The Prester John Legend

Dialog on the Medieval History, MEDIEV-L, list, March, 1996.

Date: Fri, 22 Mar 1996 14:09:22 +0100
Sender: Medieval History <MEDIEV-L@UKANVM.BITNET>
From: Hendrik-Jan van Dijk <hj8jos@XS4ALL.NL>
Subject: The Father John-legend


This year I'm hopefully graduating from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. My final essay will be about the Father John-legend. This legend is about the mythical king who lived in the area which is now known as Urethrae and Ethiopia, the former Abyssinia. I am looking for medieval literature, preferable in medieval Dutch but other languages will also do, about this subject. Who knows something about this, or knows contemporary titles of books about this subject? Information is scarce and you would help me a great deal.

Titles of books about the old emperors of Abyssinia (1000-1500) are also welcome.

Hendrik-Jan van Dijk

Date: Sat, 23 Mar 1996 09:22:40 +0100
Sender: Medieval History <MEDIEV-L@UKANVM.BITNET>
From: Carlos Sastre <csastre@LANDER.ES>
Subject: Re: The Father John-legend

Pero Tafur (a 15th-century Spanish traveller) provides some information:

A venetian called Nicolo de Conto tells him: "e yo, como llegue a la India, fui levado al Preste Juan, el qual me rescibio mucho bien e fizo muchas mercedes, e me caso con la muger que aqui traygo" (p. 98)

"E preguntandole del Preste Juan e de su poder, dize como era muy grande se=F1or, e que tenia veinticinco reyes a su servicio" (p. 99)

"Dize como un Preste Juan quiso saber el fecho del rio Nilo, donde procedia, e como fizo onbres en barcas, e les dio muchas vituallas e los embio, e mando que truxeren recabdo de donde esta agua nascia" (p. 102)

(My edition: Madrid 1874; if you need a xerocopy of the above mentioned pages feel free to contact me)

Steve Runciman (A History of Crusades) devotes some lines to him (Crusaders believe in this legendary Christian king and tried to get in contact with him in order to fight Muslims together!)

I am not quite sure but it seems Priest John was a literary and iconographical "topos" in medieval periegetic literature and cartography, another "marvel of the East".

Good luck in your search

Carlos Sastre

Publisher's addendum:

Twelfth century Europeans were profoundly ignorant of geography and therefore dimly recalled the existence of a Christian Ethiopia ruled by "Prester John of the Indies." Subsequent contact with Ethiopian pilgrims to Christian holy sites in the Levant by European Crusaders helped clear up the geography, but it kept the legend of Prester John alive a little longer.

In 1488, at a time when Portugal was interested in importing peppers from Benin, a Wolof Prince from the powerful Kingdom of Benin visited the Portugese court and reported the great power of the King of the Mossi. Because a cross was symbolic of kingship and the King of Benin was ideologically dependent on the Mossi, the Portugese assumed the Mossi to be the Chistian people of Moses, i.e., Ethiopians under their king Prester John. The notion that Prester John of Ethiopia might be a natural ally to penetrate Moslem commercial domination of East Africa kept Prester John on the mind of the Portugese long after most people in Europe had forgotten him.

Haines Brown