Saturday, January 19, 2013

Prester John, Part 1

That "inaccessible area" in Asia mentioned in the Finding Paradise entry fascinated Europeans. Knowledge of the lands to the east was rare, and accounts of travels in that direction were devoured. Marco Polo's tales were only one example.

The 3rd century apocryphal text Acts of Thomas tells of St. Thomas and his attempts to convert India to Christianity. Although not included in the definitive collection of books of the Bible, it was still copied and read (Gregory of Tours made a copy), and sparked the imagination: what if there were a thriving community of Christians in exotic India, cut off from Europe and desirous of contact?

In the 12th century, a German chronicler and bishop called Otto of Friesling recorded that in 1144 he had met a bishop from Syria at the court of Pope Eugene III. Bishop Hugh's request for aid in fighting Saracens resulted in the Second Crusade. During the conversation, however, Bishop Hugh mentioned a Nestorian Christian (Nestorians and their origin were briefly mentioned here) who was a priest and a king, named Prester John, tried to help free Jerusalem from infidels, bringing help from further east. He had an emerald scepter, and was a descendant of one of the Three Magi who brought gifts at Jesus' birth.

The idea of Prester John, a fabulously wealthy and well-connected Christian potentate poised to help bridge the gap between West and East, captured the imagination. A letter purporting to be from Prester John appeared in 1165. The internal details of the letter suggest that the author knew the Acts of Thomas as well as the 3rd century Romance of Alexander.

The letter became enormously popular; almost a hundred copies still exist. It was copied and embellished and translated over and over. Modern analysis of the evolution of the letter and its vocabulary suggest an origin in Northern Italy, possibly by a Jewish author.

At the time, however, no analysis was needed for people to act. Pope Alexander III decided to write a letter to Prester John and sent it on 27 September 1177 via his physician, Philip. Philip was not heard from again, but that did not deter the belief in Prester John  at all.

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