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Notes to the Text and Translation

The first mention in the West of an oriental Christian king (albeit Nestorian) named John who conquered the Persians and the Medes, but was obstructed by the Tigris from moving on to Jerusalem, is found in the words of Bishop Hugh of Jubala (1145) as they were recorded by Otto, Bishop of Freising (d. 1158) in his famous Chronicle, also known as The Two Cities. From its initial appearance in the West, the legend of Prester (Presbyter) John combined fact, wish and myth, claiming the potentate to be a direct descendant of one of the Magi, and somehow affiliated with Saint Thomas. Around 1165 a letter, supposedly written by Prester John and addressed to Manuel Conmenus, Emperor of Byzantium (1120-1180), began to circulate throughout the Christian West. The original epistle (although no extant copies exist today) invited the Emperor to visit John's mythical theocracy, whose description includes fabulous beasts, waterless seas, magical stones, wondrous citizens and a mystical palace. The apocryphal epistle attained immediate popularity and was quickly translated into many languages, its fantasy consistently heightened and amplified. Subsequent renditions included or substituted the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (1121-1190) as the addressee. By the 14th century, at least four distinct interpolations (A-D) had appeared; the third, interpolation C from around 1221, contained similar information to that found in this novella, suggesting that the tale might have appeared as a logical consequence of this apocryphal epistolary tradition.