Biography of Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote de la Mancha has been unanimously defined as the masterpiece of universal literature and one of the greatest creations of human ingenuity.


Don Quixote de la Mancha has been unanimously defined as the masterpiece of universal literature and one of the greatest creations of human ingenuity. Considered also the beginning of the modern novel and initially conceived by Cervantes as a parody of the books of chivalry, the Quixote is an externally comic and intimately sad book, a portrait of admirable ideals burlesquely confronted with miserable reality; there are few parallels that have been established with the imperial Spain of the Austrias, hegemonic power to govern the world in the sixteenth century and collapse in the seventeenth, and the life of its author, gloriously wounded in the triumph of Lepanto and then turned to all sorts of misfortunes.

Unlike his contemporary Lope de Vega, who knew his success as a playwright and poet and also as a seducer, Cervantes’ life was certainly an uninterrupted series of small domestic and professional failures, in which captivity was not absent , neither the unjust jail, nor the public affront. Not only did he not have rents, but he found it difficult to attract the favors of patrons or protectors; To this was added a particular bad fortune that persecuted him throughout his life. Only in his last years, after the success of the two parts of Don Quixote, he knew a certain tranquility and was able to enjoy the recognition of his work, although he never managed to overcome the economic hardships.


Fourth of the seven children of the marriage of Rodrigo de Cervantes Saavedra and Leonor de Cortinas, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in Alcalá (dynamic headquarters of the second Spanish university, founded in 1508 by Cardinal Cisneros) between September 29 (St. Miguel) and on October 9, 1547, the date on which he was baptized in the parish of Santa María la Mayor.

His father’s family knew prosperity, but his grandfather Juan, a law graduate from Salamanca and judge of the Holy Inquisition, left home and began an erratic and dissipated life, leaving his wife and the rest of his children in poverty. , so that the father of Cervantes was forced to practice his trade as a barber surgeon, which turned the childhood of little Miguel into a tireless pilgrimage through the most populous cities of Castile. On the maternal side, Cervantes had a magistrate grandfather who became an ephemeral landowner in Castile. These few data about the professions of the ascendants of Cervantes were the basis of the theory of Américo Castro on the origin of the convert (Jews forced to become Christians since 1495) of both progenitors of the writer.

The fate of Miguel seemed prefigured in part by his father, who, beset by debts, left Alcalá to seek new horizons in the prosperous Valladolid, but suffered seven months in prison for non-payments in 1552, and settled in Córdoba in 1553 Two years later, in that city, Miguel entered the brand new school of the Jesuits. Although he was not a person of great culture, Rodrigo was concerned about the education of his children; the future writer was a precocious reader and his two sisters knew how to read, something very unusual at the time, even in the upper classes. Otherwise, the situation of the family was precarious.

In 1556 Leonor sold the only remaining servant and left for Seville in order to improve economically, as this city was the gateway of Spain to the riches of the Indies and the third city of Europe (after Paris and Naples) in the second half of the sixteenth century. At seventeen, Miguel was a shy and stuttering adolescent, who attended classes at the Jesuit school and became distracted as a regular spectator of the popular performances of Lope de Rueda, as he would later recall, in 1615, in the preface to the edition of his own comedies:

“I remembered having seen the great Lope de Rueda represent, a distinguished man in representation and understanding.”

In 1551 the until then small and quiet town of Madrid had been turned into capital by Felipe II, reason why in the following years the city would quintuplicaría its size and population; brought back by the desire to prosper, the Cervantes moved in 1566 to the new capital. It is not known with certainty that Cervantes had attended the university, despite the fact that in his works he showed familiarity with student habits and customs; on the other hand, his name appears in 1568 as the author of four compositions in an anthology of poems in praise of Isabel de Valois, third wife of Felipe II, who died that same year. The book’s editor, the humanist Juan López de Hoyos (probable introducer of Cervantes to the reading of Virgilio, Horacio and Séneca, and above all, that of the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam) refers to Cervantes as “our expensive and beloved student”. Others venture, however, that in the circle or school of Hoyos, Cervantes had been a teacher and not a disciple.

