Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is one of the most famous authors ever to grace our fair orb. His masterpiece, Don Quixote, should place in any respectable list of the greatest novels written, is the first modern European novel (if you believe Wikipedia) and is to the Spanish language what Shakespeare is to English. The image of the title character waging war on windmills is an enduring one and the word quixotic has entered our lexicon, though I challenge you to use in in everyday life. The book has inspired artwork, a ballet, musicals, numerous films and the Donkey Hodie puppet character from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Cervantes’ work is renowned, but the exploits of his life have gone mostly untold outside of Spain. This post is about his life, not his life’s work.
Cervantes was born in 1547, near Madrid, in the city of Alcalá de Henares, a place who’s other claim to fame is a large population of storks. Depending on the account you read, his father was or was not a deaf barber-surgeon. In those times, barbers would perform such vital elements of surgery as bloodletting, while also carrying out enemas. The family was poor, and young Miguel was one of seven children. As to his formal education, some speculate he spent time at university, but most Cervantists take the view that he was relatively uneducated.
Cervantes struck out on his own to seek his fortune, winding up in Rome in the services of a cardinal before joining the military. He fought in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 under the command of Don John of Austria, the bastard son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The battle saw the Holy League, formed by such epically named combatants as the Spanish Empire, the Papal States, the Knights of Malta, the Trade Republics of Genoa and Venice and various other Italian duchies, defeat the Ottoman Empire in a naval battle for control over the Mediterranean Sea. The European historical record sees the battle as a defining moment, stemming the tide of Turkish expansion westward. Cervantes received commendations from Don John himself for his valor in battle. He was shot three times, twice in the chest, while the third rendered his left arm useless for the rest of his life.
After 6 months in hospital recovering, Cervantes resumed his naval career. He traveled to Genoa, Tunis and Corfu among other places before catching a galley home in 1575. Alas, a homecoming was not in the cards for our hero. Algerian pirates attacked the ship off of the Catalan coast and he, along with his brother Rodrigo, were sold into slavery. Five years and multiple failed escape attempts passed before he would gain his freedom after his parents, with the help of the Trinitarian Order (a holy order whose founding purpose was to secure the release of christians held captive by non-christians), were able to ransom him.
Now home in Madrid, maimed and with no means of earning a living, Cervantes began to write. He wrote up to 40 plays but few survive. Around this time he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, a younger woman, the daughter of a farmer. He also had a child from a previous relationship though little is known of any of these women. He was also supporting his mother and his sisters at this time and took up work as a purchaser for the Spanish Armada. He also took a post as a tax collector. He was twice imprisoned for irregularities in his bookkeeping. Legend has it that he either dreamt up the concept or, alternately, began Don Quixote while in prison in Sevilla.
Don Quixote was published in 1605, and despite its never-ceasing run as a top-selling novel, did not guide Cervantes to fortune. He was payed a fee by the publisher upon its completion, but received no further royalties (they hadn’t been invented) from his magnum opus. He did, however, gain notoriety both in his home and abroad.
Cervantes published various other pieces, but continued to battle poverty until the end. His health began to fail him. Then, out of the blue, a bootleg sequel was released by an Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. The true identity of the pseudonymous author has never been determined, but the counterfeit work is not well regarded. Cervantes got into high gear on the true sequel, publishing it shortly afterward, even taking jabs at the fake.
Cervantes died on April 23, 1616, the same day as William Shakespeare. UNESCO has named the date International Day of the Book. In all actuality, they died on different days due to Spain and England’s use of different calendars. He was buried in the nearby Trinitarian convent, but when the order moved locations and took their bones with them, his remains were lost to history forever. It’s an ignoble end for one of Europe’s greatest writers, but considering the turmoil of his life, a fitting end to the story.
His legacy is immense, his influence far-reaching. There are no known true portraits of Cervantes, though his image has been created and replicated endlessly. A more lasting testament to the man are the hordes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza statues that dot the landscape of his homeland and abroad, timeless as the pages they grace.
- Terry Gilliam makes new attempt to complete “Don Quixote” (panarmenian.net)
- The Ingenious Gentleman M. Cervantes Saavedra,…”The Haves and The Have-nots” (thegreyparade.wordpress.com)