Waiting For Prester John : the legend, the Fifth Crusade, and medieval Christian holy war
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In considering the increasing interest in the study of a global Middle Ages, there seem to be few individuals, either fictional or actual, that had a more powerful cosmopolitan currency than the figure of Prester John and the legends surrounding his kingdom. As a product of cultural imaginings and questionably recounted historical events, the search for and legitimization of Prester John has commanded consistent interest, both popular and scholarly, almost continuously since first mention of the figure of John in 1145. The now infamous Letter of Prester John, which details the magnificent Christian kingdom lying somewhere in the East, beyond the approaching threat of an ever-expanding Islam, has long catalyzed a hunt, by both adventurers and scholars, to seek the elusive patriarch. The very indeterminacy of the geographic location of Prester John allowed the European imagination to consequently imagine him everywhere precisely because he could neither be confirmed nor denied existence anywhere. This report will explore the ways that a reading of the Prester John legend reveals competing ambitions of enclosure and expansion within twelfth and thirteenth-century Latin Christendom, specifically around the time of the Fifth Crusade. This report will trace the ideational tensions within a presumed Christian Crusading West trying to legitimate itself against the dialectical buttress of what was increasingly professed as its heretical other, Islam. The Fifth Crusade, especially, seemed to hinge on the possibility of the harmonious convergence of Eastern and Western Christian powers, literalizing the sense of Christian enclosure around all of Islam. Prester John’s kingdom thus served two functions: first, to comprise the other half of the Christian enclosure, and secondly, to mark a phenomenological limit point of human experience that domesticated alterity under the banner of a sovereign priest-king.