In the year of 1569 a certain Miguel de Cervantes was sentenced in Madrid to arrest and amputation of the right hand for injuring a certain Antonio de Segura. The penalty, current, applied to anyone who dared to use weapons in the vicinity of the royal residence. It is not known if Cervantes left Spain that same year fleeing this sanction, but the truth is that in December 1569 he was in the Spanish dominions in Italy, provided with an old Christian certificate (without Jewish or Moorish ancestors), and months later he was a soldier in the company of Diego de Urbina.

But the great warlike expectation was placed in the campaign against the Turk, in which the Spanish Empire codified the continuity of its domination and hegemony in the Mediterranean. Ten years before, Spain had lost forty-two ships and eight thousand men in Tripoli. In 1571 Venice and Rome formed, with Spain, the Holy Alliance, and on October 7, commanded by the bastard half-brother of the King of Spain, John of Austria, the Spanish armies defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. It was the immediate glory, a glory that marked Cervantes, which would tell many years later, in the first part of Don Quixote, the circumstances of the struggle. In his course the writer received three wounds, one of which, if this hypothesis is accepted, permanently disabled his left hand and earned him the nickname of “the hand of Lepanto” as a bell of glory.

The battle of Lepanto

Along with his younger brother, Rodrigo, Cervantes went into battle again in Corfu, also under the command of Juan de Austria. In 1573 and 1574 he was in Sicily and Naples, where he had a romantic relationship with a young girl whom he called “Silena” in his poems and from whom he had a son, Promontorio. It is possible that he passed through Genoa on the orders of Lope de Figueroa, since the Ligurian city is described in his exemplary novel The Licentiate Vidriera, and finally he went to Rome, where he frequented the house of Cardinal Acquaviva (to whom La Galatea would dedicate) , known perhaps to him from Madrid, and for whose account he would have fulfilled some missions and commissions.

This was the time when Cervantes set out to achieve a higher social and economic status within the militia by promoting him to the rank of captain, for which he obtained two letters of recommendation from Felipe II, signed by Juan de Austria and the viceroy of Naples, in which his brave performance at the Battle of Lepanto was certified. With this intention, Rodrigo and Miguel de Cervantes embarked on the schooner Sol, who left Naples on September 20, 1575, and what should be an expeditious return to the homeland became the beginning of an unfortunate and long event.

Captivity in Algiers

Shortly after sailing, the schooner went astray after a storm that separated it from the rest of the flotilla and was approached, at the height of Marseille, by three Berber corsairs commanded by a renegade Albanian named Arnaute Mamí. After fierce fighting and the subsequent death of the Christian captain, the brothers were taken prisoner. The letters of recommendation saved Cervantes’s life, but they were, at the same time, the cause of his prolonged captivity: Mamí, convinced of being in front of a principal person and resources, made him his slave and kept him away from the usual exchange of prisoners and the running of captives current between Turks and Christians. This circumstance and his crippled hand exempted him from going to the galleys.

Algiers was at that time one of the richest trade centers in the Mediterranean. In it many Christians passed from slavery to wealth renouncing their faith. The traffic of people was intense, but the family of Cervantes was far from being able to gather the necessary amount even for the rescue of one of the brothers. Cervantes starred, during his prison, four attempts to escape. The first was a frustrated attempt to reach Oran by land, which was the closest point of Spanish domination.

The second, the year of that one, coincided with the preparations for the liberation of his brother. Indeed, Andrea and Magdalena, the two sisters of Cervantes, maintained a lawsuit with a wealthy Madrileño called Alonso Pacheco Pastor, during which they demonstrated that due to the marriage of this his income as barraganas would be depleted, and, according to custom, they obtained dowries They were destined to the rescue of Rodrigo, who would leave Algiers on August 24, 1577.

The third attempt was much more dramatic in its consequences: Cervantes hired a messenger who was to take a letter to the Spanish governor of Oran. Intercepted, the messenger was sentenced to death and impaled, while the writer was suspended the two thousand lashes to which he had been condemned and which amounted to death. Once again, the presumption of wealth allowed him to preserve life and lengthened his captivity. This happened at the beginning of 1578.

