Stories of the young-at-heart Ben make people think. Wit, common sense, ingenuousness, ridicule - it is all here. Good tales of Prester John could also make some think. Maybe you can recognise him?
A young man told Ben that he had decided to travel all over England to find useful knowledge, and asked him what kind of people he should look for. Ben recalled some wise words he had once heard and said:
Drop the one who knows not and knows not that he knows not.He went on: "But you know how difficult it is, son, to be sure that the one who knows and knows that he knows really knows."
Ben served as a judge in his village. His son was by his side to learn the office of giving justice.
A man came to complain, "I had a robe fitted for me. As soon as I dressed it and walked out in the street, the poorly sewn clothing fell apart and, pardon me for mentioning it, left me quite naked in shame in front of a crowd. Therefore I must not pay the tailor."
Very impressed, Ben exclaimed, "You're right!"
Hearing this verdict, the tailor rushed before him and pleaded his case, "This crazy customer brought his own scraps of rag and ordered me to sow them together. He leaned over my shoulder to annoy me with his advice and forced my hand to finish fast. At the end he couldn't wait, snatched it away and left in spite of my warnings. He must pay for the work!"
The prester agreed once again. "You're right", he said.
This left both seller and buyer lost in wonder. After they left, his perplexed son said: "But they can't be both right?"
Ben agreed at once, "You're right, son."
Ben was on a learning-and-working stay at a certain convent in the Alps. One day he went alone to the surrounding countryside to get some wood. His axe sounded through the lonely mountainside. Then he took a deserved pause, and there was silence all around for a while.
Suddenly the prester jumped to his feet. What was that tramping he heard through the twigs on the forest floor? He stood with eyes fixed on the place from where the sound came steadily nearer and nearer, steadily louder and louder. He saw four stiff legs swinging awkwardly toward him at some distance! It was a big bear.
Ben ran for the nearest tree, a wild pear tree, and climbed it in a frenzy. However, the huge bear was heading for the same tree, and the nearer it came, the bigger it looked. The bear yawned, stretched itself, and yawned again. Then it lay down on the ground under the pear tree, grunted drowsily, and closed its eyes.
"You don't fool me!" thought Ben. "You are just waiting to pounce on me." He clung to the branch, his eyes fixed wildly on the big bear underneath. He expected it to jump at him any minute. He also thought of all the mistakes of his life - of all the times he had been cross to his wife, of all the times he had played tricks in vain.
The bear shivered and gradually began to snore.
"Ahh, you are asleep!" whispered Ben, and squirmed from one position to another. It was really uncomfortable there.
Farther down the valley he heard the bells of many chapels. "That means that it is getting late," he thought, wondering how long this could last.
As the sun set, he grew stiffer and stiffer. When the sun was down and the moon shining brightly he could see the sides of the huge bear rise and fall as he breathed and snored.
Ben looked pleadingly upwards, and prayed for help. At last the black animal below him stirred - stretched stiffly to his feet, and sniffed hungrily. Then, to Ben's horror, it stuck its great claws into the pear tree he was clinging to. Up the tree it came. Ben trembled so that he could scarcely hang onto the branches as the bear found just what he wanted - a juicy wild pear - and then another, and another. Eating and climbing, eating and climbing, up the tree came the bear. Shivering and shaking, shivering and shaking, up the tree went Ben.
At last Ben was on the highest branch that could possibly hold his weight. Oh, if only the bear would be content to climb no higher. Smack, smack, went the bear's great lips until every wild pear within reach was gone. Then up it went, so close that Ben could taste its breath. Out went one big paw, scooping up a pear, and swinging around so that it almost touched Ben's mouth. Was it trying to share the pears? It did not matter anyway:
"No, thank you!" screamed Ben; it was an odd sort of quirk.
The bear was shy and old and did not see well. He was not prepared for sudden screams from behind a leafy branch. With a shocked howl he lost his balance and fell down through the branches. There was a thud as he hit the ground, and after that: silence.
