Legends of Prester John
Noteworthy as were the yarns spun by seamen in the fifteenth century,
tales circulated by landsmen — by missionaries, royal envoys, and
merchants — were more noteworthy still. But these missionaries and other
landsmen, whither did they fare? In what quarter did they adventure? Not
in the West, for that was the seaman's realm, but in the East these
travelers had their domain. The chief potentate in all Asia, so Europe
believed, was Prester John, a Christian and a rich man. To find him or
some equivalent of him, and bring him into helpful relationship with
Christian but distracted Europe, became the ambition of Popes and secular
rulers alike. Hence the missionaries. Hence Friar John of Pian de Carpine
and Friar William of Rubruck, who from 1245 to 1253 penetrated central
Asia to Karakorum. Hence, furthermore, John of Monte Corvino, Odoric of
Pordenone, and John of Marignolli, who, as friars and papal legates from
1275 to 1353, visited Persia, India, the Malay Archipelago, China, and
The tales these landsmen brought were good to hear — "pretty to hear tell," as Friar Odoric puts it. First, there was Cathay: Cathay of the Mongol plains, with its kaans or emperors housed in tents, twanging guitars, and disdainful of all mankind; Cathay of the "Ocean Sea" with ports thronged with ships and wharves glutted with costly wares; Cathay of the city of Kinsay — " stretched like Paradise through the breadth of Heaven" — with lake, canals, bridges, pleasure barges, baths, and lights-o'-love; Cathay of imperial Cambulac with its Palace of the Great Kaan, its multitude of crowned barons in silken robes, its magic golden flagons, its troops of splendid white mares, its astrologers, leeches, conjurers, and choruses of girls with "cheeks as full as the moon," who by their "sweet singing" pleased Friar Odoric (ah, Friar!) most of all.
Then there was India, including Cipangu or Japan with its "rose colored pearls" and gold "abundant beyond all measure "; India of the "twenty-four hundred islands and sixty-four crowned kings "; India of the ruby, the sapphire, and the diamond; of the Moluccas drowsy with perfumes and rich in drugs and spices; of the golden temples and the uncouth gods; of the eunuchs and the ivory; the beasts, the serpents, and the brilliant birds. Other tales there were, brought by these landsmen, the missionaries. Just as the West had its Sea of Darkness — the Atlantic Ocean — so the East had its Land of Darkness — the extreme northeast of Asia, a region of mountain and sand, of cold and snow, where dwelt the Gog and Magog of Ezekiel. And to reach this dark land, barriers must be overcome, defiles fierce with demoniac winds, deserts swathed in mystic light and vibrant to jigging tunes, valleys awful with dead men's bones.
Moreover, as in the West the mythical islands of the Dark Sea were the abode of creatures beyond the thought of man, so in the East the Dark Land harbored beings quite as preternatural. Here, co-tenants, so to speak, of Gog and Magog, were the CynocephalŠ or dog-headed creatures; the ParocitŠ so narrow mouthed as to be forced to subsist exclusively on odors; jointless hopping creatures who cried "chin chin "; one-eyed creatures; midget creatures; and what not.. "I was told," says Friar Rubruck, "that there is a province beyond Cathay and at whatever age a man enters it that age he keeps which he had on entering — which," na´vely exclaims the friar, "I do not believe." Odoric had far more hardihood in narrative, for, speaking of India, he notes: "I heard tell that there be trees which bear men and women like fruit upon them . . . [These people] are fixed in the tree up to the navel and there they be; when the wind blows they be fresh, but when it does not blow they are all dried up. This I saw not in sooth, but I heard it told by people who had seen it."
As a skeptic among tale-bringers from the East, however, John of Marignolli ranks foremost. A Paradise on earth still somewhere existing; an Adam's footprint in Ceylon; a Noah's Ark still on Ararat — such things were verities to him; but not so preternatural creatures. "The truth is," he declares, "no such people do exist as nations, though there may be an individual monster here and there." Indeed, so adventurous in skepticism is John that in some particulars he o'erleaps himself. "There are," he avers, "no Antipodes —men having the soles of their feet opposite to ours. Certainly not." He has learned too, "by sure experience," that "if the ocean be divided by two lines forming a cross, two of the quadrants so resulting are navigable and the two others not navigable at all, for God willed not that men should be able to sail round the whole world."
So far as missionaries were concerned, the East might lure them to Cathay, or even to farthest India, through interest in some shadowy Prester John, an interest largely of a religious nature; but it was otherwise with royal envoys and merchants. The lure of the East for them was treasure and merchandise, in other words, wealth. As early as 1165-67, a Spanish Jew of Navarre, Rabbi Benjamin by name, who was concerned in trade, set forth from Tudela, his native city, and visiting Saragossa, Genoa, Constantinople, Tyre, Damascus, Bagdad, and points in Arabia, reached the island of Kish and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, at the gates of India and within earshot of Cathay. He was the first modern European, it is said, "to as much as mention China."
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