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The Core Curriculum

Miguel de Cervantes

1547 CE – 1616 CE


Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, a little town outside of Madrid. His father was a surgeon and his mother is thought to have been of Jewish descent.  Little is known about his early years. Following a brief period of study in Madrid, where he published a few short works of poetry, and a short-lived sojourn to Rome, he enlisted in the army of the Holy league, established by the Catholic kingdoms of Europe in response to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. He was permanently wounded in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and after a year-long recovery, returned to military service in the employ of Juan of Austria. In 1575, on his return trip to Spain, Cervantes’s ship was seized by Algerian pirates.  He was held as a slave in Algiers for five years, despite four attempts to escape captivity (the story of “a Spanish soldier called something Saavedra” in the Captive’s Tale in Don Quixote is an allusion to the story of Cervantes’s life as a captive.)  Eventually, Cervantes was ransomed, returned to Madrid, and, shortly thereafter, was wed to Catalina de Salazar, a woman twenty-two years his junior.  In 1585, Cervantes’s literary career began in earnest with his publication of a pastoral novel and the performances of some of his plays.  Perhaps for financial reasons, two years later Cervantes moved south to Andalusia, where, for ten years he traveled through the region as a purveyor for the Invencible Armada (see historical context) and a tax collector.  Due to further financial problems, Cervantes was jailed in Seville in 1597, and it was during his time in prison that he conceived of Don Quixote.  In 1605, the first part of Don Quixote was published and enjoyed immediate success, marking Cervantes’s lasting return to his status as a professional writer. Despite setbacks including family deaths, scandals, and interpersonal disputes, Cervantes spent the rest of his life as a writer.  Cervantes died on April 22, 1616 – a date that coincides with the death of William Shakespeare.


Cervantes wrote in nearly all of the literary genres popular at the time.  He tried his hand, rather unsuccessfully, at poetry.  He wrote several plays (El trato de Argel and El cerco de Numancia, 1582), which enjoyed relative success – though not in comparison to the success of his contemporaries.  His most well-known theatrical accomplishment is his collection Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted, published in 1612.  Some of the scenes in the inn in Don Quixote demonstrate the influence of the comic, farcical interlude.  Generally speaking, however, his greatest achievements were in narrative.  He began humbly, with the publication of the pastoral novel, La Galatea, in 1585.  This publication was supposed to be only Part I of a larger work; however, despite his promises, he never returned to write the second, concluding part of the Galatea.  The episodes of Marcela and Grisóstomo and Leandra and Eugenio in Don Quixote, Part I, are somewhat ironic representations of the pastoral literature of La Galatea.  In 1605 he published Don Quixote, Part I.  It is possible that Cervantes only meant to write one part of the Quixote, and he went on to publish his famous Novelas ejemplares (1613), where he is credited with making important advances in the novella genre (a genre popularized by Boccaccio).  In 1615 a spurious Don Quixote, Part II, was published by an anonymous author identifying himself only by his place of origin, Avellaneda.  Avellaneda’s Quixote was much darker and more didactic in tone than Cervantes’s Part I, and Avellaneda tends to degrade Don Quixote and Sancho and limit his text’s comic elements to farcical, low-brow humor.  In 1616 Cervantes published his (far superior) Don Quixote, Part II.  Interestingly, Cervantes engages with Avellaneda’s text and even has one of Avellaneda’s characters, Don Alvaro Tarfe, meet “the real” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Since perhaps before the publication of Don Quixote, Part I, Cervantes was at work composing what he would consider to be his masterpiece, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, which Cervantes would complete right before his death, and which would be published posthumously in 1617.


Alison Krueger, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Columbia University.

Works consulted:
Canavaggio, Jean. “Miguel de Cervantes: (1547-1616) Life and Portrait.” Translated by Eduardo Urbina., May, 2004. (
Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. Translated from French by J. R. Jones. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990.

