Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra:

[1547 - 1616]:

A Brief Account of the Life of an Hidalgo

Stephen A. Onisko
(February 25, 1999)


[1547- 1616]
"the pen is the tongue of the mind" [Great Books, 252]

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in September, 1547, the day of San Miguel (Saint Michael), from which his Christian name was taken (as was the custom of the day). He was the fourth of seven children fathered by a poor doctor who lived in the rural village of Alcala de Honares located 20 miles outside the small town of Madrid. His father, like many others, struggled to earn a living. Cervantes aspired to rise above his lowly station, but he would never succeed. The events which surrounded his life, and indeed those that preceded his birth, cast a shadow from which he never escaped. During his lifetime, Cervantes did not achieve the riches he desired nor the honor to which he has since been accorded. Today, however, he is best remembered for his famous literary work El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (*), and as the creator of the modern novel form. This paper looks into the events which surrounded his life and may have influenced his literary works.

The Golden Age of Spain

"Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of Golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words, 'mine' and 'thine'."[Great Books, 27].

Spain could not have found a more devout Catholic successor to Ferdinand than Carlos I as he took the Crown in 1516. Carlos was born to Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabela; and Philip, son of Maximillian Habsburg, a member of the famous and influential family of Habsburg's from Germany. At first he was little more than a foreigner, hardly able to speak the Spanish language, and he was barely tolerated by the proud Castilian nobility. However, this changed over time as Carlos proved his zealous faith and guided Spain through the next 40 years, a period of time; which, contiguous with the previous reign of Ferdinand and Isabel and afterwards by his son Philip II, is referred to the Golden Age of Spain.

In 1519 Carlos was elected Charles V (the name by which he is best known) Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire which included the Iberian Peninsula, Southern Italy, Burgundy, Netherlands, Germany and the Spanish Americas. In addition Charles was the standard bearer for the Catholic church and believed he could bring Europe under one banner, one faith. However, it was only a dream. Even though Charles had inherited the "wealth of resources that no other European power could match" (Kennedy 43) it was not enough. There were intractable issues which would ­in the end­ bring the noble Habsburg empire and Spanish influence forever to a close. One reason was the continued encroachment of the Ottoman Turks into Europe. Ever since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks, Christendom was on notice that, although somewhat removed, they may not be safe from the feared Muslims. In fact Suleyman, The Magnificent, one of the most successful leaders of the Ottoman Empire, became Sultan in 1520 one year after Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor. For the next 46 years Christian Europe watched in alarm as the Turks, under Suleyman, marched into the heart of eastern Europe and threatened coastal cities and trade routes along the European Mediterranean

Charles V also faced a continual rivalry with France. Ever since Charles had bested Francis I, the King of France, for claim as the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis had repeatedly instigated military hostilities against the Habsburg empire, not only on the borders of Burgundy, the Netherlands and Spain, but in Italy as well. This rivalry put heavy pressure on the resources of both countries.

There were other issues which required constant military attention and put demands on the Habsburg treasury. One pressing matter was the emergence of the Protestant religious movement, heretics whose continued insurrections threatened the holy church especially in northern Europe. Finally there were the resources needed to colonize and maintain the newly discovered lands in the Americas. However, these territories were more of a benefit than a burden because they shipped gold, silver and other valuable commodities into Spain. However, the financial reality of the Habsburg empire was such that "until the flow of American silver brought massive additional revenues to the Spanish crown (roughly from the 1560's to the late 1630's), the Habsburg war effort principally rested upon the backs of the Castilian peasants and merchants; and even at its height, the royal income from sources in the New World was only about one-quarter to one-third of that derived from Castile and its six million inhabitants" (Kennedy 53).

Many of the issues that befell the Habsburg Empire were not of its own doing. One thoughtful historian commented that the "Habsburg rulers were more provoked than provoking" (Kennedy 35). The empire was beset by threats from every direction and in order to maintain its vast territories a large military force was required along with huge amounts of funds to sustain it. "In consequence, the Habsburgs were involved in an almost continual struggle for solvency" (Kennedy 46). By the time Charles abdicated the throne to enter the Yuste monastery in Extremadura in 1555, the Spanish treasury was deeply in debt.

