A World of Knowledge

Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp
Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp

Blog-post author, Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp, BE


A couple of months ago, I decided to take a spontaneous trip to Prague. At my host’s charming turn-of-the-century apartment, I found a Dutch guidebook containing historical background information on the city, which I soon found myself reading in the comfort of a rocking chair beside the piano. While visiting the city, I had no use for the guidebook: I like to discover for myself. It dawned on me that I have much in common with the two travellers who have accompanied me on the journey of my Ph.D. research. They, too, wished “to see with their own eyes what they had heard and had read in several books,” as we can read in their travel report (c. 1490). They were the Flemish nobleman Joos van Ghistele (†1516), and his chaplain, Jan Quisthout († 1489). Together, they travelled the Middle East for four years (1481-5).

Like me, they had left in a flurry. Once they reached Cologne, Joos sent his chaplain back to Flanders to fetch three more travel companions who had already agreed to join them. While waiting for his travel companions to arrive in Cologne, Joos visited the cathedral, where he found “a little book with the Legend of the Three Kings”. The ‘little book’ was most likely the Historia Trium Regum (ca. 1364-1375) by the German Carmelite monk John of Hildesheim (†1375). The Latin text circulated widely, having just appeared in print in Cologne in 1477 and 1478. The Three Kings were the first pilgrims, following the star of Bethlehem to visit the Infant Jesus. In the Historia, we read that each of the Three Kings ruled over one of the three Indias: Melchior over Nubia and Arabia; Balthasar over Godolia and Saba; and Caspar over Tharsis and Egrissula, the island where St. Thomas was buried. [1] {2]

In this book, Joos read about the legendary Land of Prester John, a priest-king ruling a Christian empire in Abyssinia (Ethiopia), otherwise Islamic territory. This inspired him to visit the Land of Prester John and the tomb of St Thomas. According to the legend, after Christ’s Ascension, the apostle Thomas travelled to India, where he baptised the Three Kings, and later enthroned them as archbishops. As none of the Three Kings would have any offspring, they created a post for a worldly ruler, the holder of which would take the name John, in honour of both John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. This ruler would not be called a king or an emperor, but a priest: Prester John. Each successor to St. Thomas, the spiritual leader, would assume the name of the patriarch Thomas.[3]  Despite considerable efforts, the travellers never reached the land of Prester John. Still, it is due to this ambition that their voyage lasted four years and took them to the far north of Iran and the far south of the Red Sea.[4]

Besides a chaplain, Joos’ travel companion Jan was also a playwright: he would have been the ideal author of the journey’s report. But, he was not to be. Given that Jan passed away in 1489, we can assume that he fell ill shortly after their return and was unable to write the account. The actual author, who introduces himself in the preface of the travelogue, was called Ambrosius Zeebout. Integrating information from a large assortment of learned texts, Zeebout created from Joos’ testimony and Jan’s travel notes an exceptional Dutch text: a 400-page long behemoth that is praised for its extraordinary wealth of information, its detailed character, and its sense of criticism.

It is easy to tell from its size that it was not a take-along guidebook like the one I read in Prague. In fact, contrary to the average guidebook, which offers only some background knowledge and mainly practical guidelines, Zeebout’s text contains mostly general information and only very little travel advice. Just a brief first chapter of seven pages told prospective travellers of the preparations they needed to make. This was followed by a thirty-eight-page exposition on Islam, Eastern Christianity, and Judaism. The bulk of the text is made up of the description of and historical background of the visited areas, strung together by the route the travellers followed. Joos and Jan remain anonymous. Joos’ identity was only revealed in 1557, when his granddaughter handed the original copy of the text to Hendrik Van den Keere, who published it in print. The printer highlighted the traveller’s status, contrary to the manuscripts, which relied on the text’s stylistic features to attain credibility. In my Ph.D. research, I have identified these textual features as used by Zeebout and compared them to three other prominent contemporary travel accounts: those of Anselm Adorno, Bernhard von Breydenbach, and Felix Fabri.[5]

The treatment of the text in the oldest known manuscript – not the original – testifies to its use as a source of information: in the margin of the text, one of its readers wrote the words “cinnamon tree” and “where the storks go in winter”, making the places where these subjects were treated easier to find.

Whereas in the manuscripts with the text, these indexes were highly occasional (they can be found only in one known manuscript, and only twice), the presentation of the text when it was printed took this type of use a couple of steps further. In the first edition, in 1557, an index of the cited authors made the text even more searchable.

Image 5: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1557 edition, by Hendrik Van den Keere, Antwerp, 5r. Brussels, Royal Library, 25.994 A.
Image 5: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1557 edition, by Hendrik Van den Keere, Antwerp, 5r. Brussels, Royal Library, 25.994 A.

In the 1572 edition an index of topics was added, turning the book into a full-blown encyclopaedia. [6] The function of Zeebout’s book had everything to do with the way in which I had read that Prague guidebook: not to guide my travels, but instead to explore a world of knowledge.

Image 6: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1572 edition, by the widow of Gheeraert Van Salenson, Ghent, 11v-12r.
Image 6: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1572 edition, by the widow of Gheeraert Van Salenson, Ghent, 11v-12r.


  1. E. Christern (ed.), John of Hildesheim, Die Legende von den Heiligen Drei Königen. Cologne, 1960, 159.
  2. C. Horstmann (ed.), John of Hildesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne. An Early English Translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”. London, 1886, xiii and 225-7
  3. U. Knefelkamp, ‘Pape Jan, tussen Geschiedenis en Fantasie’, in: D. De Boer, Kennis op Kamelen. Europa en de buiten-Europese wereld (1150-1350), Amsterdam, 1998, 124-32 : 137.
  4. Renaat Gaspar (ed.), Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele. Verloren, Hilversum, 1998.
  5. Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele1557, Ghent, Hendrik Van den Keere.
  6. Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele. 1572, Ghent, by the widow of Gheeraert van Salenson; printed in Antwerp by Aegidius vanden Rade.