Historical Contexts

Don Quixote

The rise of Spain from the end of the Reconquest:

In 711, Muslims from North Africa invaded much of the Spanish Peninsula.  Shortly after, and for the next several hundred years, the Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain began to conquer Muslim land (this initiative is known as the Reconquest).  During the Reconquest, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, lived together on the Peninsula in relative peace.  In 1479, two of the Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, wed.  Their marriage brought together much of what is considered Spain in current geographical terms.  In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel defeated the last Muslim strong-hold in Spain, the kingdom of Granada.  They proclaimed their lands to be Christian lands in which all non-Christians were forced to covert or be expelled.  Finally, in that same year, the monarchs sponsored Christopher Columbus’s journey in which he discovered the New World and claimed the land for his Spanish patrons.  Ferdinand and Isabel’s son, Charles V, came to power in 1519.  By 1547, the year in which Cervantes is born, Charles V “reaches the zenith of his power” (Canavaggio 17), and the relatively young nation is the most powerful empire in the (Western) world.  Cervantes, born into a dominant and wealthy Spain, witnessed, throughout his lifetime, the decadence and decline of the Spanish state and the disillusionment of its people.

Spanish state and the Inquisition (The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition):

In 1478 the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was formed by Ferdinand and Isabel.  It was originally formed to protect Catholic orthodoxy in Spain.  Throughout the next two centuries, there were more fervent and less fervent periods of persecution and censorship.  It is not officially disbanded until 1834, though, at that point, its power and influence was substantially diminished.  An estimated 5,000 individuals were executed, while many more were tortured and/or jailed.  Others flee into exile.  The Tribunal persecuted Protestants (loosely defined as not orthodox Catholic), crypto-Jews, blasphemers, those suspected of witchcraft, those suspected of sodomy, and other suspect classes. The Tribunal also enforced a great degree of censorship, with, for example, its Indexes of prohibited books. 

In 1556 Charles V abdicated the thrown, and Philip II was crowned king.  The reign of Philip II was known for its oppression, the power and influence of the Tribunal, and the increased territorial expansion of the Spanish empire. 

Military Defeat:

As vast as the Spanish empire was during Cervantes time, the empire found itself engaged in numerous conflicts: the assault on Spanish ships traveling to the New World, conflicts with bordering European nations, the unrest and eventual independence of the Low Countries, and various revolts and displays of civil unrest within the Peninsula.  Nevertheless, the Spanish crown continued to pursue military expansion and, in 1588, launched the famous Armada Invencible, a fleet of ships meant to initiate an invasion of England.  A far smaller English fleet outmaneuvered the Spanish fleet and handed the Spaniards a defeat that many will later mark as the beginning of the end of Spanish military dominance.  The defeat also proved crippling for Spanish political and economic power, as control of the seas (and routes to the New World) was of vital importance to the Spanish empire.

Decadence and Decline of Spanish Power and Economy:

In 1598 Philip II died and his son, Philip III is crowned king.  Philip III inherited a troubled nation and a faltering economy.  His reign marked an important period of economic decadence and decline of the Spanish state.  At this time, much of the Spanish wealth still came from silver mines in the New World, but control over this wealth channel wais increasingly precarious.  The military powers of other nations, such as England, threatened the transportation of silver.  The fall in silver imports caused inflation and a crisis of (economic) confidence, and the attempts made to remedy these problems with new coinage only make matters worse.  While the aristocracy and Catholic Church pay no taxes, peasants were expected to pay very high taxes on their land.  This tax structure de-incentivized peasant agricultural production, and many peasants decided to abandon the rural life and moved to urban areas (which were weakened by disease and plagues).  Agricultural production also lagged behind other European countries due to Spain’s lack of initiative in implementing important reforms, such as irrigation measures.  Finally, luxury goods were purchased abroad, sending money out of the country rather than stimulating industry within Spain.  We might say that there was very little incentive in Spain to produce – either agricultural crops or quality goods that might serve to develop an export economy.

Despite these economic problems, many court advisors continued to support aggressive foreign policy and military campaigns, even though Spain was no longer able to afford such initiatives.


Alison Krueger, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Columbia University.

Works Consulted:
Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. Translated from French by J. R. Jones. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990.
Cameron, Rondo. A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1997.