Friday, December 09, 2005

Glossary: Letters of Prester John

When analyzing the letters of Prester John, we should distinguish between those said to have been received by the Popes or kings of Europe, and those circulated for general public consumption.

Obviously some of the latter were designed more for entertainment purposes than anything else.

However, when we learn that the Pope sent his personal physician, Magister Philippus, on a mission to Prester John, the completely fictional character of the king becomes a more difficult proposition.

Although many copies of the original letters exist, there are numerous variations in the manuscripts.

Actual specimens of letters addressed to the "Emperor of Rome" and the "King of France" are stated to be preserved at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Beazely, p. 278).

Pope Alexander III in Indorum regi sacerdotum santissimo (1177) told of Philippus' encounters with the emissaries of Prester John in the East, and the eastern king's desire to learn about the Roman Catholic Church.

Interestingly, while traveler's reports claiming to have found Prester John's kingdom in Central Asia or Ethiopia are seen as authentic, the accounts of this kingdom in "further India" are viewed as completely fictional and/or fraudulent. This includes the original letter attributed to Prester John, the story of John Mandeville and even the account of Nicolo de Conti given centuries after the first letter.

However, as we have noted, two geographically vast trade empires existed in further India at the time that are certainly deserving of consideration. All the more so when we consider that evidence exists that at least one of these empires appears to have had a long-term strategic policy of courting new allies.

Requests for assistance from the Sung emperor by the king of Sanfotsi against his enemies to the south began in the late 10th century. During the same general period over several centuries, Suvarnadvipa engaged in what apparently was an effort to strengthen political ties with eastern and southern India and Tibet. The Srikalacakra Tantra, having links with Suvarnadvipa gurus, contains not only interesting hopeful prophecies of Buddhist victories against invading hordes, but even a manual of the "art of war" as part of its contents. The presence of Suvarnadvipa influence (Sanfotsi/Zabag) in South India and Sri Lanka is also confirmed by independent Chinese and Muslim sources during this period including Ma Tuan-lin and Chau Ju-Kua.

We know that prior to the initial Prester John letters there had been visits by an "archbishop of India" to Constantinople, and by a "Patriarch John" from the same country to Rome in 1122. These visits are confirmed by two apparently independent sources, one anonymous and the other from Odo of Reims who was in Rome during the event.

These accounts confirm that people at least claiming to be authorities from India were able to venture to the West some 50 years before the first Prester John letter. As we know that merchants and even kings from Suvarnadvipa were journeying to India during this period, the necessary linkage existed.

Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, published only about 35 years after the first letter, was the first in a series of Grail epics that sought to give European roots to the eastern king and to link him with a sacred relic known as the Holy Grail. In this literature, the Grail almost invariably returns to a mountain in far India.

If the letters had some hints of being penned by a Nestorian, this would not automatically effect its authenticity. Cosmas Indicopleustes refers to Nestorians from Siam as early as the 6th century CE. The Persian writer Abu Saliah mentions during the 7th century, a Nestorian church at Fansur (Sumatra or Borneo).

John of Marignolli says that he encounters "Christians" at Sabah during the 14th century, when travelling from China to India.

Even the letters themselves tend to imply they were written by someone in Prester John's service, which according to the king included 'Frankish' knights. We might relate this to Nicolo de Conti's claim much later of having served in the the court of Prester John during his 15th century travels to Asia.

After the Mongol conquests, as Europeans began traveling again to India, and particularly to South India, two advocates of the establishment of a Christian navy in the Indian Ocean arise in Europe. They were Jordanus of Columbum and Marino Sanuto, both of whom located Regnum Joannis Prebyteri in the far Indies. Their world maps though were still Ptolemaic in fashion showing the easternmost islands as part of the Asian continent.

Sanuto wrote an appeal to the Pope for a new crusade known as Secreta fidelium crucis "The Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross."

In this work, Sanuto included many maps, apparently the work of Pietro Vesconte, that were the first to show significant advances over earlier Christian maps. They were known as portolanos, discussed previously in this blog in relation to Austronesian wind compasses, and were valuable new additions to the navigational repetoire of European seafarers.

A pattern of contact, of which I have endeavored to lay out in this blog, continues up to the arrival of Portuguese fleets in the 1500s. The flow of knowledge from the East may be coded in von Eschenbach's account of the visitors Feirfez, Cundrie and Malcreatiure from the kingdom of Tribalibot "near the Ganges." The author even credits the tale of Parzival to a mysterious "pagan" from Toledo. The Grail itself may also allude partly to this new knowledge from the Far East.

It is impossible to say whether Luções "helpfulness" to the Portuguese had strategic rather than purely mercantile or mercenary motivations. However, the situation in Lusung certainly paints a picture of a kingdom in flux.

The land granted to Chinese migrants on the Pasig River, the first major foreign Chinese settlement in history, may have been a conscious policy to curry protectorate sentiments with Ming emperors.

Lusung at the arrival of the Spanish was divided between Islam and the indigenous religions. While the king in Tondo, Lakandula, appeared indigenous by his name, his close neighbor Soliman of Manila was a "Moro."

In the end, one can say that according to the thesis of this blog the lords of the dragon and bird clan succeeded in halting the Muslim juggernaut and the threat from the South, but only at great costs. The letters of "Prester John" worked. However, the land ended up colonized anyway and at one point the Lusung lords could not even conduct trade from village to village with each other under Spanish rule.

However, from the standpoint of the old trading clan the situation could be seen as profound according to their own worldview that I have attempted to reconstruct. Two conflicting exclusive ideologies, from the same root, meeting full circle back at the place where it all started, after nearly a millenium of intense warfare.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Beazely, C. Raymond (Editor). The Texts and Versions of John de Plano Carpini and William de Rubruquis, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1903.

Coedes, G. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, University of Hawaii Press, 1975-06.

Manansala, Paul. The Kingdom of Prester John,, 2003.