Mongol Group D3

Historical Fact or Fictional Exaggeration:

Discussion on the Credibility of The Description of the World in terms of Prester John

Ken Yan


Marco Polo, the famous Venetian merchant described his travels between Eurasian continents and his stay at the Da Yuan Dynasty in his book The Description of the World (hereafter DW), cowritten by an Arthurian romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa in 1298 in a prison in Genoa. Despite the intriguing stories and the abundant details, the credibility of DW always remains to be a mystery. Dr. Frances Wood, for example, argued that Marco Polo coined his stories and had never been to China in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China? in terms of Polo’s not mentioning tea, chopsticks, writing systems, nor foot binding[i]. In this essay, I will take a close look at Polo’s description on Prester John to examine the credibility of DW. With comparisons to Prester John in other sources, several confusions and conflations were found. I’ll expand on (a) who was Prester John, (b) Polo’s mixed-up timelines, and (c) Polo’s descriptions of stories about Prester John to show that Polo was actually confused with this figure, thus answering our group question to consider DW as “fictional exaggeration”. Moreover, I’ll try to discuss the reasons of such phenomenon, i.e., the motif of Polo (and Rustichello) to coin or conflate stories.

1. Different Prester Johns

To start with, we must answer the question of who Prester John was. In chapter 2, Marco Polo described that “[Tartars] had no lords, but … they paid tribute to a great lord who was called Ong [Unc] Khan in their language, which means ‘Prester John’ in French” (DW, p. 51)[ii]. The story then expanded on the conflicts between Ong Khan as Prester John and Chingiz Khan (See section 2). However, in chapter 3, Prester John became the ruler who captured the Golden King of Taiyuanfu. According to Atwood, Prester John in this Chapter was the Liao emperor Yelü Deguang and the Golden King was the rebellious Jin emperor Shi Chonggui [石重貴] (DW, p. 121). A little bit math and geography could help us infer that Prester Johns in chapter 2 and 3 are not the same people. Despite few scholarly different opinions, Chingiz Khan was believed to be born around the year of 1167 (The Mongols, location 690)[iii], which means his interactions with Ong Khan as Prester John must take place around the late 12th century or early 13th century. However, the Golden King Shi Chonggui was born on 914 and died on 974 (The Epitaph of Shi Chonggui, discovered in 1998), which implies that his interactions with Yelü Deguang as Prester John must occur before the 11th century. Therefore, there was no means for Ong Khan and Yelü Deguang to be the same Prester John in terms of chronology. Moreover, Marco Polo’s description, in terms of geography, was self-contradictory. He mentioned in Chapter 2 that Ong Khan the Prester John ruled “the Tartars lived in the north around Ciorcia.” (DW, p. 51). According to Pelliot[iv], Ciorcia was the Persian name for the homeland of the Jurchen who based in southeastern Manchuria (DW, p. 92). Nonetheless, Marco Polo claimed that Yelü Deguang the Prester John was active around Xiansheng Gong, the ancestral temple of the short-lived Northern Han dynasty, which was centered in Taiyuanfu (DW, p. 121). As we believed that Chingiz Khan’s empire was the first Mongol empire that joined both Persian and Chinese territories, together with the fact that Prester John was before Chingiz Khan, a geographical contradiction is therefore being found – there was no way for a same Prester John to rule Persian and Chinese territories during his reign.

2. Prester John vs. Chingiz Khan

Now we dig deeper into Polo’s description of Prester John’s interactions with others. In this section, I will expand on Chinggisid marriage with Prester John’s daughter, Prester John’s attitude toward Chingiz Khan, and Prester John’s death.

