from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. A legendary medieval Christian priest and king thought to have reigned over a Christian kingdom in the Far East or Ethiopia.


from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

Middle English prestre, priest, from Old French, from Late Latin presbyter; see presbyter.


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  • "In the twelfth century a new legend of a powerful Christian ruler of the East established the picture of India as fantastically wealthy and enthusiastically Christian. In about 1165 a letter began to circulate in Europe purporting to be from Prester John, who styled himself 'Emperor of the Three Indias.' ... There had also been earlier accounts of this fabulous ruler. ... The actual monarch with the peculiar name or title of Prester John was first mentioned in the mid-twelfth century by Otto of Freising, a half-brother of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and author of a universal history. Here Prester John is a priest and ruler (Prester from the German Preister, 'priest') who has battled Muslim Persia and whose extraordinary wealth is symbolized by a scepter made of emerald. ... Most of his subordinate kings are pagan, and so his land is by no means uniformly Christian, but everyone is just and there is no lying, adultery, or theft. ... The letter expresses the desire of Western Christians for a great ally."

    Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2008), 101-102.


    "The legend of Prester John was not completely groundless or fantastic. There really was a Christian African kingdom, in Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia), just as there was a substantial Christian population along the western coast of India. Ethiopia was one of the first places to have embraced Christianity (in the third and fourth centuries), but it had little or no connection with Western Europe for the first thousand years after its conversion, and it followed the Monophysite doctrine (that Christ has essentially one divine nature), which had been deemed heretical in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Ethiopia sent occasional emissaries to Europe beginning in 1306, when a group of Ethiopians visited the papal court in Avignon. In 1400, King Henry IV of England wrote to Prester John as 'King of Abyssinia' in response to rumors that the African ruler was planning to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Speculation in this vein, understandably, irritated the real Ethiopians. At Rome in the mid-fifteenth century, members of an Ethiopian delegation responded to inquiries about the legendary priest-king with the bewildered comment, 'We are from Ethiopia, our king is Zara Yaqob--why do you call him Prester John?'" (p. 197-198)

    November 28, 2017