The Medieval Review 16.02.21

Brewer, Keagan, trans. Prester John: The Legend and its Sources. Crusade Texts in Translation, 27. Burlington: Ashgate, 2015. pp. 340. $116.96 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-409-43807-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

John Eldevik
Hamilton College

Keagan Brewer has done both scholars and students a great service in bringing a major corpus of medieval and early modern Prester John literature into English translation for the first time in this new volume from the Ashgate Crusade Texts in Translation series. The famous Letter of Prester John and many other texts and narratives associated with this peculiar medieval legend have long been available in the critical editions published by Friedrich Zarncke in the Abhandlungen of the Saxon Academy between 1876 and 1879, as well as in disparate other collections, anthologies, and studies, but few were ever translated into English, much less assembled in a single collection such as this. [1] Brewer's volume thus meets a critical present need in Anglophone medieval studies by providing a substantial anthology of translated texts--mostly by the author, with a few reproduced from existing translations where available--accompanied by a historical introduction and a comprehensive appendix listing all known works pertaining to the Prester John, a handlist of the manuscripts of the Letter (on which see more below), and a select bibliography of secondary sources. For students in particular, this volume provides all the material necessary for undertaking substantial research on almost any aspect of the history of the Prester John tradition.

Marvelous images of India filtered through the Alexander Romance and the works of late antique writers like Orosius and Solinus were well known in medieval Europe, and medieval Latins were dimly aware of the existence of the so-called "Thomas Christians" of India and of Nestorians in other parts of Asia. It was not until the mid-twelfth century, however, that Asian Christians living beyond the lands of Islam came to be imagined in the context of an actual realm ruled by a great Christian ruler who might be prepared to aid his coreligionists in the West against their Muslim foes. [2] Though some legends about the tomb of St. Thomas and the marvels of Christian India circulated a bit earlier, the story in Otto of Freising's Two Cities, as related by the Latin bishop Hugh of Jabala in 1145, about "a certain John, priest and king," who lived beyond Persia and had just defeated two Turkish princes, marks the earliest mention of the individual who was later dubbed "Prester John." Otto does not appear to put much stock in the story, but some twenty years later, a much more elaborate text, the so-called Letter of Prester John, appeared that synthesized earlier reports of miracles at the shrine of St. Thomas, the marvels of the East, and the idea of a powerful, Christian emperor of India. In the Letter, addressed to emperor Manuel of Byzantium (or Frederick Barbarossa in some versions), John himself describes the fabulous wealth and other marvels of his empire in grandiloquent tones. Bernard Hamilton has argued (and Brewer agrees) that it was originally conceived as a piece of pro-Staufen propaganda during the Alexandrine Schism in the 1160s, and quickly "went viral," eventually appearing--along with various additions and interpolations--in some 200 manuscripts by the fifteenth century.

As eyewitness accounts from travelers to Asia like William of Rubruck and Marco Polo gradually confirmed that Prester John either never existed, or only remnants of his dynasty allegedly remained after the Mongol Conquests, the location of Prester John and his realm migrated to Africa, and eventually Ethiopia, where the possibility of encountering him or his descendants still exercised the imagination of the Portuguese and others well into the seventeenth century.

Brewer's introduction is both a literature review and an essay in which he provides a synopsis of the key modern studies of Prester John and explores the question of whether medieval Europeans really "believed" there was an actual Priest-King named John far off to the East or elsewhere. Even as the Letter attracted widespread attention, it never entirely shook loose an association with the Romance tradition, suggesting that, like Paul Veyne's Greeks, medieval audiences did not so much "believe" in the myth of Prester John as they did use it to help illuminate or affirm other ideas about the world. [3] Brewer observes that while medieval and many early modern readers were generally skeptical of the marvels and exaggerations of the Letter and other related texts, they continued to hold out belief that there was possibly something to the story--that there may have been an actual Prester John, but descriptions of his magnificence and wealth were overblown. Along these lines, Brewer makes a strong case that the so-called "response" of Alexander III to "king John" dated 1177, and which has often been taken as evidence of the reception of the Letter, is in fact itself a forgery of some kind.