Ben did not dare to climb down to inspect at once. But toward the end of the nightly vigil he came slowly down the tree, his eyes warily on the black heap that lay motionless in a patch of moonlight below him. When he reached the lowest branch, the first rays of daylight shone through the woods. Then he saw the bear was dead. Never again would it climb trees to eat wild pears in the moonlight.
The prester jumped awkwardly from the lowest branch, his body felt numb as if needles were pricking arms and legs. First he started for the convent and breakfast, but then a grin burst over his tired face and he ran back to the pear tree, took out his knife and skinned the bear.
With the thick black fur slung over his shoulders, he strode down the mountainside and across the plain toward the convent. As he came to the city wall others noticed him, and when he crossed the market place to get to the convent, all the people knew - or thought they knew - that Ben was a mighty hunter.
He did not need to say a word about his experiences of the night. Other people did the talking for him; about how Ben had killed a huge and wild bear single-handedly.
One day when Ben held the sermon in a local chapel he visited, he noticed an unknown goatherd below the speaker's podium. The vicar present told Ben that that man had walked for three hours to attend the service, leaving his goats up in the hills.
While Ben was preaching, he saw the man getting deeply moved. As the sermon progressed, the goatherd pulled out a cloth and started wiping off tears that were flowing down his face. Ben became more and more excited. After a final burst of enthusiastic words to end the service, he sat down in the little chapel and asked the goathead what had moved him so deeply.
"Oh prester," answered the goatherd, "last week my best billy-goat died. The more I watched and heard you talk with your beard gangling, the more I thought of my billy-goat, and the sadder I got."
Someone brought a letter to Ben: "Prester, could you read this letter for me?"
Ben looked at the letter, which was all in Greek. He could not understand it and gave it back to man. "Take this to someone else, I couldn't read it," he said.
"How is that? You are wearing the cloak of a learned man can't read a letter?"
Ben took off his cloak and placed it in front of the man. "Now, if the skill is of the cloak, put it on and read your letter yourself."
One hot day Ben was resting in the shade of an oak tree. After a time, his gaze was drawn to the huge pumpkins growing on vines nearby, and next to the small oak nuts growing above him on a majestic oak tree.
"Sometimes I just can't understand the ways of God!" he mused. "Letting small oak nuts grow on so majestic a tree and huge pumpkins on the delicate vines!"
Just then a nut snapped off and fell smack on Ben's head. He got up at once, and lifting up his hands facing heaven, he said: "Forgive me for going into divine ways! Where would I have been now, if pumpkins grew on trees?"
This reminds us perhaps of how good it is that cows don't have wings to fly with.
One day his friends asked Ben, "You are a wise man, prester. Can you tell us what you consider to be most precious in the world?"
"Easily," he said, "I consider advice to be priceless."
His friends thought about this for some time, then asked again: "Well, what do you consider to be worthless?"
"I would say advice is that."
"Come now, prester!" objected his audience. "How can something be priceless and then again worthless? You must be making a mistake!"
"No, friends. An advice taken may be priceless, but consider how worthless it becomes when it goes unheeded."
Old Ben approached to a crowd gathered around a man in the market of Canterbury. The man was trying to sell a colourful bird at the staggering price of twenty gold coins. The prester couldn't understand how the man expected so much, and asked, "My good man, what kind of bird is it you want twenty gold coins for?"
"Prester, it is a strange bird called parrot, and I have taught it some words to speak."
The prester walked briskly home, took his cock and came back to the market. There he started to proclaim near the man selling the parrot: "This bird costs only thirty gold coins. Come, come!"
The most surprised man in the crowd was the seller of the parrot, and he asked: "Prester, isn't thirty gold coins far too much for a cock?"
"I see you are selling yours for twenty gold coins," rejoined the prester.
"But mine has a skill, it speaks."