In 1556 Philip II succeeded his father Charles V to the Habsburg throne which included Spain, the Netherlands, Burgundy and Southern Italy. Ferdinand I (Charles' half brother) took over the remainder of the Holy Roman Empire which consisted mainly of the troublesome German fiefdoms and principalities. Philip II, later called "The Most Catholic King", like his father before him, saw his role as defender of the Catholic faith. Unfortunately it was this continued religious zealotry and confrontation with the Protestant movement that, coupled with the ongoing hostilities against France and the Ottoman Turks drew heavily on the manpower and treasury of Spain. These demands fell mainly on those most directly under the control of the Habsburg empire, the Castillians of Spain. "Nowhere did the unprivileged suffer more than in Spain, where the Castilian peasantry, the backbone of Philip II's great empire, became the most heavily taxed people of Europe" (Kagan, 446-447). This was the world in which Cervantes spent his years and the Spain about which he would later write with satire and irony about the famous adventures of the knight errant Don Quixote.

A Nobel Quest

"[A]nd rumors were abroad of the vast warlike preparations which were being made , all which stirred my heart an filled me with a longing to take part in the campaign which was expected." [Great Books, 149].

Not much is know about the early life of Cervantes except that he did receive an education at a municipal school in Madrid and was a voracious reader. It was at this time that he wrote and published his first literary work, a poem on the death of Isabel de Valois, the young wife of King Philip II (King of Spain). It is believed that Cervantes wanted to be recognized and revered as a poet. This early success may have instilled in him that life long desire.

In 1569, through some unknown influence, he obtained a position with a Cardinal in Naples. That Cervantes would avail himself of opportunities through the Catholic church was common practice in Spain. There were essentially only two career avenues available to the most educated Spaniards; the Church or the military. The Church was always accesible to Spaniards and a strong bond had been forged between them during the 700 years of struggle against the Moors, the reconquista. The historian La Souchère suggests that Christianity, as a result of the long struggle, was so strongly felt that Spaniards viewed any Christian as a brother regardless of their station in life (83). That sentiment existed between King and peasant as well, with the result that it was not uncommon for a young man of good Catholic standing to use the Church to further himself in life.

In 1571 Cervantes, then in his early twenties and still in Naples, abruptly gave up his post and joined the army. Pope Pius V, after repeated entreaties from the Venetians, had called for and received aid from Philip II to amass a naval armada against the Ottoman Turks. Under the command of Don Juan de Austria the fleet set sail from Naples with young Cervantes aboard as a soldier. On October 7th they engaged the Turkish fleet near the island of Lepanto at the entrance to the Corinth Sea in Greece. They were victorious in what is today considered the largest naval engagement of the 16th Century. Although the strategic effects of that victory were negligible its moral effects were immense. "It confirmed to the Spaniard that they indeed had a chosen role as the champions of Christendom and explains their continued willingness to support their King's religious and imperial policies, even in the face of ruinous costs and mounting disasters" (Encyclopædia Brittanica, 1998).

Those who fought in that battle were recoginzed and honored by their countrymen. Cervantes had fought bravely and received three wounds, one of which caused the permanent loss of use in his left hand. He carried that wound proudly and when asked about it he would reply "Y para gloria de la mano derecha" (*) (Centeno 111). After five more years of service and a letter of commendation written by Don Juan of Austria, Cervantes set sail for Spain. With his honor, bravery, and loyalty intact, he was certain of a bright future. Unfortunately he would not arrive in Spain for another five years.