The translated texts here represent the vast majority of significant witnesses related to the Prester John legend from the mid-twelfth through the mid-seventeenth century, but not all. Indeed, such comprehensiveness would have probably required a multivolume set, so the editor had to make some necessary choices. One unfortunate omission, however, is the marvelous text found in the Heiligenkreuz volume of the Magnum Legendarium Austriacarum (Heiligenkreuz, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 11)--the so-called "Report of Elyseus" (ed. Zarncke, Priester Johannes, vol. 2, ch. VI, 120ff.), which Brewer does note in his appendix. This text is a pastiche culled from the so-called Report of the Patriarch John, an early text describing the miraculous shrine of St. Thomas, and the Letter of Prester John, but adds a unique frame narrative that reimagines their stories as the testimony of a Christian cleric from India named Elyseus who has come west to visit Rome, but is waylaid by bandits in Carinthia as he attempts to return home. Convalescing in a hospice in the town of Friesach (a dependency of Admont), he tells the monks there of the great wonders of his homeland, including a description of the iron sarcophagus of St. Thomas which floats in the air suspended between large magnets. Copied into the last folia of a legendary, it was probably an attempt to supplement the Passio S. Thomae elsewhere in the codex, but also provides a unique example of the way a community like the monks of Heiligenkreuz (and perhaps also Admont?) used fanciful reécritures of the material to imagine themselves as part of a broader Christian world that extended all the way to "India."

Brewer's translations are solid and also quite readable, which was not always the case in previous attempts with this material. The translation of the Letter in particular presents a number of difficulties due to the author's attempt to affect certain Grecisms that were mangled or misunderstood by later copyists and Brewer negotiates these sticking points with firm clarity. Only in a few instances here and there through the book did I find passages that I would have rendered somewhat differently. One example that caught my eye was in the Letter itself. In Zarncke's edition, c. 11, Prester John states that he has vowed to visit the sepulcher of the Lord prout decet gloriam maiestatis nostrae humiliare et debellare inimicos crucis Christi, for which Brewer has (68) "as is fitting, to humble the glory of our majesty, and to vanquish the enemies of the cross of Christ...." A much more logical reading, in my opinion, would be "as befits the glory of our majesty, to humiliate and defeat (or vanquish) the enemies of the cross of Christ."

Finally, in his Appendix 2, Brewer lists 28 additional manuscripts containing the Letter of Prester John, or portions thereof, that he has newly identified and which were not known to either Zarncke or Bettina Wagner, whose magisterial 2000 study of the Letter is the most thorough investigation of the manuscript tradition to date. The list appears to almost just contain some incomplete notes, however, with many dates, signatures, folio numbers and other information indicated by a question mark. This is no doubt an important contribution, but given how easily most of this information is now available via online tools like and in published catalogs, I am surprised that it was left in this state.

Minor oversights of this kind are inevitable in a work of this scope and do not detract from the enormous contribution the book makes to opening up the great tradition of Prester John to a broader readership. It will hopefully be the starting point of much fruitful research for years to come.



1. See e.g. Vsevelod Slessarev,Prester John: The Letter and the Legend (Minneapolis, 1959), which offers a study and translation of a late, Old French version of the Letter, or the unpublished manuscript of A.A. Vasilliev in the Dumbarton Oaks library, Prester John: Legend and History, which contains translations of a number of the relevant texts. Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, Letters from the East, Crusade Texts in Translation 18 (Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT, 2010) includes a translation of the Letter, but not any of the several interpolations that accreted to the tradition over time in numerous manuscripts.

2. On this, see especially L.N. Gumilev, Searches for an imaginary kingdom: the legend of the kingdom of Prester John, trans. R. E. F. Smith (New York and Cambridge, UK, 1987).

3. Cf. Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination (Chicago, 1988).

4. Die "Epistola presbiteri Johannis" lateinisch und deutsch: Überlieferung, Textgeschichte, Rezeption und Übertragungen im Mittelalter: mit bisher unedierten Texten (Tübingen, 2000).

Copyright (c) 2016 John Eldevik

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