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Prester John

In 1145 the bishop of Jebeil, in what is now Lebanon, visits the pope in Italy to bring him dramatic news. There is a previously unknown Christian king, of immense wealth, ruling in the Indies somewhere beyond Persia. He hopes soon to come and help the crusaders in Palestine, but as yet is unable to do so.

Twenty years later a letter arrives from this ruler. He calls himself Prester John (meaning Presbyter or 'priest' John). He explains that this simple title is a necessary gesture of humility in a realm such as his, where everyone is so distinguished. His butler is a royal archbishop and his cook a royal prior.

The modest king's letter contains many lessons for violent Europe. His kingdom in the east has no crime, no injustice, no avarice, no violence, no poverty. The king adds one point of particular interest to Rome. He is distressed to hear that the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople is considered almost divine by his subjects. This is vainglorius and reprehensible, says the humble Prester.

This and other details suggest that the document is written within the western church as a satirical fable, somewhat in the vein of Gulliver's Travels. But its account of eastern marvels is taken at face value and becomes immensely popular.

The pope sends a reply to Prester John, greeting him as 'the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son in Christ'. He offers him a church of his own in Rome, but he gets no answer. Meanwhile all travellers heading east (among them Marco Polo) hope to come across Prester John, or at least to hear more certain news of the great man.

As India becomes more familiar, the fabulous kingdom shifts its ground. In about 1329 Jordan de Sévérac, a friar who has failed to find Prester John in the east, publishes a book describing him in Ethiopia - a place of which the friar knows nothing, but which becomes henceforth the favourite location for a king who remains elusive until interest in him slowly fades.