First things first

by presbiter iohannes

No matter what the about says, I’m not really the Presbiter Iohannes, or am I?

Who was the fellow, though?

Presbiter Iohannes, aka Presbyter Johannes, aka Prester John (and Preste Juan, Prete Gianni, Prêtre Jean, and so on) is a mythical King and Priest who, in the Middle Ages (1165 to be exact), wrote a letter to Manuel I Commenus, the Byzantine Emperor, bragging about his kingdom with the excuse of giving thanks for a present.

In this kingdom of his there are lots of fantastic creatures and landscapes, such as, but not limited to: cynocephalus, blemmyes, sprites, cyclops, griffins, monopods, a miraculous fountain, a sea of sand and a river of stones, the ten tribes of Israel, amazons, bragmans, a mirror to watch all of his vast kingdom and a lot more. I mean  a lot.

A blemmy, a monopod and a cyclops hanging around in Prester John’s Kingdom

The letter is a forgery (apparently written by jews from Northern Italy) and the two emperors didn’t buy it. The pope, though, had to act. After all, if there was a Christian Priest and King surrounded by infidels he should do something about it. So he wrote a one thousand word letter to the Presbyter and sent it via an ambassador and missioner, Phillip of Venice (poor guy), since the Prester was a nestorian, an heretic.

There were mentions to the presbyter previous to this letter in several ways: from the christians in India of the Acts of Thomas, to the figure of the syrian John the Presbyter, to the Chronicle of Otto of Freising.

Did he really exist? If the question refers to the king and patriarch of the letter, then he didn’t.  But there may have been a christian patriarch and/or king somewhere in India, the Mongol Empire or Ethiopia which served as a basis for the legend.

So why did I choose this character?

I found the story about the Presbiter Iohannes in one of my favourite books, Baudolino by Umberto Eco, which I strongly recommend.


But the main reason is that nobody knows why the forgers wrote it or what for, what they expected to achieve. Or was it just  trolling avant la lettre?

troll face