When Memes Attack: Medieval Deep Fakes and the Fabulous Reign of Prester John

“I even made poor Louis take me on Crusade. How’s that for blasphemy? I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn… but the troops were dazzled…” – Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Lion in Winter

As the heart of the increasingly-lengthy holiday season approaches, I’ve started to (finally) feel nominally festive, and found myself thinking of the Three Magi from the New Testament—a fond preoccupation of my childhood. Perhaps because the three kings/magi/wise dudes who are recorded by the apostle Matthew as visiting the holy family from “the East” in a scant, un-descriptive twelve verses are an interesting exercise in early Christian storytelling. Matthew doesn’t tell us who they were or where they came from (outside the vague directional tag), but many Christian sects have a whole mythos laying out these details and at least three cities claim to have their bodies. This likely sprung from a foundational urge to link Christ to the prophecy that promises the messiah will be “a light unto the Gentiles” (Isiah 49:6) and expound on Christianity’s mission to bring revelation to all nations. Wise and powerful early adopters somewhere in the world were a comfort to a religious minority being persecuted by the West in its early years—hence why the “magi” morphed into “kings” pretty fast.

But while I might return to talk about the elaborate tradition around my old buddies Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior another week, they got me thinking about a different mythic Christian king: Prester John. While the existence of the Magi is historically debatable, Prester John is 100% fictional and may be the modern world’s first meme that got out of hand. But like any good meme, he proved to be incredibly durable and I thought it might be fun to take a closer look a medieval Christian fanfic so powerful it was abandoned only with great reluctance on the eve of the Enlightenment.

[I can only pray Doge will still be culturally relevant four hundred years from now… Also this is me every week writing this blog…]

So who was Prester John anyway? Like most memes where one day it’s not a thing and the next day you can’t remember what life was like before it was eating your brain (Note to Future Historians/Archivists: this blog was written in the Week of Our Lord Jorts the Cat, 2021), we don’t have a firm starting date for the first mention of him. “Prester” was a colloquial contraction of “presbyter,” an honorific title in the early church that came from the Greek presbyteros (πρεσβύτερος), which roughly means “old man” or “elder.” While originally not functionally different from a bishop, the term evolved to denote a clergyman with spiritual oversight below the level of a bishop, because the church was initially hesitant to call such men “priests” at a time when Christianity was distancing itself from pagan priests. This is not to say that Prester John was seen strictly as a clergyman, but the title might be more of a designation of respect (Elder John). His name might also be an allusion to John the Presbyter, an early church figure from this time that may or may not be both the apostle John and John of Patmos (the St. John who wrote Revelation). Generally the modern Christian community holds that John the apostle and St. John are the same person, but this was not settled in the Christianity of the first several centuries AD, hence how this one person might have had three names, or been seen as three different people.

Much like the changing mythos of the Magi, Prester John was said to be the emperor of a vast and fabulously wealthy Christian kingdom somewhere in the east. In his earliest mentions, he is usually said to be emperor of India. This is less crazy than it might seem on its face. In the Christian tradition, the apostle Thomas brought the religion to the subcontinent in the 1st century AD, a tradition upheld by the long-standing Syrian Christian Church in state of Kerala in southern India. While Christians remain a minority even in Kerala, even in 21st century, they are a large one at roughly 18% of the population (compare to the other major religious minority in the state, Islam, at ~26%). It’s possible the idea of Prester John came out of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which described the apostle’s missionary work at the court of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares I (Middle Iranian: 𐭅𐭉𐭍𐭃𐭐𐭓𐭍; Middle Persian 𐭢𐭥𐭭𐭣𐭯𐭥). Incidentally, it is from Gondophares, who was converted by the apostle, where the Magi Gaspar is thought to have gotten his name from (Gondophares’ name to his Armenian subjects would have been Gastaphar).

