Prester John is one of my favorite historical/mythological figures. The legends of Prester John were popular in Europe from the 12th through the 17th centuries, and told of a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient. Prester John was reportedly a descendant of one of the Three Wise Men and presided over a realm full of riches and strange creatures, including unicorns. His kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, and even bordered the Garden of Eden. Prester John was first imagined to reside in India, as tales of the Nestorian Christians’ evangelistic success probably provided the first seeds of the legend. After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world, accounts placed the king in Central Asia. But as the Mongol Empire collapsed, Europeans began to shift away from the idea that Prester John had ever really been a Central Asian king. Eventually, Portuguese explorers convinced themselves that they had found him in Ethiopia. The legend of Prester John affected several hundred years of European and world history by encouraging generations of Europe’s explorers, missionaries, scholars and treasure hunters to venture into India, Asia and Africa.
Prester John, the fabled king/priest invented by Crusader kingdoms, is basically the Forrest Gump of the Middle Ages (1100s-1500s). Dude was everywhere. For example, during the Mongol Empire, Prester John was identified as both Genghis Khan and a Nestorian Christian monarch defeated by Khan. The myth of Prester John was a comforting (if ethnocentric) symbol to European Christians of their religion’s universality, transcending culture and geography to encompass all humanity. Even the boneheaded Christopher Columbus cited the discovery of Prester John’s kingdom among the goals of his travels. Despite centuries of European exploration in search of treasure—and evangelizing the locals—the quest for the fictitious kingdom remained unfulfilled. But the legend served many medieval Christian kingdoms, and the Catholic Church, handsomely.