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

Path Two: 1236-1310 AD

European Contact with the Mongol Empire

It would be reasonable to assume that interest in a historical Prester John would diminish after the disappointing ending of the Fifth Crusade. This was not the case, however. In fact, belief in the eastern priest-king flourished.

Not surprisingly, the appearance of the Letter led to dozens of Eastern incursions motivated, in part, by the prospect of an immense Christian kingdom. Although these travelers occasionally discovered small Christians communities (which were sometimes taken as traces of Prester John’s Eastern influence), they found neither John nor any of the splendor promised in his Letter. Instead of casting Islam as the producer of antichrist, authors began to argue that the two faiths shared affinities indicated a prospective ease of conversion. 

Moreover, by the mid-thirteenth century, eastbound travelers returned to the Latin West with even more first-hand intelligence about a new group of others: Mongols. As a result, at the 1245 Council of Lyons, Pope Innocent IV recognizes that Prester John is not Genghis Khan and opens negotiations with the Mongols. 

Even when these writers undercut some of the splendor of John’s kingdom by subsuming the Prester John legend into a larger narrative of Mongol history, they keep him alive, both figuratively and literally. To ally Prester John with the Mongols may seem like a threat to the legend’s persistence, but in fact these travelers were updating the legend of Prester John by integrating John into the genealogy of an Eastern people foremost in the minds of Western leaders since the mid-thirteenth century. Even as some writers describe the legend as an exaggeration, their authority is restricted by the fact that none of these travelers claimed to have met the enigmatic figure. Moreover, copies of the original Letter continued to circulate.

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