Most of the Mongol scholars today believe that the chronicles of Chinggisid marriage with Lady Borte in the Mongol epic The Secret History of the Mongols (hereafter SHM)[v] was mostly true. Chingiz Khan’s father Yisugei asked marriage for Chingiz Khan and Dei Secen’s daughter Lady Borte when Chingiz Khan was 9 (SHM, paragraph 66). Dei Secen merrily accepted the sable coat as wedding gift (SHM, paragraph 96) and became the later Ong Qan, i.e., the Ong Khan as Prester John by Polo in Chapter 2 of DW. Moreover, Ong Khan was the sworn brother, anda, of Chingiz Khan’s father and helped Chingiz Khan fight against the Tatars (SHM, paragraph 104). Despite he later turned against Chingiz Khan, we can still conclude that Ong Khan was happy with the marriage between Chingiz Khan and his daughter. However, Polo’s description about this marriage was very different, he chronicled Prester John [Ong Khan]’s words went: “How is Chinggis Khan not ashamed to ask to marry my daughter? Doesn’t he know that he is my vassal and my slave?” (DW, p. 52) Given the mainstream scholarly opinions and the historical fact that Chingiz Khan had four sons with Lady Borte – Jochi, Chagatai, Tolui, and Ogedei – it’s very likely that such marriage did happen, which implies consent other than humiliation from Prester John. Besides this marriage, the attitude of Ong Khan to Chingiz Khan was differently chronicled in DW compared with primary and secondary sources. In DW, Prester John was always hostile to Chingiz Khan, and fought till death during the battle at the plain of Tenduc (DW, p. 54). However, the Mongol epic SHM stated that Ong Khan fought with Chingiz Khan against the Tartars and Jamuqa (SHM, paragraph 144), and remained close relationship as father and son until his defeat by Naiman Khan (SHM, paragraph 160). Atwood, on the other hand, in his scholarly article claimed that Ong Khan fought with Chingiz Khan at first, then turned against him after the rise of Chingiz Khan, as well as incorporated Jamuqa to fight against Chingiz (The Sacrificed Brother, p. 193)[vi]. There were no exactly same chronicles about how Prester John [Ong Khan]’s attitude changed over time toward Chingiz Khan, but Polo’s DW definitely missed the part where Prester John and Chingiz were allies once. What’s more, however the attitude of Prester John toward Chingiz changed after the 1206 quriltai when Chingiz was elected Khan, DW even couldn’t get the time right – it claimed that Chingiz was elected king in 1187 (DW, p. 52), which was far from 1206 the actual year. Some details about Prester John’s death that were impossible for Polo to know was however chronicled in DW, which further suggested that DW is a fictional story collection rather than more of factual events-based history reference. DW claimed that Chingiz Khan’s “heart was so enflamed that it nearly burst in his belly” (DW, p. 53) on receiving Prester John’s humiliation. Note that Marco Polo didn’t arrive Da Yuan until the 1270s, which is long after the war between Prester John and Chingiz Khan (if ever occurred). Then, how could such detailed descriptions reliable given that Marco Polo couldn’t have a chance to witness it? Hence, we conclude that, in terms of Prester John vs. Chingiz Khan – marriage, attitude, timeline, and death of Prester John – DW was definitely more of fictional exaggeration, instead of historical facts.

3. Prester John vs. the Golden King

As mentioned in section 1, Prester John in chapter 3 was the Liao emperor Yelü Deguang, and the story expanded on his capture of the Golden King Shi Chonggui of Jin Empire. However, just like the confused timelines in section 2, something fundamentally wrong also occurred in this chapter. According to Atwood, the fortress that troubled Prester John was a conflation reference to Xiansheng Gong or Yongle Gong, which is constructed around second half of the tenth century or 1247 (DW, p. 121). While Shi Chonggui was dead before 974, the existence of such fortress during war between the Golden King and Prester John remained ambiguous. The capture of the Golden King could be verified by his epitaph discovered in northern China in 1998, as well as the scholarly article “辽宁省博物馆藏《石重贵墓志铭》考释” by Qi Wei[vii], which all suggested that Shi Chonggui the Golden King was captured and humiliated by Yelü Deguang (Prester John). Therefore, we could conclude that Prester John vs. the Golden King did exist and could be referred as a historical fact, except for the chronicles with regards to the fortress.





Golden King (DW, Henry Yule ver.)[viii]


4. Influence from William of Rubruck

However, there may be an explanation of why Polo confused Yelü Deguang with Ong Khan. Missionary William of Rubruck wrote and published his book Itinerarium in 1254[ix], right before Polo set off to China. Thus, there was a good chance that Marco Polo have read Itinerarium before his journey. Thus, several preconceived ideas may be rooted in Polo’s mind, and Prester John may be one of them. According to William of Rubruck, “Ong Khan is a Qara Khitai people” (Itinerarium, p. 235). However, Ong Khan was more likely to be a Mongol ruler according to SHM. Hence, such wrong preconception perhaps linked the Qara Khitai stories Polo heard during his journey with the Ong Khan stories. Given that Yelü Deguang was a Qara Khitai leader, it was very likely for Polo to associate Yelü Deguang with the “Ong Khan is a Qara Khitai people” preconception and conflated them together.

5. Conclusion: Why Prester John

Now that we’ve understood Polo’s fictional exaggerations on the chronicles of Prester John, together with the reasonings that wrong preconceptions from William of Rubruck led to the conflated and mixed-up Prester Johns and Prester John stories, there is still one more thing to examine on: why would Polo and Rustichello do so?

