Historical Context for Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
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.
The Spanish State & 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 throne, 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.
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 was 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
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