Spain In Decline

"I'm off to the wars
For the want of pence
Oh, Had I but money
I'd show more sense."
[Great Books, 279]

Spain fell into decline for many reasons. "Spanish manpower and treasure were squandered by Charles V and Philip II to fight religious wars against the Protestants, the recurring campaigns against the formidable Turks, and the dynastic struggles against rival royal houses, especially the French" (Stavrianos 102). Heavy debt coupled with the massive imports of silver arriving from the New World caused rampant inflation to engulf Spain. "For the period between 1560 to 1613, the chronicler Garcilasco noted an increase in inflation at a ration of 1 to 5. A pair of shoes that cost one Real in 1560 cost 5 Reals in 1613" (La Souchere 70). Carefully stored family fortunes were eaten away. Purchasing power diminished and along with it any hopes of a developing industry in Spain. The result was that Spain could not produce and compete in foreign markets where labor and wages were cheap. It exported almost exclusively raw materials such as wool and iron ore and received back their own finished wool and metal products. In his book Stavrianos suggests that the Iberians had neither economic strength, dynamism nor the ships needed for imperial trade, such that whatever industrial growth there was in Spain, it stopped in 1560. He also notes "It is ironic that the net effect of Spanish overseas enterprise was to fuel the booming capitalist economy of Northwestern Europe" (105). The overall result was that Spain exported not only its wealth, but its jobs as well.

The world which surrounded Spain was changing, but she did not change. The Catholic church, its influence well entrenched in Spanish society, did not help matters either. "The triumph of the cristiano viejo (*) implied a certain contempt for money-making, even for the production of goods, and a certain attraction to the caste system" (Vilar, 27) Also there were inequities. The historian Stavrianos points out that the Spanish nobility and the church, although they represented less than two per cent of the population of Castile, owned almost 95 percent of the land, leaving the bulk of the population ­the peasants­ landless. There was no middle class in the real sense of the term. The aristocrats held all the advantages; honors, exemption from taxation and territorial wealth which in Spain was more secure than any commercial or industrial efforts. With this dominant disposition whatever little economic effort had developed in the first half of the sixteenth century died in the second half (104). Inflation, foreign competition and exported jobs caused many Spaniards to desert any mercantile jobs and enter into the army, church, government bureaucracy, or if able, and with permission from the crown, to seek their fortune in the Americas. As a result, poverty spread and Castilian cities began to decay.

A new class of Spaniard appeared on the scene. Out of the many unemployed beggars, starving bohemians useless bureaucrats, pensioners, and counterfeit and struggling hidalgos, there emerged a new type of hero, the pícaro (*). He was a rascal, a scoundrel, a rogue. The pícaro did not obtain his fortune through hard work, but through the crafty use of his wits. To him the values of the hidalgo were a subject of ridicule. "To live well with the least effort was henceforth the motto of all social classes"(La Souchère 68). Like the pícaro the Spaniard's goal was to amass a fortune, by whatever means, and then to buy title to land sold by the crown. Afterwards he would live the life of luxury and ease without paying taxes. This was the Spain to which Cervantes would return and spend his remaining years.

The Long Journey

"those (plays) which are presented now-a-days are mirrors of nonsense, models of folly, and images of lewdness." [Great Books, 186]

Unfortunately for Cervantes the defeat of the Turkish fleet did not guarantee his safe passage to Spain. The Corsairs still sailed the Mediterranean These pirates had no loyalty to any power. They extracted booty from every possible source within their range, by attacks on small coastal communities and unescorted ships at sea. They sold their captives as slaves. The ship on which Cervantes sailed was captured by a Greek Corsair. He, along with the others, were taken to Algiers as hostages to be sold into slavery or ransomed for gold. Because Cervantes carried the letter of commendation from his superior, the pirates thought that he would be worthy of a high ransom. He was held as a prisoner for 5 years before his ransom was finally paid and he was freed.

