Who Is Miguel de Cervantes?

The creator of Don Quixote was born in September 1547. He was baptized “Miguel de Cervantes” at Alcalá in October 1547 -a university town not far from Madrid. It was the custom of Spain to name a newborn child after their corresponding saint’s day (hence “Michael”). He and perhaps his father later added the name “Saavedra” from a distant Galician relative.

A 17th century portrait believed to be of Cervantes (no confirmed portrait of Cervantes exists)

We know very little about Cervantes’s education though there is evidence to suggest he was educated by Jesuits, and perhaps Erasmus-esque Humanists in Madrid. As far as we know he never attended university, however in Italy he was exposed to Latin and the Italian classics. When he was young his family was often indebted. His father was a traveling physician. Miguel apparently traveled with his father. He was apparently a poet, banished for a duel, and a military man to escape jail. When his ship fought the Turks at Lepanto, he was ill below deck but gained a variety of wounds including loss of his use of left hand “for the glory of the right,” or so he said.

Somewhere around the 1560s Cervantes traveled to Rome and entered the service of a Cardinal before enlisting at Naples in the military. According to his own account, Cervantes contracted malaria and was given command of a 12-man skiff. He fought in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 defeating the Ottoman Empire (though the Ottomans eventually won the war). During the course of the fight, Cervantes was wounded -he was shot several times and lost the use of his left hand for the rest of his life. His wounds became a marker of pride in later years, he claimed he ‘lost the use of his left hand for the glory of the right’ (in Journey to Parnassus). A few years went by and Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo attempted to return to Spain but they were captured and enslaved by Barbary pirates. Rodrigo was quickly ransomed but the family did not have enough money to also free Miguel. Cervantes was enslaved for five years in Algiers where he tried to escape at least four times. He was eventually set free and returned to Spain in 1580 when the second part of his life began.

After returning from captivity, his life quickly spiraled into a series of failures and disappointments. He was impoverished. He focused on writing but his attempts at being a dramatist were mostly unsuccessful. He fell in love with a married woman and had an illegitimate daughter. He dedicated a pastoral romance, La Galatea, to her but it was not particularly financially successful. Cervantes briefly worked as an intelligence agent in North Africa. He then married a young woman, Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, who was between 15 and 18 years old. Conventionally it was thought not to be a happy marriage as they seem to have spent little time together and had no children. In the 1580s he becomes involved as an administrator to the crown. He applied for a post in the New World but was rejected so he became a traveling tax collector. He was jailed at least twice for alleged ‘irregularities’ in his financial accounting.

In his later years, Cervantes lived in Seville and then Madrid. He completed Part I of Don Quixote (“El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”) in 1605 and it was wildly successful. He finally achieved financial security under the patronage of the Count of Lemos. Part II of Don Quixote was completed 10 years later in 1615 shortly before his death. It was released in part as a response to a false sequel that was published. Cervantes used it as an opportunity to further break with the formal rules of classical literature (for example some of the characters in the novel have, in fact, read the first part of Don Quixote). He joined the Third Order of Franciscans in 1613 shortly before he died -a common act for 17th century Spaniards to be assured of entry to heaven. He published a variety of short stories collected as Novelas ejemplares modeled on the form of the Italian novella (some of these stories appeared in the first part of Don Quixote though they were not yet published). He died on April 22, 1616 -one day before William Shakespeare. Cervantes may have been a diabetic as evidenced by his reported intense desire for water at the end of his life (diabetes was untreatable at the time). His remains were lost in the 1670s but were rediscovered and reburied in a formal ceremony in 2015.

Cervantes had lived through the Siglio Oro of Spain -an age of Spanish imperial ambitions in the New World in both North and South America. It saw a new aristocracy emerge and ongoing conflicts between the old and new religions. In 1588 the failure of the Spanish Armada against England coupled with the arrival of the plague forced a mood shift. Of the six major writers come forth during this epoch, Miguel de Cervantes stands alone as the champion of the moderns.

For these notes I used Edith Grossman’s introductory notes to her seminal translation of Don Quixote, and Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization.

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