Today is widely assumed to be the birthday (1547) of Miguel Cervantes, or Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, who was born in Alcalá de Henares, a Castilian city about 35 kilometers (22 mi) northeast ofMadrid, probably on 29 September. The probable date of his birth was determined from records in the church register, given the tradition of naming a child after the feast day of his birth. He was baptized in Alcalá de Henares on 9 October 1547 at the parish church of Santa María la Mayor. The register of baptisms records the following:
On Sunday, the ninth day of the month of October, the year of our Lord one thousand five hundred forty and seven, Miguel, son of Rodrigo Cervantes and his wife Leonor, was baptized; his godfathers were Juan Pardo; he was baptized by the Reverend Bachelor Bartolomé Serrano, Priest of Our Lady. Witnesses, Baltasar Vázquez, Sexton, and I, who baptized him and signed this in my name. Bachelor Serrano.
Miguel at birth was not surnamed Cervantes Saavedra. He adopted the “Saavedra” name as an adult. By Spanish naming conventions his second surname was from his maternal line.
Miguel’s father, Rodrigo, was a barber-surgeon from Córdoba, who set bones, performed bloodlettings, and attended “lesser medical needs.” At that time, it was common for barbers to do surgery, as well. His paternal grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, was an influential lawyer who held several administrative positions. His uncle was mayor of Cabra for many years.
His mother, Leonor de Cortinas, was a native of Arganda del Rey and the third daughter of a nobleman, who lost his fortune and so sold his daughter into matrimony in 1543. This led to a very awkward marriage and several affairs by Rodrigo. Leonor died on 19 October 1593.
Little is known of Cervantes’ early years. It seems he spent much of his childhood moving from town to town with his family. During this time, he met a young barmaid named Josefina Catalina de Parez. The couple fell madly in love and plotted to run away together. Her father discovered their plans and forbade Josefina from ever seeing Cervantes again, perhaps because of the young man’s poor prospects of ever rising from poverty—Miguel’s own father was embargoed for debt. The court records of the proceedings show a very poor household. While some of his biographers argue that he studied at the University of Salamanca, there is no solid evidence for supposing that he did so. There has also been speculation also that Cervantes studied with the Jesuits in Córdoba or Seville.
The reasons that forced Cervantes to leave Spain remain uncertain. Whether he was a “student” of the same name, a “sword-wielding fugitive from justice”, or fleeing from a royal warrant of arrest, for having wounded a certain Antonio de Sigura in a duel, is unclear. Like many young Spanish men who wanted to further their careers, Cervantes left for Italy: in Rome he focused his attention on Renaissance art, architecture, and poetry and knowledge of Italian literature is discernible in his work.
By 1570, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in a regiment of the Spanish Navy Marines, Infantería de Marina, stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service. In September 1571 Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the galley fleet of the Holy League (a coalition of Pope Pius V, Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights Hospitaller based in Malta, and others, under the command of Philip II of Spain’s illegitimate half brother, John of Austria) that defeated the Ottoman fleet on October 7 in the Battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras. Though taken down with fever, Cervantes refused to stay below, and asked to be allowed to take part in the battle, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than keep under cover. He fought on board a vessel, and received three gunshot wounds – two in the chest and one which rendered his left arm useless. In Journey to Parnassus he wrote that he “had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right” (he was thinking of the success of the first part of Don Quixote). Cervantes looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride: he believed he had taken part in an event that shaped the course of European history.
After the Battle of Lepanto, Cervantes remained in hospital in Messina, Italy, for about six months, before his wounds were sufficiently healed to allow his joining the colors again. From 1572 to 1575, based mainly in Naples, he continued his soldier’s life: he participated in expeditions to Corfu and Navarino, and saw the fall of Tunis and La Goulette to the Turks in 1574.
On September 6 or 7, 1575 Cervantes set sail on the galley Sol from Naples to Barcelona, with letters of commendation to the king from the Duke of Sessa. On the morning of September 26, as the Sol approached the Catalan coast, it was attacked by Ottoman pirates and he was taken to Algiers, which had become one of the main and most cosmopolitan cities of the Ottoman Empire, and was kept here in captivity between the years of 1575 and 1580. After five years spent as a slave in Algiers, and four unsuccessful escape attempts, he was ransomed by his parents and the Trinitarians and returned to his family in Madrid. Not surprisingly, this traumatic period of Cervantes’ life supplied subject matter for several of his literary works, notably the captive’s tale in Don Quixote and the two plays set in Algiers – El trato de Argel (Life in Algiers) and Los baños de Argel (The Dungeons of Algiers) – as well as episodes in a number of other writings, although never in straight autobiographical form.
Cervantes led a middle-class life after his return to Spain. Like almost all authors of his day, he was unable to support himself through his writings. Two periods of his life that are very well documented are his years of work in Andalucía as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy (i.e., the King). This led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville after a banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds went bankrupt. (Since Cervantes says that Don Quixote was “engendered” in a prison, that is presumably a reference to this episode.) Also he worked as a tax collector, traveling from town to town collecting back taxes due the crown. He applied unsuccessfully for “one of four vacant positions in the New World”, one of them as an accountant for the port of Cartagena.
At the time he was living in Valladolid, then briefly the capital (1601–1606), and finishing Don Quixote Part One, he was presumably working in the banking industry, or a related occupation where his accounting skills could be put to use. He was turned down for a position as secretary to Pedro Fernández de Castro y Andrade, the Count of Lemos, although he did receive some type of pension from him, which permitted him to write full-time during his final years (about 1610 to 1616). His last known written words – the dedication to Persiles y Sigismunda – were written, he tells us, after having received Extreme Unction. He died in 1616 of type II diabetes. His burial place in Madrid was reportedly rediscovered in March 2015, but his unpublished manuscripts were mostly lost.
