Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s lifespan 29 September 1547 (assumed) – 22 April 1616. Cervantes was widely regarded as the greatest writer in Spanish language and one of world’s pre-eminent novelist. He is best known for his novel Don Quixote, a work often cited as both the first modern novel and one of the pinnacles of world literature.
Much of his life was spent in poverty and obscurity, many of its details are disputed or unknown, and the bulk of his surviving work was produced in the three years preceding his death. Despite this, his influence and literary contribution are reflected by the fact that Spanish is often referred to as ‘the language of Cervantes.’
In 1569, Cervantes was forced to leave Spain. He moved to Rome, where he worked in the household of a cardinal. In 1570, he enlisted in a Spanish Navy Infantry regiment, but was badly wounded in the Battle of Lepanto in October 1571. He served as a soldier until 1575, when he was captured by Barbary pirates. After five years in captivity, he was ransomed, and returned to Madrid.
His first significant novel, titled La Galatea, was published in 1585, yet he continued to work as a purchasing agent, and then later as a government tax collector. Part-1 of his famous novel Don Quixote was published in 1605 and Part-2 in 1615. His other works include the 12 Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels); a long poem, the Viaje del Parnaso (Journey toParnassus); and Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (Eight Playsand Eight Entr’actes). His work Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda), was published posthumously in 1616).
Despite his subsequent renown, much of Cervantes’ life is uncertain, including his name, background and what he looked like. Although he signed himself as Cerbantes, his printers used Cervantes, which became the common form. In later life, Cervantes used Saavedra, the name of a distant relative, rather than the more usual Cortinas, after his mother.
Another area of dispute is his religious background. In the 16th century, a significant minority of Spaniards had descended either from Moriscos, Muslims or Conversos, (Jews who converted to Catholicism) after expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. An estimated 20% of the Spanish population in the south fell into one of these categories, and it has been suggested that not only Cervantes’ father but also his mother may have been one of these New Christians.
It is generally accepted Miguel de Cervantes was born around 29 September 1547, in Alcala de Henares. He was the second son of barber-surgeon Rodrigo de Cervantes and his wife, Leonor de Cortinas. Rodrigo came from Cordoba, Andalusia, where his father Juan de Cervantes was an influential lawyer of Jewish heritage. As to his heritage on his mothers’ side, it is still subject of debate but a Jewish origin is also argued by numerous authors.
Cervantes’ siblings were Andrés (born 1543), Andrea (born 1544), Luisa (born 1546), Rodrigo (born 1550), Magdalena (born 1554) and Juan.
It is assumed Cervantes attended the Jesuit College in Seville. In the 19th century, a biographer discovered an arrest warrant for Miguel de Cervantes, dated 15 September 1569, who was charged with wounding Antonio de Sigura in a duel. Although disputed at the time, largely on the grounds such behaviour was unworthy of so great an author, it is now accepted as the most likely reason for Cervantes leaving Madrid. He eventually made his way to Rome, where he found a position in the household of Giulio Acquaviva, an Italian bishop who spent 1568 to 1569 in Madrid, and was appointed Cardinal in 1570. Later Cervantes went to Naples.
According to his own account, although suffering from malaria, Cervantes was given command of a 12-man skiff, small boats used for assaulting enemy galleys. In this assault Cervantes, received three separate wounds, two in the chest, and another that rendered his left arm useless. Although, he returned to service in July 1572, records show his chest wounds were still not completely healed in February 1573.
In early September 1575, Cervantes and Rodrigo left Naples in a galley. As they approached Barcelona on 26 September, their ship was captured by Ottoman corsairs (pirate ship), and the brothers were taken to Algiers, to be sold as slaves, or – as was the case of Cervantes and his brother – held for ransom, if this would be more lucrative than their sale as slaves.
Rodrigo was ransomed in 1577, but his family could not afford the fee for Cervantes, who was forced to remain in captivity. Turkish historian Rasih Nuri İleri found evidence suggesting Cervantes worked on the construction of the Kilic Ali Pasha Complex, which means he spent at least part of his captivity in Istambul.
By 1580, Spain was occupied integrating Portugal, and suppressing the Dutch Revolt, while the Ottomans were at war with Persia. The two sides agreed a truce, leading to an improvement of relations. After almost five years, and four escape attempts, in 1580 Cervantes was set free by the Trinitarians, a religious charity that specialised in ransoming Christian captives, and Cervantes returned to Madrid.
While Cervantes was in captivity, both Don John and the Duke of Sessa died, depriving him of two potential patrons, while the Spanish economy was in dire straits. This made finding employment difficult other than a period in 1581 to 1582, when he was employed as an intelligence agent in North Africa, little is known of his movements prior to 1584.
