Prester John: Fiction and History
History of European Ideas, 20/1-3 (1995)
A Hebrew book of Ben-Sira was published in 1519 in Constantinople, and its appendix includes ‘a copy of the letter that Priesty Juan sent to the Pope in Rome’. Although this story has several versions, its main theme is: Once upon a time, in a very remote land there was a king who was not only a great king, but a Christian priest as well. The name of that king was Prester John, and he ruled over 72 countries. His land was rich in silver and gold, and many wonderful creatures lived there. That king wrote letters to several Popes in Rome, telling them that he was a faithful Christian, and was acquainted with all kinds of unknown beasts, such as: men with horns on their foreheads and three eyes, women who fought while mounted on horses, men that lived 200 years, unicorns, etc.
This legend, like many others, can be interpreted, though not without difficulty. Indeed, early scholars who investigated the subject proved that this legend has an historical nucleus, and it is possible to distinguish between fiction and history. However, to make the whole story clear will not be easy, and this paper aims to advance, only partly, the discussion of this historical legend.