While April 23, 1616 was recorded as the date of his death in some references, and is the date on which his death is widely commemorated (along with that of William Shakespeare), Cervantes in fact died in Madrid the previous day, April 22. He was buried on 23 April. The cause of his death, according to Antonio López Alonso, a modern physician who has examined the surviving documentation, was type-2 diabetes, a result of a cirrhosis of the liver.
In accordance with Cervantes’ will, he was buried in the neighboring Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, in central Madrid. His bones went missing in 1673 when building work was done at the convent, and were known to have been taken to a different convent and returned later. A project promoted and led by Fernando de Prado began in 2014 to rediscover his remains.
In January 2015, it was reported that researchers searching for Cervantes’ remains had found part of a casket bearing his initials, MC, at the convent. Francisco Etxeberria, the forensic anthropologist leading the search, said: “Remains of caskets were found, wood, rocks, some bone fragments, and indeed one of the fragments of a board of one of the caskets had the letters ‘M.C.’ formed in tacks.” The first significant search for Cervantes’ remains had been launched in May 2014 and had involved the use of infrared cameras, 3D scanners and ground-penetrating radar. The team had identified 33 alcoves where bones could be stored.
On 17 March 2015, it was reported that Cervantes’ remains had been discovered, along with those of his wife and others, at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians. Through documentary research, archaeologists stated that they had identified the remains as those of Cervantes. Clues from Cervantes’ life, such as the loss of the use of his left hand at age 24 and the fact that he had taken at least one bullet to the chest, were hoped to help in the identification. Historian Fernando de Prado had spent more than four years trying to find funding before Madrid City Council had agreed to pay and DNA testing was carried out to confirm the findings.
On 11 June 2015, Cervantes was given a formal burial at a Madrid convent, containing a monument holding bone fragments that were believed to have been the author’s.
I don’t feel the need to give a fulsome appraisal of Don Quixote. You’ve either read it or you haven’t. At the very least you know that it is considered a great classic of literature and probably know the famous bits. In Spanish-speaking schools it’s required reading. For Latin Americans it’s tough work because it’s in a dialect that is alien, let alone being old-fashioned Spanish. I put it in the pile of long rambling tales from long ago, such as Moby Dick, and Robinson Crusoe, that clearly have a solid, powerful core, but are desperately in need of a ruthless editor.
Although burlesque on the surface, the novel, especially in its second half, has served as an important thematic source not only in literature but also in much of art and music, inspiring works by Pablo Picasso and Richard Strauss. The contrasts between the tall, thin, fancy-struck and idealistic Quixote and the fat, squat, world-weary Panza is a motif echoed ever since the book’s publication, and Don Quixote’s imaginings are the butt of outrageous and cruel practical jokes in the novel.
Even faithful and simple Sancho is forced to deceive him at certain points. The novel is considered a satire of orthodoxy, veracity and even nationalism. In exploring the individualism of his characters, Cervantes helped move beyond the narrow literary conventions of the chivalric romance literature that he spoofed, which consists of straightforward retelling of a series of acts that redound to the knightly virtues of the hero. The character of Don Quixote became so well known in its time that the word quixotic was quickly adopted by many languages. Characters such as Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’s steed, Rocinante, are emblems of Western literary culture. The phrase “tilting at windmills” to describe an act of attacking imaginary enemies, derives from an iconic scene in the book.
It stands in a unique position between medieval chivalric romance and the modern novel. The former consist of disconnected stories featuring the same characters and settings with little exploration of the inner life of even the main character. The latter are usually focused on the psychological evolution of their characters. In Part I, Quixote imposes himself on his environment. By Part II, people know about him through “having read his adventures,” and so he needs to do less to maintain his image. By his deathbed, he has regained his sanity, and is once more “Alonso Quixano the Good.”
Finding a recipe for Quixote is simple. The book famously opens:
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.
Then we get the less famous:
An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays.
The “olla” (cooking pot) is the standard stock pot, constantly on the simmer, with meats and vegetables coming and going over the course of the week. Friday was meatless, Saturday the olla was finished and cleaned, and Sunday was for special treats. Very basic fare all round. The recipe of the day must be duelos y quebrantos (mourning and losses) which is a classic dish from La Mancha mentioned in Don Quixote. At heart it is a dish of scrambled egg with fried bread and meat of some sort, flavored with paprika. Brains were once a common ingredient but now Spanish chorizo is more usual. If you can find lamb’s brains or kidneys you might want to try them, although I suspect the brains are impossible to find in the West these days because of BSE. Kidneys are easy enough to get, but you’ll find ox kidneys more commonly than lamb’s (which are delicious).
Duelos y Quebrantos
225 g picante (hot/spicy) cooking chorizo, thickly sliced (or mix of lamb’s brains and kidneys, dressed and cut in chunks)
2 tablespoons lard (or butter)
1 slice stale bread, diced
8 eggs, beaten
red chile flakes, to taste (optional)
paprika to taste (optional)
salt and pepper
Heat the lard (or butter) in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the meat of your choice until it starts to brown. If you are not using chorizo add some paprika to taste.
Add the bread cubes and toss them in the fat until they are crisp.
Lower the heat a little and stir in the eggs slowly and season with chile, salt, and pepper to taste.
Scramble the eggs as you would normally do. I prefer them to be a little moist, but in Spain tastes vary.
Serve immediately with some fresh crusty bread.
Serves 2 – 4 (depending on appetite)