One could only imagine the thoughts which ran through Cervantes mind when he finally returned home after nearly 12 years. He was 33 years old and the year was 1580. The Spain to which he returned certainly must have appeared different to him, if for no other reason than that his captivity and adventures in strange lands would have caused him to view his homeland differently. But it was also a Spain in steep decline. A crumbling Spain, overburdened by taxes caused by military excesses and inflation brought about by the inflow on huge amounts of gold of silver from the Americas. Cervantes soon found that his unblemished military service was all but forgotten and finding decent employment in a floundering economy was next to impossible. For the next several years he was chronically short of money and in constant search of gainful employment. He relentlessly pursued the Spanish court with his letter of recommendation from Don Juan de Austria, but he only found meaningless, low paying, bureaucratic work. He was only one of many hidalgos who sought favors from the court. During this time he turned his hand to writing poetry, his first love since his younger school days, but his efforts were without success. Next he started writing plays for the Spanish theater, which at that time was showing a vitality, but Cervantes only had mixed success. Lope de Vega was the most successful playwright of the day and Cervantes' works were inadequate and old fashioned by comparison. Cervantes could not compete with this new tradition of drama and comedy. Of the thirty plays he claimed to have written, only two were produced, but none were successful. Meanwhile, "Lope de Vega, the author of an incredible number of epics, romances, novels, lyrics and plays, pandered to popular Spanish tastes and remained content to meet the contemporary demand for entertainment rather that venturing on profound and lasting works, however, and almost single handedly created the Spanish national theater" (Kagan, 514-515). Cervantes later claimed that his was the only true form of the playwright's art, yet it was Lope de Vega who received all the recognition (*).

Although Cervantes had some success with short stories, by 1587, burdened with debt and a need to support a family (he had married in 1585) he took work as a purchasing agent for the government. He gathered provisions for the Spanish Armada; Philip II's ill conceived attempt to invade England and bring it back into the Catholic fold.

The next 10 years must have been the lowest point in Cervantes life as he was forced to take on other low paying bureaucratic jobs. At times he traveled the countryside as a tax collector, a job that was demeaning but not without adventure. For example, he was bodily thrown out of several villages; so hated were tax collectors by the peasants. Once, he was excommunicated by the church for taking their grain without their permission, but later he was reinstated. He was even thrown into prison on at least three occasions, once in Códorba and twice in Seville, accused of job malfeasance. It was during one of these incarcerations, in 1597, that he conceived the idea of Don Quixote. Remarkably, when he did so, he was 50 years of age with no prospects in sight. He was unhappy with his marriage, his family life, and his demeaning line of work. His earlier attempts to make a living as a writer had met with mixed results, in fact he had not published anything since 1585.

If Cervantes' personal life was foundering, the Spanish kingdom was even worse. In 1598 King Philip II died and with him went the Golden Age of Spain. The Spanish empire was no longer considered invincible, it was being whittled away by the Dutch, French and English. The Spanish treasury was bankrupt. "The armed forces were out of date; the government was inefficient; and the commercial class was weak in the midst of a suppressed peasantry, a luxury-loving nobility, and an oversupply of priests and monks. Spain continued to play the role of a great power, but her appearances were deceiving" (Duiker, 546). Never again did Spain enjoy the imperial grandeur it had once known.

"A Soldier, A Gentleman, and Poor"

"[A]nd yet you should fall into such delusion so great and a folly so
manifest as to try to make
yourself out vigorous when you are old, strong when you are sickly, able to put straight what is
crooked when you yourself are bent by age, and, above all, a caballero
when you are not one;
though gentlefolk may be so, poor men are nothing of the kind."
[Great Books, 221]

Cervantes published part I of "El ingenisoso hidlago Don Quixote de la Mancha" in February 1605, he was 58 years old and by all accounts impoverished and unsuccessful. With self-deprecating humor he wrote in the forward of his new novel "but what, then, could this sterile ill-tilled wit of mine beget but the story of a dry, shriveled, whimsical offspring, full of thoughts of all sorts and such as never came into any other imagination" (Great Books, xi). It appears that he had given in to the reality of his life with some disappointment, resigned to ignominy and a wasted life. However, the book was an immediate success, it had struck a chord in the heart of the Spaniard. Two additional printings were made that same year. Ironically, he had previously sold his publication rights to Francisco de Robles, a publisher, for an unknown sum.

