Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Unlike many authors, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra led a life as full of action and adventure as any plot he ever created for his fictional characters. Even a brief summary of Cervantes' eventful life will give you an idea of where some of the author's inspiration for Don Quixote came from.
Cervantes was born in 1547, at a time when Spain was the richest, most powerful nation in Europe, Spaniards had explored and conquered vast territories in the western hemisphere, sending home gold and silver treasures by the shipload. The Spanish king, Charles I (reigned 1516 to 1556) was easily the most powerful man in Europe. Charles I also ruled large sections of Germany and central Europe in his capacity as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and he dreamed of uniting the entire continent under the leadership of Spain and the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic church. The king was an inspiring figure. His bravery in battle was matched by his cultivated mind and charismatic personality. Under his leadership, Spain seemed on its way to consolidating its position as the most fortunate country in the world.
As a soldier and a writer, Miguel de Cervantes contributed much to his country's greatness. However, he received few rewards for his efforts. Although he was a brave man and an honest one, luck seemed to run against him in everything he tried. Perhaps even more discouraging, he lived long enough to see the promise of Spain's Golden Age begin to tarnish with the onset of economic inflation and the beginnings of a retreat into cultural parochialism.
The Cervantes family was part of the hidalguia, the noble class, yet it was dogged by poverty and bad luck. Miguel de Cervantes' father, Roderigo, was a surgeon-an occupation that ranked somewhere below a full-fledged doctor but above a barber. (Barbers were responsible for some kinds of minor surgical procedures in those days.) Surgery was a risky business in the sixteenth century. But for Roderigo's patients it seemed to be riskier than for most. On one occasion the family had to move to another town to escape the complaints of a dissatisfied patient. A few years later, Roderigo Cervantes was thrown into prison because of unpaid debts.
In theory, gentlemen (hidalgos) were supposed to be exempt from debtors' prison. However, Cervantes' father could not manage to come up with the document that proved his noble ancestry. Perhaps this was just another example of the family's bad luck-or a matter of red tape and mislaid paperwork. Some biographers have suspected that the Cervantes family was not quite what it claimed to be. A few writers have even argued that family members were conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity to escape persecution. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Roderigo really was an hidalgo. In Spain, noble birth did not necessarily mean financial security, and the Spanish people's fondness for titles unsupported by practical accomplishment was a national weakness that Cervantes would later satirize in his adult writing.
Because of his family's money problems, young Miguel had a rather spotty education. However, he loved to read and dreamed of becoming a poet. In his late teens he managed to study briefly with a famous humanist scholar, Juan Lopez de Hoyos. Cervantes' advanced schooling lasted little more than a year, but it must have been an exciting time. The Spanish Renaissance was in full swing and scholars such as Cervantes' teacher were encouraging students to question established values. Students were rediscovering long-neglected masterpieces of Greek and Roman literature, and at the same time developing a lively interest in the life and language of the common people. Religious studies were no longer the center of every curriculum, and Latin was no longer considered the only language suitable for serious literature. Writers and students were beginning to think that they ought to write in the same language that was used in daily life.
By the end of 1569, Cervantes had left Spain for Rome. Here he made himself fluent in Italian and became familiar with the works of Italian authors, such as Boccaccio, who were writing in their native tongue instead of Latin. We do not know for sure why Cervantes gave up his studies to go to Rome. But police records of the time suggest a possible answer. A young man named Miguel de Cervantes was being sought in connection with a duel in which another student had been wounded. Was this wanted man Miguel de Cervantes the future writer? Most authorities think it was.
After a year or so in Rome, Cervantes joined the army. He soon proved his heroism by fighting in the battle of Lepanto-an important naval battle, in 1571, in which European Christian forces virtually destroyed the Turkish fleet. According to contemporary accounts, Cervantes was ill in bed with a fever when the battle began. The captain of his ship gave him permission to stay belowdecks when the fighting began, but Cervantes insisted on fighting-and at the very spot where the action was heaviest. He fought bravely and was wounded three times. Fortunately, two gunshot wounds he received were not serious. However, the third wound, to Cervantes' left hand, resulted in permanent disfigurement. The hand was saved but was paralyzed from that time on. Throughout his life Cervantes remained very proud of his contribution to the naval victory at Lepanto.
Four years later, in 1575, a ship the soldier Cervantes was traveling on was captured by Turkish pirates. Cervantes was taken to Algiers-then controlled by the Turks-as a slave. It was a common practice in those days for pirates to hold their captives until the families paid a stiff ransom. Because Cervantes carried seemingly important letters, his captor believed he came from a very wealthy family. A ransom of five hundred gold crowns was demanded. Cervantes' chances of ever being rescued looked grim.
Over the next five years, Cervantes made four escape attempts, each more daring than the last. After his third try, he was sentenced to two thousand lashes-a punishment that meant certain death. But it was never carried out, perhaps because he had impressed the ruler (dey) of Algiers. Cervantes' fourth escape attempt involved a conspiracy with sixty fellow captives. The plan had an obvious weakness. Too many people were in on the secret, and, sure enough, one of them betrayed Cervantes to the authorities. Finally, in 1580, Cervantes was rescued just before he was to be sent to Constantinople. An emissary from Spain managed to borrow some money from local Christians to add to what the Cervantes family had been able to raise, and, the ransom paid, Cervantes was declared free when already on the ship that was to take him to Constantinople.