Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Beasts, Monsters, and the Kingdom of Prester John

So, I start a blog on the medieval world, but where to begin?! This period is utterly fascinating to me, there are just so many different things I'd like to look at - knights, castles, towns, fashion, literature, medicine, maps, crusading . . . I could go on forever! But in the end I decided to write my first blog on a subject that really caught my interest in the entire period: on beasts, monsters, and the Kingdom of Prester John.

(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)


  1. Do you think the forgery was a clever piece of propaganda to tempt would-be crusaders to the East? A promised land of luxury and beauty may have been a very tempting offer, especially as the the East was all but lost forever to the Moslems. I wouldn't be surprised is Comnenus wrote it himself!

  2. I'm not sure as though Comnenus would have written it as it's been discovered that the letter originated from Western Europe. Interesting thought though! Crusading was certainly an important issue at this time, so maybe the legends were used in this way. I think I read somewhere that some people were sent to find the land of Prester John, in the hope that he would ally himself with the Christians on crusade. Must have been a long trip! :-D

  3. Nice blog Im so proud! :D

  4. Good luck with your blog - it can get quite addictive! Anne Nolan, Ashgate Publishing

  5. Really enjoyed it.........will definately follow ;-)

  6. Great idea for a blog! I love medieval history. Good luck with it!

  7. Thankyou everyone! Glad you liked it :-)

  8. Fascinating! Herodotus would have loved Prester John. Re: the monopods, C. S. Lewis must have been thinking of them when he wrote about the dufflepuds in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (I think it was that one)!

  9. Becky, have been enjoying your excellent blog: bon courage for its continuation! Just a quick word to say - as you probably already know - monopods and blemmyae (inter alia) are present on the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral (definitely worth a visit next time you stray towards the Wye).

  10. Very interesting. Thank you for your information and research.