Prester John, Particularly

For a long time I had no understanding of memes. I still don’t, really, but possibly a bit more than I used to. Whereas before I had a grumpy old man reaction (“Kids these days and their crazy pictures), now I see them as highly condensed, symbolic, quasi-mythic kinds of communication. They contain multiple layers. Archaeologists of the future would almost certainly make many mistakes regarding memes. They would likely begin too literally, but even if they did not, they would lack the immediate cultural context necessary for interpretation.

I have always had great students and occasionally they invite me into their world. One such time, I played Apples to Apples with 5-6 other students. It was both bizarre and enlightening all at once. If the card was “Joyful” and you had an “Ice Cream Sundae” card yourself to put in the pile, one might think that would have a shot at getting picked. Wrong. Something so “straight,” so obviously 1-1 in connection, had no chance.

But neither did pure irony or sarcasm work either. Rather, the answer might be something that had an angular or parallel relationship to the subject. Something like “Ham Sandwich” might work, but not because it was joyful or its opposite, but because it had a very particular association for that particular group. “Ham Sandwich” got chosen because

  • One day Bill took a final exam, in which he thought he did ok/meh.
  • For lunch after the exam he had a ham sandwich with no mayo or mustard or anything. It was not terrible, but a bit blah, like the exam.
  • Linking the exam, which was not joyful, and the sandwich together, well–two negatives make a positive, and people during lunch laughed at the connection.
  • Now, 5 months later, “Ham Sandwich” became a phrase, or even a meme, associated with a double-whammy kind of blah, but that makes everyone laugh when said in the right way at the right time.

In other words, their associations were entirely their own, entirely understandable to them all, even with the layers of compressed meaning. When “Ham Sandwich” came up, everyone agreed that card would win. Again, a literal minded future archaeologist might see this and assume we thought ham sandwiches the greatest things around.

My students’ thinking no doubt appears to many of us old folk as odd or newfangled. Actually, their method resembles a lot of traditional thinking, with its layers of meaning not exactly verifiable for the modern mind. Future historians, take note.

Many historians today should take similar note with the past.

One of the more intriguing side cars of medieval history is the legend of Prester John. Otto of Friesing included a letter in his history supposedly from fabulously wealthy Christian king in in India, or perhaps Africa. It begins

  1. Prester John, by the power and virtue of God and our lord Jesus Christ, lord of lords, to Emmanuel, governor of the Romans, wishing him health and the extended enjoyment of divine favour.
  2. It has been reported to our majesty that you esteem our excellency and that mention [knowledge] of our High One has reached you. And we have learned through our delegate that you should wish to send us some entertainments and trifles [ludicra et iocunda], which would satisfy our righteousness.
  3. Of course we are only human, and take it in good faith, and through our delegate we transmit to you some things, for we wish and long to know if, as with us, you hold the true faith and if you, through all things, believe our lord Jesus Christ.
  4. While we know ourselves to be mortal, the little Greeks regard you as a god, while we know that you are mortal and subject to human infirmities.
  5. Because of the usual munificence of our liberality, if there is anything you should desire for your pleasure, make it known to us through our delegate through a small note of your esteem, and you shall have it for the asking.
  6. Receive the hawkweed in our own name and use it for your own sake, because we gladly use your jar of unguent in order that we mutually strengthen and corroborate our bodily strength. And, on account of (our) art, respect and consider our gift.
  7. If you should desire to come to our kingdom, we will place you in the greatest and most dignified place in our house, and you will be able to enjoy our abundance, from that which overflows with us, and you should wish to return, you will return possessing riches.
  8. Remember your end and you will not sin forever.
  9. If you truly wish to know the magnitude and excellence of our Highness and over what lands our power dominates, then know and believe without hesitation that I, Prester John, am lord of lords and surpass, in all riches which are under the heaven, in virtue and in power, all the kings of the wide world. Seventy-two kings are tributaries to us.
  10. I am a devout Christian, and everywhere do we defend poor Christians, whom the empire of our clemency rules, and we sustain them with alms.
  11. We have vowed to visit the Sepulchre of the Lord with the greatest army, just as it is befitting the glory of our majesty, in order to humble and defeat the enemies of the cross of Christ and to exalt his blessed name.
  12. Our magnificence dominates the three Indians, and our land extends from farthest India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests, to the place where the sun rises, and returns by the slopes of the Babylonian desert near the tower of Babel.
  13. Seventy-two provinces serve us, of which a few are Christian, and each one of them has its own king, who all are our tributaries.
  14. In our country are born and raised elephants, dromedaries, camels, hippopotami, crocodiles, methagallianarii, cametheternis, thinsieretae, panthers, aurochs, white and red lions, white bears, white merlins, silent cicadas, griffins, tigers, lamas, hyenas, wild oxen, archers, wild men, horned men, fauns satyrs and women of the same kind, pigmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is forty cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopes, and a bird, which is called the phoenix, and almost all kinds of animals that are under heaven.