First of all, it’s not hard to comprehend the motif of doing fictional refinements by Rustichello – he was an Arthurian romance writer, not a historian (DW, p. xiv).

Likewise, Polo’s identity as a travelling merchant didn’t urge him to be a precise historian. Rather, it was the intriguing and exaggerated stories that made his travels attractive. He claimed to be the governor of Yangzhou, which was never found in Chinese sources, but such governmental identity could legendize himself and thus making his book appealing. Reading consistency was prioritized such that stories of multiple people were conflated onto one single Prester John.

Moreover, as I consulted multiple versions of DW, including the Henry Yule, the Sharon Kinoshita, and the Joseph Charignon version[x], several footnotes inspired my hypothesis of Prester John as a Christian symbol in the East, especially the Mongol and Chinese empires, from the European perspective. It might also be a sincere wish that Europeans had on the Mongols to stand with the Christians such that either a joint force or peace would be realized.

As DW claimed that the Christian astronomers correctly predicted the outcome of war between Prester John and Chingiz Khan (DW, p. 53), Chingiz Khan therefore “found the Christians to be powerful, [and] subsequently greatly honored the Christians, holding them for men of truth and truthful, and had every faith in them” (DW, p. 54). Charignon noted that this was an intentionally written detail such that the importance of Nestorian Christians was revealed. (DW Charignon ver., p. 113).

Hence, building on the previous evidence, we conclude that none of the Prester Johns were a title nor a reference by the kings to themselves, but to be a Christian interpretation by Polo to the European readers. In fact, Prester John was not a name coined by Marco Polo nor Rustichello; the prototype of Prester John as a powerful foreign leader could be traced back to A Letter from Prester John (ca. 1165-1170) sent to Emanuel of Constantinople in 1165[xi]. In the letter, Prester John expressed his power and friendliness toward the Christians . Thus, Prester John became a symbol as a powerful exotic ally of the Christians, and Polo’s description of Prester John was therefore catered to a powerful Mongol ruler who showed friendliness and respect to the Christians.


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The Letter of Prester John Abridged Sent to Emanuel of Constantinople in 1165[xii]


In conclusion, Marco Polo’s DW, is, to a large extent, fictional exaggeration rather than historical facts. Besides the occupations of Marco Polo and Rustichello, the false preconceptions from William the Rubruck and the search of a powerful Mongol ally for Christians also contributed to the conflations and confusions, which however revealed the motif of Marco Polo writing DW.



Reference List

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Rachewiltz, Igor de. The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century. The Australian National University. December 2015.


Morgan, David. The Mongols (The Peoples of Europe). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Second Edition, 2007.


Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo Vol. I, II. 1973.


Polo, Marco. The Book of Marco Polo I, II. Third edition (1903) of Henry Yule’s annotated translation, as revised by Henri Cordier; together with Cordier’s later volume of notes and addenda (1920). May 22, 2004.


A. J. H. Charignon, Le Livre de Marco Polo. Pékin: Albert Nachbaur, Vol. 1. 1924, Vol. 2. 1926, Vol. 3. 1928


Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Frances Wood, London: Secker and Warburg, 1995.


Introduction: Marco Polo and Prester John. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013. EBSCOhost,


Edson, Evelyn. “WHO WAS Prester John?” Calliope, vol. 19, no. 7, Apr. 2009, pp. 28–31. EBSCOhost,


Taylor, Christopher. “Global Circulation as Christian Enclosure: Legend, Empire, and the Nomadic Prester John[Thank You ].” Literature Compass, vol. 11, no. 7, July 2014, p. 445. EBSCOhost,


Brooks, Michael E. “Visual Representations of Prester John and His Kingdom.” Quidditas, vol. 35, Jan. 2014, pp. 147–176. EBSCOhost,


干红强.中世纪西方对蒙古人认知的演变.2020.兰州大学, MA thesis.


The Evolution of The Western Cognition of The Mongols In The Middle Ages: A Case Study of The Legend Of Prester John.


齐伟.”辽宁省博物馆藏《石重贵墓志铭》考释.” 辽金历史与考古 .00(2013):299-304. doi:.


Atwood, Christopher P. “The Sacrificed Brother in the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’”. Mongolian Studies, Vol. 30/31, 2008 and 2009, pp. 189-206.


Translated by耿晟、何高济.《伯朗嘉宾蒙古行纪 鲁布鲁克东行记》. Published by 中华书局. Vol.1. January, 1985.


Keagan Brewer, Prester John: The Legend and Its Sources (London: Routledge, 2015), 67-92.


Tsion, ZeAgazeto. “The Letter of Prester John (Abridged) Sent to Emanuel of Constantinople in 1165”. December 6, 2016