One day when Ben came to a fiest he had not expected, on a visit to a neighbouring village, he was dressed rather shabbily in old travelling clothes, and was refused an entrance. He hurried home, however, put on his best robe and returned within a few hours. At once the host came over, greeted him respectfully and ushered him to the head of a banquet table.
When the food was served, Ben pushed his sleeves up to his plate and said, "Eat sleeves, eat."
He explained to the astonished persons next to him, "With so much regard for the clothes, they too must get something."
One day Ben's apprentice said, "Ben, everyone says you are good. Does that mean you really are good?"
"Not necessarily, my son," said Ben.
The boy then asked, "If everyone say you are bad, does it mean that you are a scoundrel?"
Again Ben answered it was not necessarily so.
When the apprentice asked how anyone could tell, Ben told him that if the good people said he was good and the bad peple that he was bad, then he was good. Then he paused for a moment, scratched his head, and added, "But you know how hard it is to tell which are the good people and the which are the bad."
Ben's wife was pregnant. One night her labour pains started and prester Ben called the neighbouring women and the midwife. Soon they called out from his wife's room, "Ben, you have a son!"
Ben was very happy for a while. But then the midwife called out again, "And you also have a girl."
After a little while she called out again, "And you have another girl!"
Ben, who had been waiting in front of his wife's room, rushed into the room and blew out the candle.
"What are you doing?" asked the surprised women.
"Maybe it's the light that attracts them," he answered.
Soon he came upon a group of six horses grazing on some cleared land. On all sides were piles of wood cut into stove lengths. Nearby was a muscular man swinging an axe. The woodcutter stepped quickly back as a pine tree swayed, moaned, and toppled to the ground. On a stump in the cool shade sat a neatly dressed man who clapped and applauded as the tree fell.
"Bravo!" cheered this second man who was not much more than half the size of the woodcutter. "That was a fine, big tree we cut. That will keep Goldhaver warm many a winter day. On to the next tree!"
Without looking at his comfortable companion, the woodcutter walked around an oak tree to decide where it should fall, took a firm grip on his axe handle, and started swinging just above the tree's roots.
Each time the woodcutter's axe bit into the tree, the little man on the stump would grunt. Ben sat on his horse, watching this strange performance - the strong man swinging the axe while the sitting man kept up a steady flow of grunts, groans, and cheers. It was too much to bear for the prester.
"Why do you make all the noise while the other man does all the work?" he asked the little man.
"Oh, I am helping him," chirruped the man. "He has agreed to cut thirty horse loads of wood for Goldhaver. Think what a job that would be for one man. I took pity on him and went into partnership with him. He swings the axe while I grunt and cheer to keep up his courage."
Ben looked at the sun. It was growing late and so he bid goodbye, and sounded a "whoa" to his horse and headed toward home. A fortnight later he came upon the two men again while he was loitering about the court, just in case the judge might need his advice about anything. The two men of the mountaintop were disputing before the judge. Their hands moved fast and so did their tongues.
"I earned every shilling of it myself," the big woodcutter was saying. "I did every stroke of the cutting of thirty horse loads of wood for Goldhaver. I loaded the wood onto the horses. I drove them to Goldhaver's house, unloaded every stick of the wood alone, and went back to the mountain for more loads."
"He forgets!" the little man of the stump interrupted. "He forgets how I cheered him at his work. I had a grunt for every swing of his axe, and a cheer for every falling tree. I earned a portion of the money which Goldhaver made the mistake of paying entirely to the woodcutter."
The judge had never met just such a case before. Now he saw Ben and said, "I turn this case over to my able assistant," sighing and leaning back, his troubles over. "Repeat your stories to him."
Both started talking at once. The woodcutter and his self-appointed helper told their stories. Ben listened, nodding wisely, till both men had talked themselves silent. Then Ben beckoned a court attendant. "Bring me a money tray."
The tray was brought. "Give me the money, good woodcutter, the money Goldhaver paid you for the thirty horse loads of wood," commanded Ben, holding out his hand for the bag. Reluctantly, the woodcutter passed over the money bag while the little man of the stump drew nearer.
