(Kingdom of Prester John)
Prester John was a legendary figure in the medieval period. There were rumours of a kingdom far away from Europe, located somewhere in the East with a Christian ruler. This ruler was Prester John. He was believed to have been a Nestorian and a descendant of one of the Three Magi (referred to in the Bible, and more commonly known today as the three wise men who visited Jesus at his birth).
In 1165 copies of a letter from this priest-king began to spread throughout Europe, originally written to the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus. This gave a renewed spark to the legends of Prester John. However, the letter is known today to have been a forgery which originated from Western Europe. At a time of conflict and strife due to crusading, there was a hope that Prester John would go to the aid of the Christians in the West.
The fake letter described a utopian land overflowing with wealth and luxury. Also included were descriptions of some rather weird but wonderful inhabitants. These were creatures that people genuinely believed lived just beyond the realms of their own lives. Such beasts and monsters included:
The Monopods. These were creatures with a giant foot. Also known as Sciapods, and Monocoli. In surviving imagery these creatures are often depicted as protecting themselves from the sun.
The Panotti were giant eared creatures
The Blemmyae. Headless people, with their face on their chest.
The Cynocephali were believed to be creatures with dog heads, who communicated by barking.
These creatures were described in Prester John's letter as living in his kingdom. They were also believed to have lived just on the outskirts of known and explored land. There are links of these beasts and monsters going back to classical Greek sources. Although, travel and exploration during the medieval period would most likely have encouraged these sorts of legends. At this time people encountered animals they had never seen before, or even dreamt of! Animals such as elephants, giraffes, camels and so on. Imagine just how strange these would have looked to a person who had only ever seen cows, pigs, goats, etc. People would have gone on these travels and when they returned home they would have described what they'd seen. How would you describe an elephant to someone who'd never seen one before? . . .
- Debra Higgs Strickland, 'Monsters and Christian Enemies', History Today, 50:2 (Feb 2000)
- Karl F Helleiner, 'Prester John's Letter: A Medieval Utopia', Phoenix, 13:2 (Summer 1959)
- Peter Jackson, 'Christians, Barbarians and Monsters: the European discovery of the world beyond Islam', in Peter Linehan and Janet L Nelson (eds.), The Medieval World (Routledge: Abingdon, 2005)