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

Path Three : 1311-1460 AD

From Ethiopian Embassy to Europe through the Age of Exploration​

As travel to the Mongol Empire subsumed Prester John within a different cultural history, those invested in the legend developed strategies to assure European audiences that John need not be precisely known in order to exist (and to matter). Since its advent, the efficacy of the legend depended, at least partially, on the unknowability of the Eastern geographies over which John claimed to rule. However, once increased travel began to reveal a less exotic “India” than the legend’s adherents had anticipated, the legend risked becoming outmoded by the comparatively accurate historical reports of travelers returning from these lands.

However, even as the 
Letter’s promises remained undiscovered, many refused to relinquish faith in the legend: the messianic comforts of a future delivered of Western turmoil (lack of stable leadership, fear of Muslim ascendency) had taken hold of too many Europeans. In order to combat the sober accounts of travelers who affirmed the defeat of Prester John, the physical location of John’s kingdom was constantly (and necessarily) re-imagined in order to sustain the belief that this kingdom was alive and well, despite the failures by those who sought it.

Some ten years after Marco Polo returned to the West, another Prester John letter surfaces, allegedly sent by John to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, signaling a new chapter in the legend of Prester John. As with the integration of Prester John into the cultural fabric of the Mongols, this new wave of Prester John lore tied the king to a new group of "others" who recently entered into the European consciousness: Ethiopian Christians.

Just as thirteenth-century writers integrated the legend of Prester John into their developing understanding of the Mongols on the Steppe, a number of fourteenth-century travelers relocated John’s kingdom to Ethiopia/Abyssinia, or “Middle India.” 
In 1306, a group of Ethiopian Christians visited Pope Clement V at Avignon. According to later texts which recount the meeting, the Ethiopian ambassadors desired that their European brethren return to the true doctrine of the Christian Church. This time, rather than a defeated underling of Chinggis Khan​, Prester John became a luxuriously wealthy Christian king.

Jordanus of Séverac (c. 1320) writes of a dragon-filled kingdom of Prester John in Ethiopia; in the mid fourteenth century, The Book of the Knowledge of All the Kingdoms, Lands, and Lordships That Are in the World claimed that Prester John was the patriarch of Nubia and Abyssinia; Henry the Navigator commissioned explorations of Africa were rooted in the hope of an Ethiopian Prester John.

​Thus, d
uring the fourteenth century,  writers connected this meeting with the kingdom of Prester John and re-ignited the theory of an Ethiopian John, an identification that would continue through Portugal’s sea explorations.

By the fifteenth century, this identification largely remains in place, with a few notable exceptions. In 1409, Andrea da Barberino pens his Guerrino il Meschino, “a fantastic and confused description of the countries and wonders of Tartary, India, and other regions of Asia and Africa” (Olschki, 96).


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