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

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

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

The fabricated “Letter of Prester John,” ostensibly written by the imagined Christian king of a yet undiscovered African kingdom, gives insight into the fanciful way that Europeans imagined those living outside European contact. Wild men, cannibals, amalgams of animals and men, and other exotic forms roamed the pages of the letter and sparked the imaginations of European explorers and their audiences.

There are in our country elephants and other animals called dromedaries and also white horses and wild bulls of seven horns, white bears, and the strangest lions of red, green, black, and blue color. . . .
Know that in one province of our company is a wilderness and that there live horned men who have but one eye in front and three or four in back. There are also women who look similar. We have in our country still another kind of men who feed only on raw flesh of men and women and do not hesitate to die. And when one of them passes away, be it their father or mother, they gobble him up without cooking him. . . We have in our country also other men who have hoofed legs like horses and at the back of their heels they have four strong and sharp claws with which they can fight in such a way that no armor can withstand them; and yet they are good Christians and will willingly till their lands and ours and pay
us a big tribute. . . .
We have in our country bowmen who from the waist up are men, but whose lower part is that of a horse. They carry in their hands bows and arrows. . .
There are in our land also unicorns who have in front a single horn of which there are three kinds: green, black, and white. Sometimes they kill lions. . .
In another region of the wilderness there are men who used to be sixty cubits tall but who are now only twenty, and they cannot leave the desert, since it would displease God, for once they were outside, they could easily vanquish everybody.
. . . Let it be known to you that in another region of our country there are strange men who have human bodies, but heads of dogs. It is impossible to understand their language, yet they are good fishermen, since they can enter the deepest sea and stay there for a day without emerging. They catch as many fish as they desire, and they carry them back to their subterranean houses. . . .

Quiz Content

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. How does the letter of Prester John describe the people of Africa?

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. What does the letter say about these frightening creatures to make them less scary?

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. How might this letter have affected explorers' preconceptions of native peoples in new lands?

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