Whatever the financial reward of his book none of it found its way into Cervantes' pocket because in the forward of Part II, published ten years later he writes "I know well what the temptations of the devil are, and that one of the greatest is putting into a man's head that he can write and print a book by which he will get as much fame as money, and as much money as fame; and to prove it....." (Great Books, 203-204). Cervantes goes on to write two fictitious tales about a madman and a dog, the gist of which is that it is very difficult to write a book, but even more difficult to gain fame and fortune from such labor. However, he had earned some recognition and respect although he would never know to what high level of praise later generations would venerate him. "Increasingly though, he has come to be regarded as a cunning, brilliant old man who, rather than acquiesce to lifeless existence in his retirement, decides to tranform his own reality by fictionalizing his past" (Person, 126).

In 1615 Cervants was seen by members of the French Embassy who were amazed at his appearance and condition, to which they remarked with some reverence; "old soldier, a gentleman, and poor" (Great Books, vi). Cervantes died the following year supposedly on the same day as William Shakespeare, April 23, 1616.


"Then I say," said Don Quixote, "the author of my history was no sage, but some ignorant chatterer, who, in a haphazard and heedless way, set about writing it." [Great Books, 214]

Cervantes was a keen observer of human nature. There is no doubt that his experiences and values are well represented in many of his literary works, but it is Don Quixote the clown-hero who best expresses Cervantes' thoughts and views on Spain. Cervantes wrapped his humorous satire around the popular images of the chivalrous values of the reconquista. Stories of Christian heroes and martyrs from that medieval period had created in Spain a set of values that served them well in their long struggle to remove the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, but as Cervantes so ironically pointed out in the many mishaps of the knight errant Don Quixote, these values were simply out of place in sixteenth Century Spain. Furthermore, it was these same aristocratic values which kept Spain out of the mainstream of the new emerging Europe.

By skillfully using the wandering adventures of a half mad, aged hidalgo, as his foil, Cervantes captured the imagination of his countrymen and brought them into his fantasy world. Perhaps no Spaniard wanted to return to the days in which chivalry and knighthood flourished, but they saw the irony and humor of a befuddled hidalgo trying to apply outmoded values to a world which no longer had use for them. Perhaps it was similar to the world in which they lived. A Spain in which the average Spaniard was heavily burdened by taxes and an estranged from his own country. "A eulogy of Madrid construed her nobility in this way‹all cities work for Madrid, but she works for no-one" (Viler, 46). This observation strongly suggests the bitterness and isolation that existed between the nobles in Madrid and the common people throughout the rest of Spain.

Don Quixote's adventures were allegories readily understood by the Spaniards. For example the story of how the conquistador Cortez had burned his ships in Mexico to demonstrate to his men an unfaltering commitment to an objective. That story was well known in Spain and represented the Spanish view of valor and commitmentñ[God, Gold and Glory]. La Souchère suggests that when a Spaniard embarks on a quest "he cannot accept failure, he must either conquer or die" (25). However, when Don Quixote, the befuddled modern conquistador attacks a windmill, which he mistakenly believes is a giant, and is bested, Don Quixote quickly blames a magician for clouding his mind. Laid on the ground in a crumpled heap at the foot of the windmill he said to Sancho Panza "[a magician] has turned these giants into mills in order to rob me of my glory of vanquishing them" (Great Books, page 19). Don Quixote, of course, did not lack courage but was bested by forces which he did not understand and he was completely powerless to defeat. A Castilian Spaniard of that day would have identified with Don Quixote, because in spite of his own efforts, his life was getting worse for reasons he did not understand. He was simply too far removed from the economic and political centers of power in Spain.