One by one, Ben took the coins from the bag and rang them out on the money tray, talking to the man who was claiming a share.
"Do you hear that? Do you like the sound? Isn't that a cheery ring?"
The little man nodded, drawing so close that his nose almost touched the ringing coins. He smirked to see so much money so near.
"You heard it all?" Ben asked the little man.
He nodded greedily.
"Every shilling of it?" asked Ben.
The little man continued to nod.
"Then you have had your wages," said Ben, and began to sweep the money back into the bag. "The sound of the money is proper pay for the sound of working."
Ben handed the full money bag to the smiling woodcutter, saying, "And the money is proper pay for the work."
One day Ben had sent home three pounds of veal cutlets. Along with them was a tidy note which explained how to cook them; he wanted them for supper that evening.
Since he was to be away the entire day, his wife was all alone and had prepared a simple meal for herself at noon that day. But then some of her friends dropped in unexpectedly, so she hastily prepared the cutlets for them and herself.
On returning home that evening with a great appetite, Ben asked if the cutlets were ready. His wife was afraid he would get angry with her for serving all the cutlets to her friends and herself, resorted to a lie and told him that the cat had eaten them.
Ben caught hold of their little cat at once, placed it on the scale and found that it weighed three pounds - the weight of the cutlets he had sent.
Turning to his wife he said, "If what's in the weight are the cutlets, where is our cat? If this is the cat, where are the cutlets?"
One day Ben was sprinkling some powder on the ground around his house.
"Prester, what are you doing?" someone asked.
"I want to keep the scary ice bears away."
"But there are no ice bears within hundreds of miles?"
"Ah, it works, eh?" Ben asked friendly.
"How old are you, prester?" someone asked.
"Forty," said Ben.
"But you said that two years ago when I asked."
"That's right. I always stand by my word!"
One day when Ben was leaving the town of Canterbury with a band of walking students, he sat on the horse facing the tail. They asked him why and he explained:
"As your teacher I must be in front of you. But if I face the front, I can't see what you are doing behind me. But if I sit on the horse this way, I can see you all quite easily."
One day Ben said, "Fellow citizens, give thanks to God that he did not give the pony wings; for, had he given them, they would have perched on your houses and chimneys, and have caused them to tumble on your heads."
Ben, during Fast, thought to himself, "What must I do to keep reckoning of the days? I will prepare an earthen pot and every day put a stone into it, and when thirty days are completed I may break my fast." So he began to place stones in the pot, one every day.
But one day the daughter of Ben cast many stones into the pot with her little hands, and a little time after some people asked Ben, "What day of the month is it today?" It happened to be the twenty-fifth. Ben, however, said, "Have patience and I will see. Then he went to his house and emptied the pot, only to find a hundred and ten stones in it.
Said Ben to himself, "If I tell the people all this number they will call me a fool." So he went to them and said, "Today is the forty-third day of the month."
But, said they, "Ben, a month has in all but thirty or thirty-one days, so how can you say that today is the forty-three?"
"I spoke quite within bounds," said Ben. "If you were to see the account in the pot you would find that today is the hundred and tenth."
Ben had two daughters. One day they came to see their father, he said to them, "Well, daughters, how do things go on with you?" Now, the husband of one of them was a farmer, that of the other was a maker of tiles.
One daughter said, "My husband has sown a great deal of corn; if there is plenty of rain my husband will give me a new gown."
The other said, "My husband is a tile-maker; he has made a great amount; if there is not a drop of rain he will give me a new gown."
Ben said, "One of you two may be worth a cucumber, but which it is birds know."
One day a man came to the house of Ben and asked him to lend him his pony.
"He is not at home," replied Ben. But it so happened that the pony began to neigh within.
"Ben," said the man, "you say that the pony is not at home, and there he is neighing within."
"What!" said Ben. "You believe the pony, but will not believe a grey-bearded man like me."
