By Michael E. Brooks
PhD Dissertation, University of Toledo, 2009
Abstract: This work reinterprets the evolution and pervasiveness of the Prester John myth, following the legend from its geographical and historical roots in central and eastern Asia to its final setting in Abyssinia. However, unlike most works on the subject, which typically begin with the twelfth-century writings of Otto of Freising, the author of this dissertation argues that a more complete understanding of the legendary priest-king requires an analysis of the literary traditions that created the ideal environment for the naissance of the Prester John saga. In addition, the influence that the Prester John legend exerted on the mindset of late medieval and early modern Europeans has been understated by many historians; this is in part due to the effects of periodization, whereby modern writers expect historical figures such as the Infante Dom Henrique, Christopher Columbus, and Duarte Lopes to behave in a modern – rather than late medieval – fashion.
In this project, textual analysis of modern college history textbooks demonstrates that Prester John has been written out of world history and European history curricula, perhaps due to this atemporal desire to view late medieval Europeans as more “modern” than they really were. This work also reevaluates the role that the Prester John myth played with regard to specific European voyages of exploration, expansion, and exploitation. Unlike previous text-based studies of the legend of Prester John, this dissertation also incorporates analysis of visual depictions of the mythical priest-king and his empire. Finally, this study demonstrates that the legend of Prester John continued to be taken seriously by many Europeans until the eighteenth century, which contradicts the orthodox historiography that emphasizes the gradual fading of the legend by the end of the sixteenth century.