The Good Times of Prester John
Copyright ©2002 by John Mertus
All Rights Reserved
I just received another copy of the Good Times Virus. It's a real virus even though its not a real virus. Good Times uses naďve and/or gullible human E-mail hosts to replicate itself. The message is the actual virus. Good Times started way back in December of 1994 with a major outbreak again in March of 1995. This means the virus has been around about eight years.
Is it time for an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest hoax? Hardly, the Good Times Virus doesn’t even come close to one of the greatest deceptions of all time: the fake letters of Prester John.
In the middle Twelfth Century, the Internet was still pretty primitive. Its high-speed backbone consisted of rivers and seas. Messages were physical packets, not electrons. Large towns on the waterways were the switching hubs, but for some unknown reason they were confusing called ports. (The name port for our modern computer I/O connection arose differently. One cold night, during WWII in Los Alamos, some scientists were out drinking and trying to figure out what to call that I/O thingamajig they had just designed for the first computer. Finally one drunken engineer mumbled, “g’m some more port.” If he had been drinking scotch that day, we all be hooking our modems up to double or single serial malts. But I digress from Prester John.)
From these misnamed ports, old Roman stone roads ran to large cities. Finally, muddy trails connect these cities to smaller towns, manors and to the typical AOL equivalent user of that time: the feudal serf. Alas, these connections were often down do to rain, snow, bandits and impaled bodies of messengers bearing bad tidings. Finding the way was also a problem. Except for some sea captains and three wise men, the use of the Celestial Global Positioning Satellites was unknown.
Messages were sent up and down this stone Internet much as in our electronic one of today. The important letters were copied by monks and then distributed to the towns. Monasteries thus became the first proxy servers. At that time, as today, the typical AOL serf was both illiterate and superstitious, so these letters were often read aloud and discussed in the town’s chat rooms, know then as Town Squares.
In 1145 AD, the Bishop Hugh of Gabala in Syria sent a letter to pope Eugenius III describing a Christian King; a direct descendant of one of the Magi. This king, called Prester John, ruled a great Empire in the East. The letter described how Prester John had defeated the Muslim kings of Persia and was planning to march on and free Jerusalem. At that time, the Europeans were getting their butts kicked in the Crusades and needed a savior as theirs was proving unsympathetic to their cause. This epistle lifted hope for the Crusades even though the letter finished saying the army was stranded crossing the Tigris River. With renewed optimism for the Crusades marched tens of thousands of believers to their deaths.
A few years afterwards, another letter began to circulate around Europe. It was addressed to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus and signed by the Christian king Prester John himself. The letter said Prester John ruled Christian kingdom in the East of 72 states; an empire that was a crime-free, vice-free, peaceful kingdom, where "honey flows in our land and milk everywhere.” (Similar what the Christian Moral Majority believes the US was before the advent of closest exhibitionists and crossdressing nudists.) Prester John also wrote that infidels and barbarians had besieged him and he needed the help of Christian European armies. So to the Crusades and their death marched tens of thousands of believers again.
As time went on, the AOL surfs heard more wondrous letters describing the land where men had horns on their foreheads and three eyes; women who fought mounted on horses; pebbles that gave off light, cured the blind, and could make one invisible and, of course, the ubiquitous unicorns. The letters said that Prester John would join the battle with the Muslims and help Europe regain the Holy Sepulchre.
In 1177, Pope Alexander III sent his friend Master Philip to find Prester John. Master Philip disappeared and was never heard from again. As all X-file fans know, this gave definitive proof that Prester John existed. Soon everyone, except for a few scholars, came to accept the reality of Prester John and his great Christian Empire. Cartographers began to draw maps that showed this kingdom somewhere where modern India is today and continued to draw his land in the then unknown parts of the world well into the seventeenth century. (The story how Prester John’s image miraculously appeared on walls of towns depicting him standing over the dead bodies of vanquished Muslim infidels; his face covered with a milk mustache and the words, “Milk, it does a king’s body good,” underneath is, however, just something I just made up.)
As time went on, the stories expanded, told about giant ants that dug gold and salamanders that lived in fire. They described Prester John’s Kingdom as the resting-place of the body of St. Thomas, and the home of fountain whose waters would restore a person’s youth. (These letters are the first recorded mention of the Fountain of Youth. Alas, Juan Ponce de Leon, who was never very good with directions, went west instead of east searching for this fountain and found the land of grapefruit, cocaine and old people. Without the fake Prester John letters, Florida would have never been discovered and all those expatriate Cubans would now be living in Atlanta, Georgia.)
Almost a hundred years later, in 1217, to gain support for another doomed crusade, Jacques de Vitry, the Bishop of Acre, wrote a letter to Pope Honorius III. The letter asserted that many of the Christian princes in the east were massing under the banner of Prester John to advance against the Saracens. More phony letters from Prester John circulated. In one area, the people raised gold and sent it East toward Prester John’s army. They ignored the fact that Prester John would have to be over 100 years old! As the Young Earth Creationists have shown, one should never let facts interfere with one’s beliefs. Of course, the gold was lost, captured by Georgian bandits. Even if it had not been, the treasure would have ended up in the coiffures of Gengis Khan, most definitely not Prester John. (Gengis had a nasty habit of burning Christian churches--with the Congregations inside alive.)
Although the original Bishop Huge letter was most likely a report on a Nestorian Christian Mongol khan Yeh-lu Tashih, who defeated the sultan Sanjar in 1141, many historian believe, based upon linguistic analysis, that the later letters were written by persons in Italy after 1265 to further support for the Crusades. As the Good Times Virus, or the Nieman-Marcus Cookie story of today, Prester John lived because, in the words of the famous sign that hangs in a basement office of the J. Edgar Hover building, “I want to believe.” For 200 years, people lived and died knowing the great Prester John was going to help them sometimes soon. Times change, technology changes, but we will always believe what we need to believe.
Next time, I’ll talk about the first virus to hit the Dark Age Internet, created by a few disgruntled Genoese galley slaves in October of 1347. This DOS (Denial of Service) virus wrecked havoc on the Internet ports and disrupted communications for years. They called their virus “The Black Death.”
Rumford, RI, November 2002