Aside from this established religious tradition, there was the simple fact that India had fascinated the West since Megasthenes’ Indika in the 4th century BC and it was a go-to place for an exotic locale that was difficult for most people to fact check before the late Renaissance. What medieval people did know was that costly trade goods like silk, gold, and spices came from India, and surely any king who ruled over the source of those luxury items would be unimaginably wealthy himself. This fairytale aspect of the rich, exotic ruler, who was still a Christian and therefore worthy of admiration, was a potent idea. Indeed, one so alluring that it allowed Christians in the Catholic West to skate over another common motif in the Prester John mythos: that he was usually portrayed as a Nestorian Christian or other Eastern Orthodox schismatic sect.

Without getting too afield and at the risk of greatly oversimplifying their beliefs, the so-called Nestorians were an early Christian sect deemed heretical by the third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in the 4th century AD. They followed the teachings of Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople at the time, which mainly differed with the mainline in Rome about the exact composition of Christ’s dual human/divine nature, with the Nestorians supporting the idea that while Christ was both human and divine, those aspects were distinct within him, which is not to be confused with monophysism, which is another heterodox sect that believes that the divine nature came into a fully human Jesus. Comparatively, the majority of Christianity holds that Christ is fully human and fully divine at the same time completely in mystic union ( hypostasis). If the difference here seems excessively nuanced, especially between the Nestorians and the mainstream, that’s because it is and I personally find it exhausting that people were being told they were cut off from the grace of God for landing on the wrong micro-nuance. But I’m not a theologian and I’m sure those who are would be happy to explain to me why it is potentially worth ostracizing someone through the afterlife over it (and also how I explained all of this wrong).

Okay, I’ll dial back my snark now. Nestorianism survived its schism with the West and continued to thrive as the Church of the East, also known as the East Syrian Church or the Chaldean Church. This branch of Christianity proved adept at proselytizing in the Far East, with its most important coup being the conversion of the Keraites, one of the five powerful Turco-Mongol khanates that that dominated Mongolia and China prior to the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. The Khereid khanate, like all Mongol khanates, was a concentrated network of familial-tribal groups and the khan’s conversion in the 11th century meant that his tribes converted as well. And since most Europeans of the period were pretty fuzzy on the geography of the east, the leap from Prester John living in southern India to northern China isn’t nearly far as far as the actual mileage. I know like this feels like a big digression into western religious politics and eastern politics-politics, but it’s going to be important later.

Aside from the geography bugbear, letting Prester John be a Nestorian is a cheeky way to be able to discuss this forbidden doctrine while avoiding being personally accused of endorsing it. Additionally, it’s good political policy coupled with some good ol’ xenophobia because you don’t want people, like, emigrating to Prester John’s domain. Yes, Prester John might be richer and mightier than your king, but—bless his heart—he’s still “noble savage,” ruling over an exotic land that’s Christian, but not, like, the “right” Christianity. Also, if we could just get him to see the error of his ways in regards to his radical dyophysitism, he might even give us some of his wealth for free or help us fight the infidels. You know, as his Christian brothers.

[Darn it, I got snarky again…]

Because that was the other side of the Prester John fantasy. He was held out a military secret weapon who’d keep Christians from getting kicked around by a new religious threat: Islam. And this is where documentation of Prester John’s existence starts cropping up in the 12th century. There may have been rumors of a wealthy Christian king in the East prior to this, but this is where the name and the myth start threading together. There are secondhand accounts of an Indian archbishop or patriarch from the Thomasian churches visiting Pope Callixstus II in the early 1100s, and if these men indeed came, it’s possible that they might have tried to cement their importance in the eyes of Rome by assuring the Holy See that they were under the protection of a powerful Christian lord of their own. But one of the earliest concrete references we have to a Prester John is some twenty years later in German chronicler Otto of Freising’s Chronicon (1145). In it, Otto tells us that he spoke with Hugh, Bishop of Jabala (Syria), at the court of Pope Eugene III while the bishop was in Italy seeking western assistance defending the Crusader county of Edessa from a Muslim siege. In the middle of this discussion, Hugh supposedly described to the pope and Otto (himself a bishop) how Prester John, a Nestorian priest-king descended from the Three Magi, had “a few years back” recaptured the city of Ecbatana from Muslim-Persian control. After this great victory, Prester John had tried to bring his army to Palestine to help Jerusalem and Edessa, but flooding on the Tigris had forced him to turn back.