In the time of Ben, three priests who were well versed, travelled through the world and at last came to England. The king invited them to accept his faith, and the three said, "Each one of us has a question to ask, and if you can give us an answer, we will share your faith."
All agreed to this, and then it showed up that none at court was able to reply the questions of the strangers. The king exclaimed, "No one in my kingdom can answer these fellows." A courtier replied, "Perhaps Ben can." The king at once gave orders to hurry and get Ben. As soon as he arrived, he went to the king, who told him about the situation. Then Ben turned to the priests, saying, "What are your questions?"
One of them said, "Where may the middle of the earth be?"
Ben at once pointed with his staff to his fore foot and said, "The middle of the earth is right here."
"How do you know that?" said the priest.
"If you doubt it" said Ben, "take a measure and see whether it comes to more or less."
The second of the priests said, "How many stars are there in heaven above us?"
Ben said, "As many hairs as there are on my pony."
"How do you know?" said the priest.
"If you doubt," said Ben, "come and count, and if there is any difference, say at once."
"Have you counted, then," said the priest, "the hairs on your pony?"
"And have you counted how many stars there are?" said Ben.
The third priest came forward and said, "How many hairs are there in my beard?"
"Just as many," said Ben, "as there are hairs in my pony's tail."
"How do you know?" said the priest.
"If you don't believe, come and count," said the prester.
The priest would not agree.
"If you won't agree," said Ben, "come, let us pluck hair for hair from your beard and from the pony's tail and see if they don't tally."
The priest saw that he had the worst of the argument and said to his companions, "I embrace the faith of Ben. So did the two others.
A philosopher: "I have been travelling, researching, and contemplating for years, trying to determine when the end of the world will be – but I still have not found the answer. Prester, do you know when the end of the world will be?"
Ben: "Yes. It will come soon enough."
The philosopher: "Will you share this knowledge with me?"
Ben: "All right. When I die, that will be the end of the world."
The philosopher: "Are you certain that will be the end of the world?"
Ben: "For me it will."
Ben had an old ox which had very large horns. They were so far apart that a person could sit between them. Every time that the ox drew nigh Ben was in the habit of saying to himself, "How I should like to sit between his horns," and calculating the possibility of doing so.
One day the ox came and laid himself down before the house. Cried Ben, "Now is my time!" and mounting, he took his seat between the two horns of the ox. But the ox quickly rose on his legs and flung Ben on the ground, where he lay for some time quite senseless.
His wife came and saw him lying motionless, and began to lament. After some time, however, Ben recovered a little. On seeing his wife weeping by his side, he exclaimed, "Well, wife, do not weep, I have suffered a great deal, but I have had my desire."
Once on a time the wife of Ben was in labour; one day, two days, she sat on the chair but could not bring forth.
The women who attended her cried from the interior apartment to Ben: "Do you know a prayer to bring the child into the world?"
"I know something else," said Ben, and at once ran to a grocer's shop where he got some walnuts. Back home he spread the walnuts under the chair, and said: "Now that the child sees the walnuts he will come out to play with them."
One day Ben's wife, in order to plague him, boiled some broth extremely hot, brought it into the room and placed it on the table. But she forgot that it was hot, and took a spoon and put some into her mouth. Scalding herself, she began to shed tears.
"Wife," said the Ben, "what is the matter with you; is the broth hot?"
"Oh dear," said the wife, "my mother, who is now dead, loved broth very much; I thought of that, and wept because of her"
Ben, thinking that what she said was truth, took a spoonful of the broth, and burned his mouth too. He began to cry and bellow.
"What is the matter with you?" said his wife, "why do you cry?"
A repeat. Nasreddin Hodja) was a satirical Sufi figure who might have really lived around the 1200s in Turkey. However, many other peoples claim Nasreddin as their own and call him by other names. Juha (Djuha, Giufą, etc.) is the Arabic name of a folk character that was amalgamated with the hodja in the 1800s. His title is often Hodja, Efendi (Afandi, Afanti) and Mulla, all three with variations.
