chapter  3
Through the looking-glass
Pages 29

A few days after the canonisation of Charlemagne in 1165, scholars and theologians began circulating copies of a letter purporting to have been sent to the four most politically powerful, mutually suspicious fi gureheads in Europe – Basileus Manuel Komnenus, Imperator Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, King Philip II of France, and Pope Alexander III – from ‘Prester John’, ruler of a Christian realm lost somewhere in the mystical Orient, asking advice on up-to-date Christian dogma. The letter was fi lled with smug rhetorical questions to Byzantine bishops alongside fawning praise for Western cardinals, underscoring the doctrinal differences between Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Letter very helpfully appeared at the precise moment when Barbarossa needed the prestige of Charlemagne’s imperium to thaw the extraordinarily frosty relationship between the Reich , the Byzantines, and the Holy See 1 – which under the previous proFrench, anti-Reich pope had been building bridges with the Basileus while burning them with Barbarossa. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Letter of Prester John , with its emphatic anti-Byzantine and pro-Barbarossa discourses, should appear in Rome at such a convenient moment.