Primary Source: The Letter of Prester John (French version, 1500)

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

What factors contributed to the European interest in exploration?

The myth of Prester John tells of a Christian ruler on the African continent. The search for his kingdom was reignited in 1442 at the council of Florence as part of an effort to unite the Coptic (Egyptian) and Latin churches. Prince Pedro of Portugal’s fictional account of visiting the Indies in search of the Christian king was spread through Europe during Pedro’s travels there in 1428, sparking a renewed interest in finding Prester John’s kingdom. By the 1500s, numerous versions of a fictional document, the “Letter of Prester John,” encouraged European exploration.

Prester John, by the Grace of God most powerful king over all Christian kings, greetings to the Emperor of Rome and the King of France, our friends. We wish you to learn about us, our position, the government of our land, and our people and beasts. And since you say that our Greeks, or men of Grecian race, do not pray to God the way you do in your country, we let you know that we worship and believe in Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons in one Deity and one true God only. We attest and inform you by our letter, sealed with our seal, of the condition and character of our land and men. And if you desire something that we can do for you, ask us, for we shall do it gladly. In case you wish to come hither to our country, we shall make you on account of your good reputation our successors and we shall grant you vast lands, manors, and mansions. Let it be known to you that we have the highest crown on earth as well as gold, silver, precious stones and strong fortresses, cities, towns, castles, and boroughs. We have under our sway forty-two kings who are all mighty and good Christians. And know that we maintain for the glory and love of Jesus Christ all the poor of our country, be they our men or foreigners. . . . Know also that we have promised and sworn in our good faith to conquer the Sepulcher of our Lord and the whole Promised Land. And if you wish and it pleases God, we shall have it; but may you too display the great and steadfast valor which is yours, since we were told of your true and loyal courage. . . . Our land is divided into four parts, for there are so many Indias. In Greater India lies the body of the Apostle Saint Thomas for whom our Lord has wrought more miracles than for the [other] saints who are in heaven. And this India is toward the East, for it is near the deserted Babylon and also near the tower called Babel.