Tuesday August 9, 2005

Prester John

I recently finished Laurence Bergreen's Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, and enjoyed it quite a bit.  The circumnavigation was an incredible and dangerous feat.  Five ships and 260 people set out, but only one ship and 21 people finished the trip.  The thing that I'd never realized was just how ignorant they were about the world they were trying to sail around—they had no idea just how wide the Pacific Ocean was, for example, and they nearly ran out of supplies crossing it.  Oddest of all, though, was their belief that they might encounter in India the Christian kingdom of Prester John.

The name "Prester John" sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I had never heard him described in detail before.  Bergreen introduces him like this:

Even educated people placed credence in fantastic realms on earth, for instance, the persistent belief in the existence of the kingdom of Prester John.  It is difficult to overestimate the influence of this fabulous personage, Prester John ("Prester" is an archaic word for presbyter, or priest), on the European imagination during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  He was part Christian ruler and part Kublai Khan.  Despite an enormous number of inconsistencies and improbabilities in the details surrounding Prester John and his realm, his existence was widely believed in for several hundred years.  In an era of violent conflict between Christianity and Islam, and unsuccessful Crusades, it was vastly reassuring to the faithful to believe that a sprawling and wealthy Christian outpost existed beyond Europe.  (pp. 76-7)

The legend of Prester John was started by the publication of a 12th century letter addressed to the Byzantine emperor Emanuel.  The letter described a fantastically wealthy Christian realm somewhere beyond the Muslim-controlled Middle East, and was thought credible enough that Pope Alexander III composed and sent a reply.  The original letter is not at all plausible to modern readers, of course, being full of wild exaggerations and outright inventions.  There are various versions available online—this one, for example—and my favorite bit is this list of the inhabitants of John's kingdom that mixes fact and fiction in roughly equal proportions:

Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men -- men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.

"Yeah, it's pretty much the best country ever."  (Crickets?)

It's easy to look back from our world of libraries and internets and laugh at how gullible people were back then, I suppose, but try coming at it from the other direction.  If you lived in a temperate, comparatively small peninsula called Europe, cut off from the rest of the world by enemies and the sheer difficulty of travel, what reason would you have for disbelieving a letter like that?  Griffins, lamias, and centaurs may sound silly to us, but so must elephants, hyenas, and pygmies to medieval readers.  (But, um...crickets?)

In any case, the story of Prester John was an interesting little corner of history I'd never encountered before.  Parts of his letter were apparently incorporated into the travel narratives of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville—I bought a copy of the latter this weekend—but I'd somehow managed to avoid learning about him.  There's a pretty good Wikipedia article about him if you're interested in more detail, which mentions among other things the possibility that the story was inspired by rumors of the St. Thomas Christians in India—another interesting corner of history I hadn't known about.

And just in case you thought I wasn't going to talk about linguistics, here's two interesting language-related bits from Bergreen's book.  The first has to do with Marco Polo's Travels:

...the manuscript was written in a French-Italian dialect that defied easy translation.  (p. 80)

What does that mean, I wonder?  I can see how (false) beliefs arose that language isolates like Basque were unlearnable by non-native speakers, but surely people should have been able to deal with a language right on the French-Italian continuum.

The second, longer bit has to do with the language spoken on Magellan's ships:

Magellan's crew was overwhelmingly Castilian and Portuguese, but representatives of every major country in western Europe, as well as North Africa, Greece, Rhodes, and Sicily filled the ranks.  Their number included alliances of natural enemies: Britons and Basques, Flemish and French, all speaking in mutually unintelligible tongues.

The common language aboard Magellan's fleet was nautical Castilian, which contained specialized terms for every line, clew, and device to be found aboard the ships.  In this idiom Magellan and his captains gave orders to the crew.  "Izá el trinquete," they cried, to raise the foresail; "Tirá de los escotines de gabia," to haul in the topsail sheets.  "Dad vuelta," uttered with special vehemence, meant put your back into it.  And there were many other orders, enough to cover every operation a sailor could be expected to perform.  "Dejad las chafaldetas"...well the clew lines.  Alzá aquel briol...heave on that buntline.  Levá el papahigo...hoist the main course.  Pon la mesana...set the mizzen.  Tirá de los scotines de gabia...haul in the topsail sheets.  The cry of "Suban dos á los penoles" dispatched two sailors, scampering in tandem up the mast, trying not to look down on the heaving deck as they hauled themselves towards the sky; and the order "Juegue el guimbalate para que la bomba achique" sent more hands below to perform the backbreaking labor of working the pumps until the blasted things sucked water out of the hold...