A few Nasreddin tales are modified fables of Aesop. "The miller, his son and the donkey" is one of them. At any rate, the Hodja is told of as a philosopher and wise man, and remembered for his funny stories and anecdotes. He appears in thousands of witty and wise stories that there might be something interesting aand even worthwhile to learn from. As generations have gone by, new stories have been added to the Nasreddin corpus, and others have been modified. There are books written about him too. 
1996–1997 was declared International Nasreddin Year by UNESCO. There is an International Nasreddin Hodja fest celebrated between 5 and 10 July in Aksehir, Turkey, every year.
Ben used to say: "Well, it might have been worse." One day an acquaintance of the hamlet stopped him and said, "I dreamed last night that I died, went to hell, and was doomed to everlasting torment."
"Well," said Ben, "it might have been worse."
"What do you mean, father?" cried the other. "How could it have been worse?"
"It might have been true," said Ben.
A man in the upstairs apartment yelled to Ben downstairs, "If you don't stop playing that big horn, I will go crazy."
"Too late, alas," said Ben. "I stopped an hour ago."
One night, Ben's father noticed a light in his barn. He went to see what it was all about and he found Ben with a lantern, all dressed up. "What are you doing all dressed up and with that lantern?" asked his father.
"I am going to call on my sweetheart, father," said Ben. "I have to go through the woods and it is dark."
"When I was your age calling on my wife for the first time," said the father, "I went through the woods without a lantern."
"I know," said Ben, "But see what you got, father."
A playwright invited Ben specially to watch his new play. The prester came, but slept through the whole performance. The playwright was indignant and said, "How could you sleep when you knew how much I wanted your opinion?"
Ben mused, "Sleep showed my opinion."
Ben was coming to after a serious operation. He was just conscious enough to feel soft, comfortable bed sheets and the warmth of gentle hands on his forehead. "Where am I?" he asked. "In Heaven?"
"No," said his wife, "I am still right here with you."
Ben approached a genteel-appearing, elderly man with his tale of woe and a request for assistance. The old gentleman refused him, saying, "I am sorry, my friend, I have no money, but I can give you some good advice."
The prester answered, "No thanks. If you have no money, your advice may not be worth much."
Ben was visiting his doctor of medicine. Among the many questions the doctor asked was: "Are you bothered by improper thoughts?"
"Not at all," said Ben. "The truth is I rather enjoy them."
At a time Ben lived far beyond his means and was constantly hounded by creditors. But at last he grew so skilled in the awkward situation that he treated them with impeccable courtesy. Once he served delicious beer to a bill collector.
"If you cannot afford to pay your debts," the bill collector demanded, "how can you afford to serve beer?"
Ben said, "I assure you, this hasn't been paid for either."
Ben was drinking too much. So much that it began to worry his friends. Finally, they figured out a plan to cure him. The plan was for one of them to dress up like a bogeyman and scare the prester to give up drinking. Late one night, as Ben headed home from the tavern, his friend jumped from behind a tree and shouted, "You will have to stop drinking!"
"Who are you?" asked the prester.
"The bogeyman," said his friend.
"Oh," said Ben. "In that case I am the man who married your little sister."
The young Ben was talking to a friend about a recently broken romance. "Do you mean," asked the friend, "that at her request, you gave up drinking whisky, horse gambling, reel dancing, and playing pool?"
"Yes, just because she insisted," said the prester.
"Then why didn't you marry her?" the fellow asked.
"Well, after all that reforming," said Ben, "I decided I could do better."
At one time Ben advertised his skill in curing curvature of the spine; even if a man's back was bent like a bow, even if the head touched the feet he could make it as straight as a ramrod. Someone went to him for treatment, whereupon the prester put him between two boards, and bound them tighter and tighter together, the man yelling with pain. At last he got him quite straight, but he was also quite dead.
IT MUST be claimed that there never lived any Ben in England in the 1200s and into the 1300s, a thinker, a wise and witty man indeed, one with a good sense of humour and this epitaph on his tombstone, wherever it may be found:
This too will pass.
