Hope and Empire Building: Prester John and the Mongols

29 November 2019

Empire and Globalism | History | War and Conflict

Prester John, the fictional Asian Christian ruler, dwelt within the western medieval psyche for centuries and features heavily in Medieval Travel Writing. He is the subject of numerous letters and as an artistic subject of the period. How, when there was so little physical evidence for his existence, did his legend persist? Other than convoluted communication between Central Asia and the West, it appears two simple factors were at play: hope and a fear of the unknown. 
Various accounts of Prester John exist, with many in the West believing him to be a ruler in either China or Central Asia, and a key attribute being that he was a Nestorian Christian. During the 11th-13th centuries, Central Asia was in a constant state of flux, with the fall of empires commonplace, due to mass migrations. In such a vacuum it is easy to see why the existence of a Nestorian Empire would have been believable. After all, Nestorian Christians, while in a minority, existed in positions of limited power in several Central Asian empires, such as the Qara-Khitai. Amongst the Mongolian and Turkic tribes, a number were Nestorian Christians, such as Chinggis Khan’s early suzerainty, Toghril/Ong Khan. It is possible that a corruption of the name Ong Khan fueled the idea of Prester John, yet this is still speculative.
Prester John attacks the Tartars (after 1333)
Prester John attacks the Tartars (after 1333). Image © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


The West needed hope in the East. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was gone and so was almost complete control of Outremer by the 13th century. The swift destruction of huge swathes of Muslim-held lands in Central Asia and the Middle East raised fresh hope in the Western princedoms. For the West, the hope that these Mongol armies were in fact Prester John, appears understandable; after all, elements, namely the Naimen and Merkit of the Mongol armies, were Nestorians. 
In time, however, it became apparent that the Mongols and Prester John were two separate entities and thought turned to the need for Prester John to stop the Mongols, as depicted above, and the supposed savior became the gravest enemy. The West had encountered nomadic threats throughout the centuries before - the Avars, Huns, Bulgars and Khazars - but the Mongols were something else. While news travelled slowly, the West would have been mildly aware of changes in the East. The fall of the Jurchen, Song, Qara-Khitai, Xi Xia and the swift dismantlement of the Khwarazmian empire could not have gone unnoticed.  
'The Historical Prester John’, Speculum vol 28, pp435-45 (1953), C.E. Nowell
'The Historical Prester John’, Speculum vol 28, pp435-45 (1953), C.E. Nowell. Image © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
In the face of the Mongol invasion, a need for Prester John’s intervention had never been more pressing. The bastion of Christianity, Georgia, fell swiftly to the Mongols; the flower of Eastern chivalry was crushed. Then came the effective dismemberment of the Russian principalities, and before long the Mongols had extinguished the Kingdom of Hungary and were at the walls of Vienna. What remains remarkable to this day was that the Mongol force on this occasion was merely a reconnaissance force. 
While Prester John never emerged, Europe was saved. Not by faith or force, but by Mongolian Turkish traditions of inheritance. The death of Qaghan Ogodei in 1241 meant the West was saved by a quriltai. But the myth of Prester John would continue, as hope always does.
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About the Author

Ben Jeffery

Ben Jeffery

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2018, I have worked on exciting projects such as World’s Fairs and The First World War. I have a Masters in Ancient and Classical History from Reading University. My interests include 4th century BC Greek and Macedonian military history and late medieval central Eurasian nomadic cultures.