It continues past this, including a variety of specific details. Prester John’s pledge to help the west win back Jerusalem from the Turks interests historians particularly. In the early-mid 20th century historians reacted in a silly and superficial way, i.e., look at those dumb, credulous medieval people. Recently some have attempted more understanding, with one such effort surmising that “Prester John” was a well crafted (for medieval times at least) hoax of sorts perpetrated by Nestorian Christian heretics upon the orthodox west in an attempt to weaken them. In an era of fake news, this should make sense to us.

But it seems obvious that more exists to the story. Sir John Mandeville writes of Prester John in his famous travelogue, declaring,

This emperor, Prester John, holds full great land, and hath many full noble cities and good towns in his realm and many great diverse isles and large. For all the country of Ind is devised in isles for the great floods that come from Paradise, that depart all the land in many parts. And also in the sea he hath full many isles. And the best city in the Isle of Pentexoire is Nyse, that is a full royal city and a noble, and full rich.

This Prester John hath under him many kings and many isles and many diverse folk of diverse conditions. And this land is full good and rich, but not so rich as is the land of the great Chan. For the merchants come not thither so commonly for to buy merchandises, as they do in the land of the great Chan, for it is too far to travel to. And on that other part, in the Isle of Cathay, men find all manner thing that is need to man–cloths of gold, of silk, of spicery and all manner avoirdupois. And therefore, albeit that men have greater cheap in the Isle of Prester John, natheles, men dread the long way and the great perils m the sea in those parts.

Mandeville’s account mashes up a variety of details and motifs, and one can’t easily tell always what he seeks to communicate. But surely Mandeville had enough smarts to know that the Prester John of Friesing could not still live, and surely he knew that his readers would know this as well. Maybe he simply tells the story for fun, or we can assume that his Prester John is the heir of the original. More likely, the name “Prester John” served consciously as a stand-in for something, a meme of sorts.

But if one reads a bit more about medieval references to Prester John, we see that they at times referenced him in very specific and concrete ways. Suddenly, for example, “Prester John” nearly morphs into Ghengis Khan:

“…from ancient times, Tartaria was subject to the King of India, and up till that time calmly and peacefully paid him the tribute that was due. When the aforesaid king asked for the customary tribute from them, he also ordered that some of them submit themselves to compulsory service, either in the armies or in work; they began complaining at this offence from the hand of their lord, and [took] counsel whether to simply obey him or to withstand him as much as possible.”

That was when Genghis Khan entered the story, and he, “who seemed [most] sagacious and venerable, gave counsel that they oppose their king’s order.” Then, quote:

“…they conspired against their lord King David, namely the son of once lord and emperor of India, Prester John, and, cunningly plot….”

“…roused by the possibility of shaking off their servitude and obtaining triumph, with a huge number of them departing their own land with bows and arrows and clubs or staffs, strengthened by their more powerful weapons, … they invaded the land of their lord simultaneously from two directions and completely saturated it with an effusion of blood. But King David, hearing of their unexpected coming, and being in no way strong enough to resist them, when he tried to flee from one section of the army, he was prevented and besieged by the other, and at length he was cut to pieces limb by limb, along with his whole family except for one daughter, namely the surviving daughter which Genghis Khan took to wife, and from whom, so it is said, he produced sons.”

We have here a mixing of the precise and contemporary, and perhaps Biblical history, though I make no claim to know whom he meant by King David. But everyone knew Ghengis Khan, who suddenly has become “Prester John.”

I am not sure why they made such associations. But I venture that

  • Some may have believed Prester John (PJ) to be an actual, particular person, but many probably did not
  • In the various references PJ occupied a place on the fringe geographically, and the fringe is always a slippery place. Hence, sometimes PJ gets described as a Christian, and other times he seems something less than a Christian (and here the interesting link to PJ as an invention of Nestorian heretics takes on an intriguing hue).
  • We can speculate, therefore, that PJ served as something of a stand-in for a “Garment of Skin” (Gen. 3:24). Originally God granted these “garments” to Adam and Eve, but they come as a result of sin. A garment of skin functions as something one could use to make one’s way in the world, something powerful, but one must show caution. Such things easily get out of hand.