Those who consider it right that Ben was a close friend and follower of the old genius Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292), the friar who flourished in the 1200s in England and with much legendary material attributed to him after his death, must not overlook there is not a shred of evidence to the contrary yet -
Nonetheless, a cheerful story can be appreciated a lot of times.
How hard it can be to be both -
WHEN they reached Bolt Court, a certain Edwards said to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer:
Anecdotes . . . this endearing form of humour has given many people food for thought. Also, over the years the number of "prester tales" have increased a lot. You may say that Ben and his stories were created - and some of them later translated into many languages.
Ben is often travelling far away from his little home town (Canterbury) on his little horse, and on many occasions he may be seen as a man of common sense and with a shrewd ability for reading human nature. He is a kind of son of the world and son of the beyond too. If he figures in rustic settings in a combined role of minister and local magistrate (a country master or judge), it is in his way of giving.
Today, in other countries, sayings like "cutting the branch while sitting on it" are put in his mouth, a mouth that may go on living for generations to come.
These were some stories of the prester, the priest-hero or whatever we love to call him.
"What I can do is to amuse the heart,
The meaning of the word 'prester'
Not every priest and philosopher around makes you giggle.
THE WORD "prester" is thought by some to come from the Greek presbyteros
(elder), and "priest" too. If so, there is a progression from presbyter to prester to
priest. The qualifications for presbyters are given in 1 Timothy 5, but their duties are
not listed in scripture. So presters in Medieval England were people who performed clergy
functions in the Church. That much is sure. What is much less known, perhaps, is that the
office, function, and title of the prester (and priest) came into the Church from the
ancient synagogue. [Link]
"ONCE UPON a time, in a very remote land there was a king [Prester John] who was not only a great king, but a Christian priest. The story of Strange John is known today from almost 100 manuscripts, and the historical nucleus of the story is rooted in the coming of one "John, the Patriarch of the Indians", who came to Rome in the pontificate of Calixtus II in 1122.
Prester John lived in India, or to be more precise, in Malabar (southern India) . . . India (was) considered as a wonderland . . . with exotic unknown animals, black [Dravidian] Christians and other miracles, but even Jews lived there . . . and who is the man who would not like to visit that wonderland of a king and a priest, Prester John in India?"
From an informative article by Meir Bar-Ilan, senior Lecturer at the Departments of Talmud and Jewish History, Bar-Ilan University. [◦Source]
ACCORDING to rumour and fervent belief, "the ultimate Christian king, Prester John, ruled over the perfect Christian kingdom, somewhere in Asia (or perhaps in Africa - no one was really sure)," writes Sara Douglass. [A] There is a reason for this uncertainty. The author sets out to explain it thus:
There was an old legend about the apostle Thomas that he had travelled to India and established a Christian community there - one that retained many of the ideals of the original church, and blossomed as an almost perfect Christian kingdom, ruled over by the legendary king, Prester John. The legend of the apostle and his exploits "was widespread enough in the 833 for Alfred the Great to send two priests with gifts to St Thomas' shrine on the east coast of India." The Moslems too believed that this magnificient Christian king existed, she writes further.
Prester John is mentioned in the 1145 chronicle of Otto of Freising at the time of the Second Crusade. Otto recounted that a report from the Bishop of Gabala told that, "there was ruling in the East somewhere a Christian king named Prester John, who was descended from the Magi, and who ruled over a fantastically wealthy kingdom." He was said to enjoy such glory and such plenty that he used no scepter save one of emerald, wrote Otto. The original, brief chronicle is here: [◦Medieval Source]
In 1165 Otto's second-hand report was overshadowed by a seemingly authentic letter from Prester John. In it, Prester John described himself as the ruler of the Three Indias, ruling "from the Tower of Babel to the rising of the sun"; and he gave an elaborate account of the marvels and riches of his kingdom, and also declared he intended to visit the Holy Sepulchre in Palestine.