In April of that year, Cervantes visited Esquivias a municipality in Spain, to help arrange the affairs of his recently deceased friend and minor poet, Pedro Lainez. Here he met Catalina de Salazar y Palacios (1566–1626), eldest daughter of the widowed Catalina de Palacios. Catalina’s husband died leaving only debts, but the Catalina owned some land of her own. This may be why in December 1584, Cervantes married her daughter, then between 15 and 18 years old. The first use of the name Cervantes Saavedra appears in 1586, on documents related to his marriage.
Shortly before this, Cervantes’ illegitimate daughter Isabel was born in November. Her mother, Ana Franca, was the wife of a Madrid inn keeper. They apparently concealed it from her husband, but Cervantes did acknowledge the paternity. When Ana Franca died in 1598, he asked his sister Magdalena to take care of her daughter.
In 1587, Cervantes was appointed as a government purchasing agent, then he became a tax collector in 1592. Purchases were subject to price fluctuations, which could go either way. So he was briefly jailed several times for ‘irregularities,’ but quickly released.
From 1596 to 1600, he lived primarily in Seville a city in Spain, then returned to Madrid in 1606, where he remained for the rest of his life. In later years, he received some financial support from the Count of Lemos.
It is generally accepted Cervantes died on 22 April 1616 In accordance to his will, Cervantes was buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, in central Madrid. But his remains went missing when moved during rebuilding work at the convent in 1673, and in 2014. Historian Fernando de Prado launched a project to rediscover them.
In January 2015, Francisco Etxeberria, the forensic anthropologist leading the search, reported the discovery of caskets containing bone fragments, and part of a board, with the letters ‘M.C.’ Based on evidence of injuries suffered at Lepanto, on 17 March 2015 they were confirmed as belonging to Cervantes along with his wife and others. They were formally reburied at a public ceremony in June 2015.
Cervantes claims to have written over 20 plays, such as El trato de Argel, based on his experiences in captivity. In 1585, he published La Galatea, a conventional Pastoral romance that received little contemporary notice, despite promising to write a sequel, he never did so.
Aside from these, and some poems, by 1605, Cervantes had not been published for 20 years. In Don Quixote, he challenged a form of literature that had been a favourite for more than a century, explicitly stating his purpose was to undermine ‘vain and empty’ chivalric romances. His portrayal of real life, and use of everyday speech in a literary context was considered innovative, and proved instantly popular. First published in January 1605, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza featured in masquerades held to celebrate the birth of Philip IV on 8 April.
Cervantes finally achieved a degree of financial security, when Don Quixote’s popularity led to demands for a sequel. In the foreword to his 1613 work, Novelas ejemplares, dedicated to his patron, the Count of Lemos, Cervantes promises to produce one, but was pre-empted by an unauthorised version published in 1614, published under the name Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. It is possible this delay was deliberate, to ensure support from his publisher and reading public; Cervantes finally produced the second part of Don Quixote in 1615.
The two parts of Don Quixote are different in focus, but similar in their clarity of prose, and realism; the first was more comic, and had greater popular appeal. The second part is often considered more sophisticated and complex, with a greater depth of characterisation and philosophical insight.
In addition to this, Cervantes produced a series of works between 1613 and his death in 1616. They include a collection of tales titled Exemplary Novels, similar in style to picaresque novels like Lazarillo de Tormes. This was followed by Viaje del Parnaso, or Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, and Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, completed just before his death, and published posthumously in January 1617.
Cervantes was rediscovered by English writers in the mid-18th century. Literary editor John Bowle argued Cervantes was as significant as any of the Greek and Roman authors, and published an annotated edition in 1781. Now viewed as a significant work, but at the time it proved a failure. Novel Don Quixote has been translated into all major languages, in 700 editions. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes suggested Cervantes and his contemporary William Shakespeare form part of a narrative tradition, which includes Homer, Dante, Defoe, Dickens, Balzac, and Joyce.
Sigmund Freud claimed he learnt Spanish to read Cervantes in the original. He particularly admired The Dialogue of the Dogs (El coloquio de los perros), from Exemplary Tales. Two dogs, Cipión and Berganza, share their stories; as one talks, the other listens, occasionally making comments. From 1871 to 1881, Freud and his close friend, Eduard Silberstein, wrote letters to each other, using the pennames Cipión and Berganza.
The tricentennial of Don Quixote‘s publication in 1905 was marked with celebrations in Spain. The 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, saw the production of Cervantina, a celebration of his plays by the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico in Madrid. The Miguel de Cervantes virtual library, the largest digital archive of Spanish-language historical and literary works in the world, is named after the author.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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