letter. 'I, Prester John, who reign supreme;' he announced, 'exceed in riches, virtue, and power all creatures who dwell under heaven.' He ruled over seventy-two vassal kings, he continued, and twelve archbishops; he fed thirty thousand soldiers each day at tables made of gold, amethyst, and emerald; he maintained a great army dedicated to protecting Christians everywhere, and he had dedicated himself to waging perpetual war against the enemies of Christ, ...

"Prester John was both specific and vague when it came to describing where he was from. 'Our magnificence dominates the Three Indias;' wrote, 'and extends to Farther India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests. It reaches through the desert toward the place of the rising of the sun.' In the early Middle Ages, Europeans knew India as little more than a distant and mysterious part of the world somewhere to the east of the Holy Land, but by the twelfth century they had begun to divide it into three parts: Nearer India (the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, and points east); Farther India (the southern part of India, and the spice producing regions of the Far East); and Middle India (Ethiopia and other African kingdoms). ... The division may seem odd to us today, but substitute 'East' for 'India' and you get something like our own peculiar way of dividing Asia: the Near East, the Far East, and the Middle East.

"By the early 1200s the myth of Prester John had taken root in Europe and the Holy Land. Jerusalem by now was once again in Muslim hands, and the idea of yet another Crusade, the fifth, was taking shape. One [bishop] wrote in 1217, 'that there are more Christians than Muslims living in Islamic countries. The Christians of the Orient, as far away as the land of Prester John, have many kings, who, when they hear that the Crusade has arrived, will come to its aid.' "


Toby Lester


The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name


Free Press a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Toby Lester


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