Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Questing for Prester John in Ethiopia

Prester John in Ethiopia, Genoese Planisphere, 1457
How quickly the map obsession sets in. Tomorrow is our big day with Prester John, and I will have the total thrill of sharing it in a class session to be attended by a Really Big Medievalist who is coming to campus through the invitation of a good friend of his who is one of the coolest and nicest people I know here.  Where we began with Prester John's 12th century letter, when he still "just" ruled the Three Indias, tomorrow, we'll end with the 1520 transcription of his letter to the King of Portugal by Francesco Alvarez, author of The Prester John of the Indies, ambassador and missionary of the King of Portugal, who spent several years at the court of Lebna Dengel in Ethiopia and wrote of him as Prester John. Just mapped all that Prester John goodness right on. There are two massive intertwinings here. The first is history and fantasy.  The fantasy of Prester John, the endless quest of Europeans for this imaginary Christian king is endlessly fascinating.  The history, though, as it can be imagined to fulfill this fantasy, is captivating, too. Particularly the ancestry of Ethiopian kings from Menilek, the child of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Catalan Map, 1450 - Prester John's in blue
The second intertwining is with reading travel writing and finding placenames. I should just let all of the placenames wash over me, some wondrous Uebelian list of marvels. But I find myself wanting to find the place names of the maps, both medieval and modern. In case you're wondering, the medieval maps are harder. Aside from having to sidestep the occasional giraffe or Blemmyae, the placenames themselves are completely different.  Googlemaps makes searching modern maps a total thrill.  There are intelligent things to say about the globalizing perspective that GoogleMaps offers the armchair traveler, but I don't have them in my head (I bet that Mandeville would have loved GoogeMaps, though).  But there are maps....

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map

.... and there are maps.  Wo-ha, right? This is the Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map, cousin of the famed Peters Projection Map which turned the Mercator Projection Map (the one we're more familiar with) literally on its head.  The best (I swear) tutorial on this comes from a 3 and a half minute clip of the West Wing (no, really).  There's more to learn, of course.  For now, Holly the cat's extreme hounding prompts me to stop, but just so you know, it's even harder to get to Ethiopia let alone India on this map.


  1. Another wonderful post with some great images! I have always wondered about Prester John showing up in India and Ethiopia. It seems that the two could sort of be interchangeable exotic locations, but I sometimes wonder if Prester John might not get moved farther away as places in the east were explored and no Christian King found. The monstrous races seem to show up in India or Ethiopia as well. On a different note, I have also written a post this week featuring a reference to the same West Wing episode, which is quite a coincidence, so I will link to your post in the comments of mine.

  2. What a delight to emerge from a grading frenzy and find not just your excellent comment, but your wonderful post as well - utterly uncanny that we decided to turn the world upside down on the same day! I'm seriously considering buying a Hobo-Dyer Projection map (but then I worry about my kids being screwed up with geography in school) (who am I kidding? nobody teaches geography in school anymore) (sigh). So maybe I just will buy it!

    there is some excellent scholarship on Prester John's move from India to Ethiopia - some of the move is the geographical elision of Ethiopia with the Third (southernmost) India - my favorite argument is Devisse who cites the 1441 Ethiopian and Coptic embassies to Rome (where the pope was trying to align a united Church) as triggering the move. (The embassy itself was from Jerusalem, which had had a monastic Ethiopian population since the 12th century, but it had ties to Christian Ethiopia). Christianity had been active in Ethiopia since around 400, so Prester John there was a dream come true. We read Francisco Alvares's account of Prester John in Ethiopia (from 1520) and marveled at his insistence in calling Lebna Dengel (the reigning emperor in Ethiopia when Alvares and his mission were there) Prester John throughout. It's a great, really lengthy text, but with fascinating encounters (my favorite is Alvares putting _and taking off_ liturgical vestments in front of Prester John in some kind of theological striptease - wild stuff). Of all the guys (Alexander, Prester John, Marco Polo, John Carpini, William of Rubruck, and Mandeville), it's a toss-up for my students between Prester John and Mandeville.

  3. I've been reading this recently, what a page-turner.
    I've been tracing my Eritrean ancestry, which founded a town in the mid 1600s about 30 miles west of of Debarwa, which was the seat of the "Barnagais" (Bahr Nagash) mentioned in the book. It's a fascinating snapshot of the time.

    1. heh... by "this," I mean I've been reading the original account by Alvarez.