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While Don Quixote is not, on the surface at least, much concerned with historical events or social commentary, it does paint a lively picture of the Spain its author knew. By the time Cervantes wrote his masterpiece, the price of Spain's dreams of world domination was already becoming apparent. The Golden Age, as Don Quixote says in the novel, was being overtaken by an Age of Iron.
Although the son of Charles I, Philip II, who ascended the Spanish throne in 1556 and reigned until 1598, was in some ways a strong ruler, he was not the inspiring figure his father had been. People called Philip II the "paperwork king" because he preferred to rule his empire from behind a desk, leaving the leg-work to an army of bureaucrats. Cervantes himself was part of this army, and his experiences as a tax collector and commissary officer gave him little reason to view the bureaucracy with admiration. Philip's military ventures were not always successful either. The so-called Invincible Armada, a large naval fleet assembled in 1588 for an invasion of England (a project for which Cervantes requisitioned food supplies) was defeated by the English before it even reached an English shore.
In addition, much of the country's enormous wealth had been squandered on expensive foreign wars, with disastrous results for the economy at home. The national treasury was bankrupt. Inflation was out of control.
Culturally, too, Spain was beginning to withdraw from its position as a leader in Europe. The spread of the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe had put the Spanish Roman Catholic Church on the defensive. After 1559, Spanish students were forbidden to study at foreign universities, and the office of the Spanish Inquisition-church officials appointed by the pope-had the power to censor books and search through the general population for heretics.
Today, some historians believe that one of Spain's greatest weaknesses was the existence of such a large class of hidalgos, or noblemen. At least one quarter of all Spaniards considered themselves part of this class. Unlike the high aristocracy, however, hidalgos were not necessarily independently wealthy. Most were poor but proud. Some hidalgo youths, like their fathers before them, sought fame and fortune in military careers.
Miguel de Cervantes, an hidalgo, realized all too well that the social class he belonged to was becoming obsolete. Its values were those of a bygone age. Economically, it had no place in the modern world. In the meantime, the richest nobles were becoming richer, and the poor farmers of Spain were staggering under the twin burdens of heavy taxes and high inflation. Don Quixote, the most famous hidalgo in all of literature, reflects Cervantes' understanding that the hidalgos were already living in the past.
It is often said that Don Quixote "killed" chivalry with mockery. The English poet Lord Byron expressed this opinion when he wrote that Cervantes "smiled Spain's chivalry away." In fact, as Cervantes knew very well, the society that had spawned the code of chivalry was already dead. Spain had become a modern nation with a global empire. The country was run by bureaucrats, not by a heroic band of warrior knights. Modern nations could not afford to treat war as basically a sport for gentlemen. They could not afford to support a large percentage of the population who lived in idleness, playing at being lords and ladies. Even the high ideals of chivalry had become obsolete. Unquestioning religious faith, a rarefied vision of romantic love, and a code of behavior based on knightly honor still had nostalgic appeal for many Spaniards. But these wonderful virtues were part of a social system based on a rigid class structure, a sexist view of woman's role, and the persecution of religious minorities.
Cervantes might be compared to the boy in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes" who pointed out that the emperor was really naked. Cervantes did not "kill" chivalry. He merely issued a belated death notice.