Finally, a year and a half later, Cervantes planned a flight in the company of a renegade from Granada, the lawyer Girón. Denounced by a certain White of Peace, Cervantes was chained and imprisoned for five months in the prison of convicted Moors of Algiers. He had a new owner, King Hassan, who asked for six hundred ducats for his ransom. Cervantes was terrified: he feared a transfer to Constantinople. Meanwhile his mother, Dona Leonor, had begun proceedings for his rescue. Pretending to be a widow, she collected money, obtained loans and guarantees, placed herself under the charge of two friars and, in September 1579, delivered four hundred and seventy-five ducats to the Council of the Crusades. Hassán retained Cervantes until the last moment, while the friars negotiated and asked for alms to complete the amount. Finally, on September 19, 1580, he was released, and after a month in which he tried to clear his name against Blanco de Paz, he sailed for Spain on October 24.

Return to homeland

Five days later, after five years of captivity, Cervantes arrived in Denia and returned to Madrid. He was thirty-three years old and had spent the last ten between war and prison; the situation of his family, impoverished and indebted with the Council of the Crusades, reflected in a certain way the deep general crisis of the empire, which would worsen after the defeat of the Invincible Armada in 1588. Upon his return, Cervantes renounced his military career , he was enthusiastic about prospects for prosperity of Indian officials, tried to obtain a position in America and failed. Meanwhile, the result of his clandestine relations with a young married woman, Ana de Villafranca (or Ana de Rojas), a daughter was born, Isabel, raised by her mother and by whom she appeared as her putative father, Alonso Rodríguez.

At thirty-seven, Cervantes got married; his girlfriend, Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, was from a family in Esquivias, a peasant village in La Mancha. He was only eighteen; however, it does not seem to have been a union marked by love. Months before, the writer had finished his first important work, La Galatea, a pastoral novel in the style put in vogue by the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro eighty years ago.

This figure not negligible and the good reception and relative success of the book encouraged Cervantes to devote himself to writing comedies, although he knew that he could compete badly, still respectful of classical norms, with the new mode of Lope de Vega, absolute owner of the Spanish scene. The first two (The comedy of confusion and Treaty of Constantinople and death of Selim, written around 1585 and both disappeared) were relatively successful in their representations, but Cervantes was defeated by the lopesco gale, and despite the twenty or thirty works composed in this stage (of which we only know nine titles and two texts, The Arguments of Algiers and Numancia), around 1600 he had stopped writing comedies, an activity that he would resume at the end of his days.

Between 1585 and 1600 Cervantes fixed his residence in Esquivias, but he used to visit Madrid alone; there he alternated with the writers of his time, read his works and maintained a permanent quarrel with Lope de Vega. In 1587 he entered the Imitatory Academy, the first literary circle in Madrid, and that same year he was appointed royal commissioner of supplies (collector of species) for the Invincible Armada. This fate was also adverse: in Écija he confronted the Church because of his excessive collection zeal and was excommunicated; in Castro del Río he was imprisoned (1592), accused of selling part of the requisitioned wheat. When his mother died in 1594, he left Andalusia and returned to Madrid.

But the economic hardships continued accompanying him. Appointed tax collector, he broke the banker who had given important sums and Cervantes gave his bones in prison, this time in Seville, where he remained for five months. In this epoch of extreme lack, the writing of Don Quixote de la Mancha probably began. Between 1604 and 1606, the family of Cervantes, his wife, his sisters and his brave natural daughter, as well as his nieces, followed the court to Valladolid, until King Felipe III ordered the return to Madrid.

Don Quixote

In 1605, at the beginning of the year, the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote appeared in Madrid. Its author was at that time a lean, thin man, fifty-eight years old, tolerant of his turbulent family, ill-suited to earn money, fainthearted in times of peace and decided in the war years. Fame was immediate, but the economic effects were barely noticeable. When in June 1605 the entire Cervantes family, with the writer at the head, went to jail for a few hours because of a murky affair that only tangentially touched them (the death of a gentleman assisted by the women of the family, which occurred After being wounded at the doors of the house), Don Quixote and Sancho already belonged to the popular heritage.