This letter "had first been sent to the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople, where copies of it had been made and circulated around the courts of Europe. The letter had arrived at a time when the Moslem pressure on the crusader states in the Holy Land was increasing".
In 1177 Pope Alexander II wrote what has been taken to be a reply to Prester John. He gave it to "his personal physician, Master Philip, and sent him off . . . Master Philip and his letter got as far as Palestine . . . after that all reports of him disappeared . . . and the anxious pope got no reply," Douglass continues.
Afterwards, the original concept of Prester John was probably confused with actual living kings; for a long time many Europeans believed that Genghis Khan was Prester John. In 1248 a church envoy came to the court of the Mongols, and "a Franciscan friar called Giovanni Capini, further added to the legend of Prester John by reporting that P John was the king of Greater India who defeated the Mongols (this time) by creating men out of copper, filling them with Greek fire, and placing them on horseback, so burning the Mongol army completely."
In the early 1300s, "most of the European rulers, popes, etc. seemed to have given up hope of finding Prester John anywhere in Asia." Then it was soon rumoured that "Prester John's kingdom did not lie in Asia, but was actually in northern Africa - what we now call Ethiopia." So by 1339 maps of Africa were marking the kingdom of Prester John in north-eastern Africa, and "by the 1400s there was a definite belief that here . . . was the location of the legendary Christian king, Prester John." Not finding the king there, however, explorers began to look across the Atlantic for him.
Who wrote what was thought to be an authentic letter from Prester John to the rulers of Europe that turned up in 1165? "No one now knows," Douglass informs. She also thinks "Europeans still wanted to believe in this king so much they simply moved his kingdom to a different place, then a different place again, in order to keep on believing in him." That could very well take us to the core of many medieval legends that flourished about prester John.
Further, "The legend really helped stimulate exploration of the Far East and Asia. Numerous explorers and official diplomatic envoys set out in order to make contact with this wonderful king."
IN A WORK by Thomas Bulfinch, Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes, he tells of an early account which probably was spread by travelling merchants at first: Among the Tartars there was a Lama or spiritual chief who had given rise to a report in Europe of a Presbyter or Prester John, a Christian pontiff resident in Upper Asia.
Bulfinch writes: "The Pope sent a mission in search of him, as did also Louis IX of France, some years later, but both missions were unsuccessful". What they did find, though were small communities of Nestorian Christians, which served to keep up the belief in Europe that such a personage as Prester John did exist somewhere in the East.
"At last in the fifteenth century, a Portuguese traveller, Pedro Covilham, happening to hear that there was a Christian prince in the country of the Abessines (Abyssinia), not far from the Red Sea, concluded that this must be the true Prester John." Accordingly he went there "and penetrated to the court of the king, whom he calls Negus." [Source]
Prester JOHN was a "legendary Christian priest and monarch of a vast, wealthy empire in Asia or in Africa. The legend first appeared in the latter part of the 12th cent. and persisted for several centuries. At first the utopian realm of this Christian king was supposed to be in Asia, but later it was more generally placed in Africa. Letters supposed to have been written by him and about him were widely circulated in Western Europe." [The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2000, Columbia University Press, s.v. "Prester John"]
AND according to Sir John Mandeville (ca. 1366), Prester John was a lineal descendant of Ogier the Dane [who was serving Charlemagne before he became his own master with a crown placed on his head, according to romance-writers]. This Ogier penetrated into the north of India with fifteen barons of his own country, and he divided the land among them. John was made sovereign of Teneduc, and was called Prester because he converted the natives.
Another tradition says he had seventy kings for his vassals, and was seen by his subjects only three times in a year."
[Source: E. Cobham Brewer 1810-1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898]
WHAT IS more, Marco Polo thinks of "Un-khan, a prince of the north", called Prester John too, in his travels. [Medieval source]
FURTHER: "prester john" in Britannica [Ebu, "prester john"]
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[A] Sara Douglass on Prester John:
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