This might feel like a big case of “Cool Story, Bro,” but you have to remember that Hugh was specifically at the papal court to drum up enthusiasm for a new crusade in the Holy Land. And to do this, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about how his patron, Raymond of Poitiers, really needs more men. He instead lays out this great story about an insanely rich king (he talks of Prester John having a beautiful emerald scepter), who is also the spiritual head of his kingdom (the combo the pope desperately wants to have himself), who is able to successfully defeat the Muslims. The Crusades in Europe were an opportunity for nobles and lesser lords to gain religious absolution for the many sins they committed against each other, but they were also an opportunity to gain or increase one’s wealth through plunder in a much more acceptable forum than ravaging the Christian countrysides of England or France. Setting such a tantalizing ally before the nobility, one who would surely generously reward brothers in arms, was a huge incentive. Additionally, by painting Prester John as a Nestorian, a joint crusade with him could be pitched to the clergy as a spiritual opportunity to convert fellow Christians back to the right fold. You might not find Hugh of Jabala’s methods convincing, but the pope did, and it’s this appeal that will launch the Second Crusade (1147-1150).

The Second Crusade ended up being a nearly unmitigated disaster for the Christian West. Edessa was irretrievably lost to Muslim Syria, and a failed attack on Damascus would ultimately sow the seeds of the downfall of the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem less than forty years later. The Atabeg of Mosul, Imad al-Din Zengi al-Malik al-Mansurwould be well-placed to begin consolidating his family’s power in the region as a result of his victories against the crusaders—being eventually succeeded in power by his second son, Nur ad-Din, who would continue to wear down the local Frankish armies until Nur ad-Din’s nephew, Salah ad-Din, would deal the kingdom’s coup de grâce in 1187. Aside from this, the tribulations of the crusade would also serve as the death blow to the fraying marriage of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, as alluded to in my flavor text, an annulment that would have far-reaching consequences for France, England, and several other of the continental European powers. Not to mention the fabled Prester John never showed up to help out, either.

Despite being AWOL during the Second Crusade, Europe was abuzz in 1165 when a letter started circulating purporting to be from Prester John. First arriving in the hands of the Byzantine emperor Manuel Komnene I, it soon made it to pretty much every corner of Europe and was translated in multiple languages. Prester John confirmed that he was a king in India and a descendant of the Magi, and his letter described the fantastic, quasi-magical land he ruled. Despite having all the trappings of fictional wonder tales popular at the time, this epistle was apparently taken dead seriously, with Pope Alexander III even sending his personal physician on a quest to hand-deliver a message to Prester John’s court in 1177 (we have no record of what became of said physician). This sounds nuts, but the papacy and most of Western European was of the opinion that the kingdom of Jerusalem was becoming increasingly vulnerable, both because of Nur ad-Din’s growing influence and because they were terrified that the uncertain health of Baldwin IV would eventually catch the Franks with their proverbial pants down. It’s likely Alexander was interested in reopening ties with a Christian king in the East who might be able to cause Nur ad-Din and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad some problems from the rear flank, if not come to Jerusalem. Alas, Prester John went silent again and Crusader states would shrink to a few small outposts along the Palestinian coast, even with the stalemate hammered out between Salah ad-Din and Richard I of England at the conclusion of the largely abortive Third Crusade (1189-1192).