Its author, meanwhile, was still going through straits. No literary life offered him respite: animated by the success of Don Quixote, he entered in 1609 in the Brotherhood of Slaves of the Blessed Sacrament, which also belonged Lope de Vega and Francisco de Quevedo. It was this custom of the time, which offered Cervantes the opportunity to obtain some protectorate.

In that same year the decree of expulsion of the Moriscos was signed and the hardening of the Spanish social life, subjected to the inquisitorial rigor, was accentuated. Cervantes greeted the expulsion with joy, while his sister Magdalena entered a religious order. They were years of wording of wills and sordid contests: Magdalena had excluded Isabel from her in favor of another niece, Constanza, and Cervantes renounced his share of his brother’s estate also in favor of her, leaving out his own daughter, Engaged in an endless lawsuit with the owner of the house in which he lived and in which Cervantes had been forced to testify in favor of his daughter.

In spite of not even getting (as Góngora did not) to be included in the entourage of his patron, the Count of Lemos, newly appointed new viceroy of Naples (who, nevertheless, gave him concrete samples of his favor), Cervantes wrote at an unstoppable pace: the exemplary Novels saw the light in 1613; the Journey to Parnassus, in verse, in 1614. That same year he was surprised by the appearance, in Tarragona, of a spurious second part of Don Quixote written by a certain Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda, who proclaimed himself an authentic continuation of the noble’s adventures. Thus, ill and urged, and while preparing the publication of the Eight comedies and eight new entremeses never represented (1615), the second part of Don Quixote ended, which would be printed during the same year.

At the beginning of 1616 he was finishing an adventure novel in Byzantine style: The works of Persiles and Sigismunda. On April 19 he received the extreme unction and the following day he wrote the dedication to the Count of Lemos, an offering that has been considered as an exquisite example of his genius and moving autobiographical expression:

“Yesterday they gave me extreme unction and today I write this one; the time is short, the anxieties grow, the hopes diminish and, with all this, I take the life on the desire that I have to live … ».

A few months before his death, Cervantes had had a moral reward for his hardships and economic misfortunes: one of the censors, the lawyer Márquez Torres, sent him a recommendation in which he recounted a conversation held in February 1615 with notable knights of the entourage of the French ambassador: «They asked me very much about their age, their profession, quality and quantity. I was forced to say that he was old, soldier, noble and poor, to which one answered these formal words: “Well, does not Spain have a very rich and sustained public treasury?” Another of those gentlemen came with this thought and with great acuteness:

“If necessity has to force him to write, plague God never have abundance, so that with his works, being poor, make everyone rich”.

Indeed, translations into English and French were already circulating since 1612, and it can be said that Cervantes knew that with Don Quixote he created a new literary form. He also knew that he introduced the genre of the short novel in Spanish with his exemplary Novels and without a doubt guessed the unlimited scope of the couple of characters he had conceived. His contemporaries, although they recognized the liveliness of their ingenuity, did not glimpse the depth of the discovery of Quixote, the very foundation of the modern novel. Thus, between April 22 and 23, 1616, he died at his home in Madrid, assisted by his wife and one of his nieces; wrapped in his Franciscan habit and with his face uncovered, he was buried in the convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, in what was then called Cantarranas Street. In early 2015, a group of investigators who had set out to locate his tomb found a coffin with the initials “M.C.”, but the examination of its contents revealed that it could not be the writer’s.

In March of the same year, the scholars concluded that their mortal remains were in a burial in the subsoil of the crypt, mixed after a transfer with those of another sixteen people.

The sources of Cervantes’ art as a novelist are complex: on the one hand, Don Quixote and Sancho are a parody of the knights-errant and their squires; on the other, in them, fidelity to honor and struggle for the weak is exalted. In Don Quixote, then, realism and fantasy converge, meditation and reflection on literature: the characters discuss their own entity of characters while the borders between delirium and reason and between fiction and reality are erased again and again. But the course of Cervantes, who attended both the imperial glories of Lepanto and the defeats of the Invincible off the coasts of England, knew only the troubles of poverty and anxiety in the face of power. Unlike his character, he could never escape from his destiny as a nobleman, a soldier and a poor man.