The sailors had their secular chants, or saloma, for the arduous routine tasks they performed.  The men knew them all by heart.  If they were hauling the anchor, the chanteyman would shout or perhaps sing the first half of the line, and the others, gripping the rope, would complete the second half.  "O dio," cried the chanteyman, "Ayuta noy," the men replied in unison.  "O que sorno," he sang out; "Servi soy" came the reply.  "O voleamo...Ben servir."  And so on until the order came to make fast the line, and the men fell out to catch their breaths.  (pp. 108-9)

[Aside: I always feel weird about linking to Wikipedia articles.  I know the Wikicreators have been talking about more aggressive Wikimoderation, and even possibly freezing some settled Wikicontent, but I still have this fear that anything I link to is going to get rewritten out from under me, or worse, replaced with spam and pr0n.]

[Now playing: "Ladykiller" by Lush]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:44 AM in History | Submit: | Links:


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Prester John:


I ended up reading _A World Lit Only by Fire_ a while back, intended, originally, to be an introduction to a book like the one you refer to, that evolved into a book of its own.

There was a kingdom in Afghanistan that would have made a good entry for Prester John for the short time it survived. What is interesting is how much of Marco Polo's writings (for example) contain similar larger than life elements. And no, the people who read could not sort them out either.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Aug 9, 2005 11:42:27 AM

surely people should have been able to deal with a language right on the French-Italian continuum.

I think the point is that everybody knew French and Italian and felt comfortable translating them, but this was a local dialect full of unknown words and false friends. I was recently asked to translate a phrase in what seemed to be such a dialect and wasn't sure about the word "corazu": it looked like it was a form of what in Spanish is corazon 'heart,' but was it? Or was it a form of French courage? Try reading one of those dialects and you'll quickly see that although the gist is usually clear, the details can be a bitch.

Posted by: language hat at Aug 9, 2005 1:52:00 PM

Prester John turned up in a story of mine one time ( how he got there I'll never know), so I actually went and did a bit of research on the legend, and looking at Marco Polo's accounts and what was said about the Kingdom of PJ, it wasn't really hard to believe that possibly as some time such a kingdom existed ( greatly exxagerated of course). Who knows if some early Christian sect struck out to Africa and founded a brief but flourishing kingdom?

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 9, 2005 5:45:09 PM

Hmmm, somehow this Bergreen character seems to have forgotten that Magellan DID NOT complete the circumnavigation. It was the Basque captain Juan Sebastian Elkano who actually completed it.

And the second person to circumnavigate the globe? Another Basque, this one by the name of Andres de Urdaneta.

Freaking historians need to stop "deleting" the Basques from history.

Posted by: Alex at Aug 10, 2005 11:27:09 PM

New voice here. 'The name "Prester John" sounded vaguely familiar to me' - John Buchan wrote a wonderful Boys Own Adventure novel called Prester John. The text is crammed with Afrikaans and native SA terms, and the story's fairly plausible, detailing a man's drive to motivate a native uprising by raising hopes of regaining the greatness of Prester John.

Posted by: Je Suis at Aug 11, 2005 12:45:15 AM

Bergreen makes it clear in the book that Magellan didn't actually complete the circumnavigation, since he died along the way (although I guess he seems to give Magellan credit in the subtitle).

Actually, the first person to circumnavigate the world was possibly Magellan's slave and translator Enrique. Here's a passage that takes place in the Philippines:

Magellan's slave, Enrique, addressed them in a Malay dialect, and to Magellan's astonishment, the men appeared to understand him and replied in the same tongue. No one, not even Magellan, knew how Enrique managed to converse with the islanders, but the slave's background provides some valuable clues. Magellan had acquired Enrique ten years earlier in Malacca, where he was baptized, and he had followed his master ever since across Africa and Europe. If Enrique had originally come from these islands, been captured as a boy by slave raiders from Sumatra, and sold to Magellan at a slave mart in Malacca, the chain of circumstance would account for his understanding the local language. But beyond that, it meant that Magellan's servant was, in fact, the first person to circle the world and return home. (pp. 242-3)

If that's correct, I think Enrique has displaced Tenzing Norgay as the person whose place in history was most unjustly obscured by the existence of a nearby white guy.

Posted by: The Tensor at Aug 11, 2005 12:50:19 AM

There's also a recent Umberto Eco novel, Baudolino, which features Prester John.

Posted by: Claire at Aug 12, 2005 12:01:17 PM

"And ther wer in thes laundes bestes, hauing boddes like a roche and the limbes of a locust, being the size of an maidens thumb, and hauing an aspect like men withe goats hornes. And thes bestes hight criqets, on accounten of ther tractabile nature, that the monkes and prestes ther do fashion wee yokes that thes bestes mayte move inke across the page. The criqet hath yet mouthes in his legges, that he might sing withal, and raise thereby a great commotion."

--Anon., A Bestiary of Smal Thinges

Posted by: at Aug 17, 2005 1:58:55 PM