Now, you might think Prester John’s failure to save the Second Crusade… or Jerusalem… or the Third Crusade… might have dimmed his star a bit in the imaginations of the West, but one should never discount the power of a cool idea. While Prester John continued to sit out the (hilariously disastrous) Fourth Crusade and the (somehow even more disastrous) Fifth Crusade, chronicler and former Bishop of Acre Jacques de Vitry escaped the aftermath of the latter and arrived in the courts of Europe with just the best news ever. Turns out, the suspiciously long-lived Prester John had died, but his son (or grandson—we weren’t clear) David had just conquered a huge swath of Persia and was moving on Baghdad! Surely the crowned heads of Europe would revive their interest in crusading in the Holy Land when the promised Eastern Christian king was on the march! It might have, but the problem was that Vitry hadn’t quite gotten his facts right. The king moving in on the Middle East wasn’t a Christian (though his vassal lords in the Khereid khanate still were), and his name wasn’t David. It was Temüjin—but you probably know him better as Genghis Khan.

Sooooo… yeah…. Genghis wasn’t really interested in being the savior of the Christian East. But the Mongol Empire would open up trade and travel between Europe and Asia, which would lead to more European contact with the Keraites and their part of the great khanate. This contact led to more Prester John stories (he was alive again!), but these stories became more grounded in the politics of Genghis Khan’s empire. Prester John became associated with Genghis’ foster father, Toghrul, who was in fact the khan of the Nestorian Christian Keraites. There was a story that before he was the Great Khan, Genghis had asked for the hand of Toghrul-Prester John’s daughter, and the two had gone to war over what Prester John saw as an insult. Another version involved one of Genghis’ sons and one of Toghrul’s daughters, but both were to explain why the two khans had fallen out and how the Keraites became subjugated to Genghis. Prester John as a result was still a grand ruler, but his realm was decidedly less magical in this late 12th century iteration. He fought real wars and could lose them to other warriors.

[Toghrul Khan as Prester John]

As the 13th century turned into the 14th, Prester John found himself on the move again, this time south to Africa, specifically the kingdom of Ethiopia. Ethiopia had been a significant Christian kingdom since the 4th century, but like the Nestorian Church of East, Ethiopia was dominated by the Coptic Christian community practicing the aforementioned monophysism that divided them from the mainline Christianity of the north. While Ethiopia played a role in Islam’s rise as well, the medieval Muslim empires of North Africa and the Middle East largely severed contact between Europe and Ethiopia until late Middle Ages/early Renaissance brought the resurgence of trade between East and West. When Marco Polo visited China in the late 1200s, he still spoke of Prester John in Mongolia with the khans, but by first decades of the 14th century, ambassadors from Ethiopia are described as referring to the patriarch of their church as “Prester John.” And by 1326, the Dominican missionary Jordanus claims that Europeans refer to the emperor of Ethiopia as Prester John. The emperor during this time frame was Amda Seyon I, which doesn’t sound all that close, but historically, Europeans don’t have a great track record on this kind of thing. Plus they already had that neat Prester John story ready to go.

In fact, as the courts of Europe continued to have increasing contact with Ethiopia through the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration, the Europeans en masse just called all of the Ethiopian emperors “Prester John,” something the baffled Ethiopian ambassadors tried to get them to stop doing to no avail (another thing Europeans are historically good at). Finally, Ethiopia just decided to go with it and for several centuries, they claimed to be the origin of the Prester John story, probably because that seemed to impress the Europeans so much. The Ethiopians were apparently successful enough at this that it would take until the 18th century for anyone to definitively quash the idea that the Ethiopian emperors were descended from a king called Prester John, and it’s at that time that interest in “finding” Prester John or his kingdom finally died. But the mythic Christian king survived as a cultural artifact in literature and the arts, where there are several “Prester John” characters in modern comics and science fiction in particular. They don’t bear much resemblance to the original Prester John, but the heretical monarch has always been adept at metamorphosis and it seems as likely as not that he’ll find a way to leap into the 21st century as easily as he’s done in the previous millennium.

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