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

Orientation to Project

How a global story was created across eight centuries

In a global Middle Ages, there are few personages, fictional or historical, who have secured a more lasting impact on the way that Europeans came to know the world than that of Prester John. A product of cultural fantasy mixed with hope for historical change, Prester John has engaged the imagination of an increasingly global audience since the mid-twelfth century. Over the course of six hundred years, Prester John figured centrally in Christendom’s understanding of what the distant (i.e. non-European) world was like. Crusading aspirations depended on his arrival. Missionary undertakings in Asia and Africa leveraged their chances of converting natives against a presumption of his existence. Mercantile-minded men from Marco Polo through Christopher Columbus dreamt of the putative riches of his kingdom.

As part of the Global Middle Ages initiative, “The International Prester John Project” allows readers to experience the legend’s unfolding, piece-by-piece, as it swept up half of the world, from 1150 to 1700. The project tells the story of Prester John's rhetorical, textual, and cartographic  peregrinations across Europe, Asia, and Africa from the legend's genesis in the twelfth century through the not insignificant cultural resonances that reverberate into the twenty-first century.

One goal of this digital project is to show that Prester John cannot be confined solely to the Middle Ages or to the recesses of the “premodern.” As will become clear, the popularity of the legend actually increases steadily over the eight hundred year period this project traces. Rather than a vestige of medieval superstition and belief, Prester John figures crucially in the project of European modernity.

Continue this path by following the Contents heading to the "Letter of Prester John" to learn more about how this book works.  To skip directly to any of the five time periods this book covers, follow the links below or use the navigation bar in the top left corner of the page. 

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