The concept of “Garments of Skin” has a more theological complexity than I could discuss on this post, or any other post, for that matter. I lack the dexterity and the depth of knowledge. As a start, we can consider these garments buffers between us and the world, as well as a tool to help us deal with the world. It amounts mostly to the same thing. For example, we can consider the internet as one form of such garment. It connects to the world in a way, and.shields from the world in another. Many have noted that conservatives have seemingly made better use of YouTube and other mediums to advance their worldviews than liberals. I would agree, and to the extent that I care about such things, am glad of the fact. But I would urge caution–any medium that subverts so many barriers is inherently not an ally of tradition. One day, the internet will likely turn against conservatives, though for now (Twitter aside), conservatives have their moment.

It seems that medievals thought of Prester John just in this way. The Mongols had tremendous power, and this power, properly directed, might help Christians. But one must ask oneself with a garment of skin . . . “Do you feel in charge?”

I have digressed from my main point, that of how the medievals wrote their histories. To me, Prester John seems something akin to a Ham Sandwich meme, sometimes as a stand-in for something specific, other times as a larger intertextual construct for a particular hope of an outside buffer against the encroaching Moslem world.* Whether I am right or not, I remain convinced that we have to adopt an approach like this if wish to understand medieval histories and texts.

To me we find the key in the idea of elasticity of specificity. Even when talking about Prester John as someone on the fringe of observable reality, the anchor is not a concept but a particular person. “Ham sandwich” can mean many things, but first, it was a ham sandwich.

In his Reflections on the Psalms C.S. Lewis writes,

If Man is finally to know the bodiless, timeless, transcendent Ground of the whole universe not as a mere philosophical abstraction but as the Lord who, despite his transcendence, “is not far from any one of us,” as a an utterly concrete Being (far more concrete than you and I) whom Man can fear, love, address, and “taste,” he must begin far more humbly, far more near to home.  Begin with the local altar, the traditional feast . . . . It is possible that a certain kind of enlightenment can come too soon and too easily.  At that early stage it may not be fruitful to talk of God as a featureless being, a disc like the sun.   

 Since in the end we must come to baptism, the Eucharist, the stable at Bethlehem, the hill at Calvary, and the empty rock tomb, perhaps it is better to begin with circumcision, the Ark, and the Temple.  For “the highest does not exist without the lowest.”   It will not stand, it will not stay.  It will rise, and expand, and finally we lose it in an endless space.  God turns into a remote abstraction.  Rather, the entrance is low, and we must stoop to enter. 

Some look at traditional religion in general, or perhaps Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the Christian world in particular, and see a confusing multiplicity. The Church calendar gets overlaid with the civic calendar, various different feasts, saints, and so on. At one glance it seems unnecessarily complicated, and a threat to true worship. Of course practitioners then and now would not see it that way. For them, as Lewis indicates, without these particular roots, and perhaps even (to the outsider at least) idiosyncrasies, one cannot scale up to the Highest Good, and the Highest Good cannot scale down. Absent all of the particulars, we get left with abstractions, and ultimately, the end of belief. Surely the west gives ample evidence of this over the last few centuries.**

One can start with the mythic Prester John of Friesing and work your way back down to Ghenis Khan, or start with a ham sandwich and work up to something grand about the flip that happens at the end of the world–i.e., two negatives becoming a positive. Either up or down works as a starting point, provided that you can complete the scale.


*The history of the Mongols bears out the unpredictable, powerful nature of Garments of Skin. Yes, on the one hand they did break Moslem power, in part through a horrifying massacre at Baghdad in 1258. Yet, many Mongols in fact became Moslems and not Christians, and this Mongol “Golden Horde” wrecked havoc on Christian Russia in the 15th century. Handle such garments with extreme care.

**The way I saw the students play Apples to Apples makes me wonder if the west is becoming more medieval, more symbolic or traditional in how it views the world. Of course this alone would say nothing, but other factors seem at work, such as a trend away from liberal transnationalism, the importance of images over text, and so on.

Just like the double-negative flipping things the other way, so too the quick advancement of technology might bring back certain aspects of traditional cultures. Back in ye olden days, a written document had no authority in itself. Its contents needed incarnated, spoken, proclaimed, to be made “real.” Hence, the job of town crier. With AI video deep fakes getting more and more sophisticated, we may stop trusting anything except the actual person physically present.