Prester John, Ferdinand Magellan, and Superstition

In the early part of the 12th century, some European monks wrote an imaginative and allegorical account of the faith (sort of like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress).  The fictious account was about a Christian man named Prester John  (“Prester” is an ancient way to say “presbyter” or “priest”) who ruled over a vast golden earthly kingdom with treasures innumerable.  Prester John’s kingdom was a peaceful realm of wealth, food, and bliss – without the normal dangers of human life.  Also, this realm had satyrs, griffins, a phoenix, and other such creatures.  (To be sure, later editors/redactors greatly embellished the original allegory.)

This account of Prester John was hugely known even hundreds of years later.  Laurence Bergreen says “so great was its appeal that it became one of the most widely circulated and discussed documents of the Middle Ages, translated into French, German, Russian, Hebrew, English, among other languages, and with the introduction of movable type, it was reprinted in countless editions.”  The legend of Prester John was so much part of European thought that people would go in search for this kingdom – so they could find gold and Christian peace.  In fact, Pope Alexander III wrote a letter to Prester John, whom he called “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Marco Polo (13th C) even claimed to have met the illustrious Prester John.  I wonder if (or how much) Columbus, Magellan, and the other explorers thought of this account as they braved the seas.  No doubt many of the sailors were familiar with Polo’s journeys, which did mention Prester John.

I note this account simply because it is a fascinating piece of (church) history.  I don’t have time to go into it, but this book (Bergreen’s Over the Edge) vividly shows all the religious superstitions and rumors in the late Medieval era (including the Prester John allegory) – which Luther, Calvin, and others had to struggle against.  The book is a great read because of the scope and importance of Magellan’s voyage but also because of the deeply religious aspect of the era, which will interest students of the Reformation.  In other words, this is awesome (fun) background reading for Reformation studies.  If you read it (and I recommend it!), be sure to look into St. Elmo’s fire or the Roman Catholic manner of baptizing “converts” that Magellan “converted.”

The account of Prester John is found on pages 76-81 of Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

shane lems

sunnyside wa