Prester John

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The legends of Prester John (also Presbyter Johannes) 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. Written accounts of this kingdom are variegated collections of medieval popular fantasy. Prester John was reportedly a descendant of one of the Three Magi, said to be a generous ruler and a virtuous man, presiding over a realm full of riches and strange creatures, in which the Patriarch of the Saint Thomas Christians resided. His kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, and even bordered the Earthly Paradise. Among his treasures was a mirror through which every province could be seen, the fabled original from which the "speculum literature" of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was derived, in which the prince's realms were surveyed and his duties laid out.[1]

At first, Prester John was imagined to reside in India; tales of the Nestorian Christians' evangelistic success there and of Thomas the Apostle's subcontinental travels as documented in works like the Acts of Thomas 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, and eventually Portuguese explorers convinced themselves that they had found him in Ethiopia. Prester John's kingdom was thus the object of a quest, firing the imaginations of generations of adventurers, but remaining out of reach. He was a symbol to European Christians of the Church's universality, transcending culture and geography to encompass all humanity, in a time when ethnic and inter-religious tension made such a vision seem distant.

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Origin of the legend

Though its immediate genesis is unclear, the legend of Prester John drew strongly from earlier accounts of the Orient and of Westerners' travels there. Particularly influential were the stories of Saint Thomas the Apostle's proselytizing in India, recorded especially in the 3rd-century work known as the Acts of Thomas. This text inculcated in Westerners an image of "India" as a place of exotic wonders and offered the earliest description of Saint Thomas establishing a Christian sect there (the Saint Thomas Christians), motifs that loomed large over later accounts of Prester John.[2] Similarly, distorted reports of the Church of the East's movements in Asia informed the legend as well. This church, also called the Nestorian church and centered in Persia, had gained a wide following in the Eastern nations and engaged the Western imagination as an assemblage both exotic and familiarly Christian.[3] Particularly inspiring were the Nestorians' missionary successes among the Mongol and Turks of Central Asia; the French historian René Grousset suggests that one of the seeds of the story may have come from the Kerait clan, which had hundreds of thousands of its members converted to Nestorian Christianity shortly after the year 1000. By the 12th century, the Kerait rulers were still following a custom of bearing Christian names, which may have fueled the legend.[4]

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