Cervantes also observed the changing social values of the Spaniards. He saw that honesty, character and honor for a just cause were ridiculed by the pícaros to whom dishonor, cheating and lying were accepted as long as one succeeds. He must have been bitter towards those whom he perceived to win by trickery and not by honest means. For example after the publication and success of Part I of "El ingenisoso hidlago Don Quixote de la Mancha" in 1605, Cervantes spent much of his time using his fame to dust off and publish his other literary works. However, it wasn't until 1614, when he was nearing the completion of Part II of his famous novel that there was published an imitation which used Don Quixote as its theme (actually there many others, but Cervantes focused on this one in particular). Since the counterfeit publication was common knowledge Cervantes wrote the following response in the preface of Part II of Don Quixote:

God bless me, gentle reader, how eagerly must thou be looking forward to this preface, expecting to find there retaliation, scolding and abuse against the author of the second Don Quixote--I mean him who was, they say, begotten at Tordesillas and born at Tarragon [a reference to the villanous author's name]. Well then, the truth is, I am not going to give thee that satisfaction; for, though injuries stir up in anger in humbler breasts, in mine the rule must admit of an exception. Thou wouldst have me call him ass, fool and malapert, but I have no such intention; let his offense be his punishment, with his bread let him eat it, and there is an end of it. (Great Books, 203).

There is little doubt that the chivalrous knight errant Don Quixote sprang full born from the mind and soul of Cervantes. The plagiarist was nothing more than a picáro who deserved only contempt.

The literary critic Person claims that that if Cervantes had not written Don Quixote he would have remained an obscure writer in world literature today (126). This assertion appears justified, because most of Cervantes' other works are nearly forgotten. His poetry, that for which he wanted to receive recognition, is today considered stale, lifeless and dull. Also, in spite of his odious remarks against the playwrights of his day, it was Cervantes who was out of step with his contemporaries (see footnote page 6). His contemporaries never took his literary works seriously. In fact even his novel about Don Quixote, after its initial success, was never raised to the heights of adulation that it receives today from authors and critics alike throughout the world. In one such tribute Henry Fielding, an English writer, in 1742 published his novel Joseph Andrews with a cover page that read: Written in the Imitation of The Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote. Person also points out that "from the seventeenth century onward [it] has progressively been regarded as more than comic entertainment, (but) an epic masterpiece" (Literary Criticism, 127). Cervantes had seen many changes in his long life. He went from a youth filled with hope and expectation to an old man, poor and largely unrewarded. Yet he never lost his wit (ingenioso) nor his imaginative mind. Perhaps, he longed for the glory of the knightly quest as did Don Quixote; and a return to the glory of the reconquista.

Today we look upon Don Quixote as the originator of the modern novel form. A form in which the actions, descriptions and events are all tied to one single character that the reader follows through from one situation to another. The main character is the focus of attention, the reason for the story. Therein lies the true genius of Cervantes. Although he was largely unrecognised in his own life time, he created a story so enduring and a character so endearing that his name is know throughout the world. Indeed, Cervantes is the reason for the story.

(*) The word hidalgo originates from "Hijos de algo" which means a son of somebody (of some importance). In the broad sense , hidalgo refers to any member with land holdings, no matter how significant, but not a titled noble. "But in the narrower sense hidaldgo is used to mean an impoverished gentleman." (La Souchère, 45). Cervantes' description of Don Quixote best fits this narrow view.. Furthermore the use of the word "ingenioso" means resourceful or witty. Cervantes probably used the term to mean resourceful. Thus, translated in full context, the title of the book is: "The Resourceful Gentleman Don Quixote from La Mancha"

(*)"And all the more glory for the right hand."

(*) The term means Old Christian and refers to Christian values from the time of the reconquista.

(*)The theme of the Pícaro was taken up in books and theater of the day. The first publication with a picaresque theme was written anonymously in 1554 "Lazarillo de Tormes". Cervantes himself includes a similar character in one his short stories "Rinconete y Certadillo" published in 1612. Similar works appeared in English such as Tom Jones (Fielding) and Mol Flanders (Defoe).

(*) If the reader wants an appreciation of Cervantes' feelings towards the theater, he should read his excoriating account of playwrights, actors, and audiences of his day. [Great Books Part I, Chapter 48]


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