The search for Prester John, a projected crusade and the eroding prestige of Ethiopian kings, c.1200–c.1540
By Andrew Kurt
Journal of Medieval History, Vol.39:3 (2013)
Abstract: The Prester John myth of a rich and powerful Christian saviour-sovereign beyond the Muslim Middle East was enmeshed for centuries in the desire for a revival of the crusading cause. This article examines a later phase when the legend shifted to Africa, the significance of which has not been wholly appreciated, nor the ensuing contacts between continents fully elaborated. Embassies between Ethiopia and Christian potentates of the Mediterranean – in Aragon, Portugal, Italy and Burgundy – were perceived as exchanges with the Prester. Steps were taken by both sides in the hopes of building a powerful alliance against Islam. Europe gained new information on sub-Saharan Africa and found its racial paradigm challenged. Yet reality could not match all that was imaginatively imposed on Christian Ethiopia, as gradually reflected in historical narratives and literature from the late fifteenth century. The strength of the myth and its impact on global events is nonetheless extraordinary.
Introduction: Apart from effects of the Crusades, from influential exchanges of ideas and goods to shifts in power and the planting of new roots of mistrust between Muslims and Christians, one major consequence should not be overlooked. Not only can the creation of Prester John be placed in this context, but so too can the role the search for him played in European explorations of Asia and Africa which led ultimately to the building of world empires. The very invention of Prester John and his eventual attachment to the highlands of north-eastern Africa west of the Horn are owed to the First, Second and Third Crusades as they are traditionally labelled.
The myth of Prester John, a priest-king of phenomenal wealth and power somewhere in the East, was a popular theme in medieval writings and had remarkable staying power. Its firm beginnings in writing, based loosely on a report from the Levant and on a tale that was already in circulation, are in a letter of 1165 from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. From his introduction to the emperor and subsequently to several sovereigns of western Europe he became known as a king and priest in lower Asia (‘the three Indies’) who enjoyed astounding fortune, power, virtue and lands with extraordinary features – such as crystal-clear rivers of emeralds flowing from Paradise, massive amounts of gold, monstrous animals, enchanted castles, the fountain of youth and, later, by one interpolation of the Letter, proximity to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and, at the edge of his kingdom, the Garden of Paradise. Most saliently, he promised aid to beleaguered Christians against the Muslims of the Levant. In the Letter this eastern king declares his intention to visit the holy city of Jerusalem soon, promising relief for the crusaders, who for two decades had experienced losses since the rise of Zengi. The description and location of Prester John would see numerous adaptations in the following five centuries. The later, African stage of his metamorphosis is a main focus of this article. Both the tales connected to Prester John and the search for him had global dimensions which shed light on Europe’s relation with the outer world during the period in question.