Thursday, February 19, 2009

More on Prester John

A few decades after the exchange of letters between Pope Alexander III and Prester John, the Mongols began to erupt from their homeland on conquests across Asia.

The Mongols destroyed both the Seljuk empire and the Assassin strongholds in Iran and Syria.

Not surprisingly, there were many in Europe who wondered if the Mongols might be linked with the earlier overtures of Prester John. The confused accounts of Jacques de Vitry and others helped to fuel this speculation. From this point onward, two developments occurred with reference to the perception of Prester John.

Firstly was that the Christian king was based somewhere in "Tartary" i.e. in the region around the Altai mountains and the Mongol homeland. The other line of thought, that developed more in latter times, was that Prester John was the same as the Negus, the emperor of Ethiopia.

When first approached about Prester John, the Mongols ridiculed the ambassador of Pope Innocent IV. However in 1248, a Persian khan who had converted to Christianity sent an embassy to Louis IX at Cyrpus. They reported that the present Great Khan of the Mongols had married the daughter of Prester John. Interestingly, the work attributed to John Mandeville published more than a century later claimed that it was traditional for the Great Khan and Prester John to exchange their daughters in marriage. Both the king of the Naimans and the king of the Keraites evidentally claimed to be Prester John during this period. However, the rise of Timur (Tamerlane) and the Islamization of the Mongols turned European hopes in Prester John toward Ethiopia. The idea of an Ethiopian Prester John dates at least to Friar Jordanus in 1328 and maybe goes back, in part, to Jacques de Vitry.

However, the first papal embassy occurs in 1441 in which the Negus apparently accepts his identification as Prester John. During the great explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries, the Portuguese equated Prester John with the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Despite the rise of the Mongol and Ethiopian versions of Prester John, the original idea of a Prester John of the Indies never totally died out. Marino Sanuto, for example, an early 14th century Venetian statesman advocated the establishment of a papal fleet in the Indian Ocean and located Prester John in the far East Indies. The text of John Mandeville has the same opinion in the middle of the 14th century. The location of this Christian king in the Indies of the extreme East was also nearly the exclusive interpretation of the medieval romance literature including the Grail cycle.

We have to wait though until the middle of the 15th century to find what appears to be another major embassy from a Prester John of the Indies.

Di Conti and the Eastern Ambassador

Fra Alberto de Sarteano, a papal envoy to Ethiopia, returned to the Council of Florence in 1441 with a great foreign contigent consisting of Copts, Ethiopians from Jerusalem and two important individuals -- the Venetian traveler Nicolo di Conti and an unnamed ambassador from an unnamed Nestorian kingdom in "Upper India."

As discussed previously, Nicolo di Conti had, as told by Pero Tafur, spent many years in the service of Prester John who lived in somewhere in the Indies of the East. According to Tafur, this Prester John had a great interest in Christian Europe and had attempted to send embassies to the West during di Conti's sojourn.

Quite naturally, one could expect that when di Conti decided to return to Europe that Prester John would have seen an excellent opportunity to send an emissary along with the Venetian traveler. The envoy that came with di Conti in de Sarteano's group though is never identified, nor is his kingdom. The papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini describes the ambassador's kingdom as located in "Upper India to the north" about 20 days from Cathay (northern China).

"Upper India" during this period meant the Indies beyond the Ganges sometimes including South China. Vespucci and Magellan, for example, considered Maluku, the Spice Islands, as belonging to the region of Upper India.

The very mention of a Nestorian kingdom in Upper India should have conjured up images of Prester John in the minds of at least some informed persons of the time. Conti also mentions Nestorians near Cathay but without further specifics on location. However, it was during this period that the Pope was actively seeking relations with the Negus of Ethiopia who had the formal title of "Prester John." So the silence in Poggio's account of 1447 is understandable.

Also, the Prester John of the Indies during this time becomes more generally known as "Emperor Thomas of the Indians" after St. Thomas, the supposed evangelizer of the East, as opposed to "Emperor Prester John of the Ethiopians." Pope Eugenius IV in 1439 addressed identical letters to these two emperors.

Di Conti's testimony is widely believed to have created the idea that the East Indies and Cathay could be reached by sailing west from Europe. And Paolo Toscanelli, who directly influenced Columbus, also claimed to have spoken with the mysterious ambassador who came with De Sarteano's retinue. Columbus himself copied one of Toscanelli's letters that mentions the testimony of di Conti.

Indeed when Columbus set out on his fateful first journey, he carried a credential letter from Ferdinand and Isabella to be delivered to Prester John, the Great Khan and any other Eastern monarchs he encountered. Here is a translation of the letter:

Ferdinand and Isabella, to the King ____________
The Spanish Sovereigns have heard that You and Your Subjects have a great affection for them and for Spain. They are further aware that you and your subjects are very desirous of information concerning Spain ; they accordingly send their Admiral, Christopher Columbus, who will tell you that they are in good health and perfect prosperity.
Granada, April 30, 1492

Both Columbus, and Magellan after him, intended on sailing to the East Indies off the coast of South China. The difference was that Columbus was not aware of the great distance and continents that lie between him and his destination. On his second voyage, Columbus had heard from his men of Taino Indians dressed in white cloaks. The navigator concluded that he must have reached the land of Prester John!

Now it makes sense that Columbus like Magellan would seek a friendly king on the other side of the earth, particularly a Christian one, so we are taken back to the Nestorian ambassador who came along with di Conti to the Council of Florence and whose testimony was published some 45 years earlier. Toscanelli had written to Columbus about the Christians in the East, and we know that Columbus himself had notions of a grand alliance between these Christians, or those to be converted to Christianity, in his desire for a reconquest of Jerusalem. The gold of Ophir that Columbus assigned to the same region, would finance this great project -- in fulfillment, Columbus thought, of biblical prophecy.

So it is from the Eastern ambassador and di Conti that we have the last record of these friendly Christians in the East before Columbus' first journey. Di Conti, described by Tafur as a once-subject of Prester John and the ambassador who very likely came from the same kingdom.

The "Christian" conquest of Jerusalem though did not occur until 1917 when the British captured the city from the Ottomans after the Battle of Jerusalem. The British eventually though surrendered the city to Israel and Jordan in 1949, and the rest of course is history.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Hastings, James, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray. Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908, see entry for "Prester John."

Heat Moon, William Least. Columbus in the Americas. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley, 2002, 118.

Rogers, Francis Millet. The Quest for Eastern Christians, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962, 39-40, 44.

Tarducci, Francesco, and Henry F. Brownson. The Life of Christopher Columbus, Detroit: H.F. Brownson, 1891, 114.


"the Dude" said...

Article on Chamoro:

No pigs or dogs? I was quite surprised to read that.