The International Prester John Project: How A Global Legend Was Created Across Six Centuries

Path Four : 1461-1520 AD

Prester John and the Project of European Colonialism

While Age of Discovery figures such as Henry the Navigator, the Christopher Columbus, and Duarte Lopes allude to John’s kingdom as a guarantor of Eastern riches. A related history of John’s kingdom in Ethiopia/Abyssinia held Western attention through the European exploration of Africa. However, in this era the accounts of Prester John are more varied than of any other era. Here Prester John serves both as historical and literary figure, as both magnificent ruler and overblown myth.

In 1482, Francisco Suriano​, in his Iter, mentions arriving at the court of Prester John, a primitive place in which ten Italians were currently living, and paints a picture of mud huts and simple churches; Vasco da Gama’s Roteiro mentions the desire to make contact with Prester John; in 1499, Italian poet Guiliano Dati, composes a pair of poems on on Prester John (“Treatise on the Supreme Prester JohnPope and Emperor of India” and “Ethiopia and Second Song of India”); in 1500, a letter from “Johannes Africanus” materializes, detailing how Prester John, once mighty and powerful, is now a humble steward and laborer (guilty of pride).

In Orlando Furioso, Ariosto features an Ethiopian priest-king called Senapo who rules over an immensely wealthy kingdom and controls the flow of the Nile River—the very river that dashed crusader hopes during the Fifth Crusade. Although Ariosto’s is a highly satirical text, his inclusion of the legend shows how, even in the sixteenth century, writers were still attempting to create a plausible backstory to unite the imaginative interest in the legend with a history from which he may have emerged. John retains his historical place independent of the romance landscape he also inhabits well into the eighteenth century.

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