Miguel de Cervantes

1547 –

Best known as the author of Don Quixote, one of the most significant works of world literature and, in the opinion of many scholars, the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, on September 29, 1547—the same year in which both Henry VIII and the French king Francis I died, as well as the year in which Ivan the Terrible became tsar of Russia. The surname, Cervantes, may have originated in Galicia, a coastal region in northwestern Spain. His father, Rodrigo de Cervantes, was, at the time of his son’s birth, a barber surgeon—a profession that required one to set bones, dress wounds, and blood-let, though no university education was required. Cervantes’s mother, Leonor de Cortinas, came from a family of rural landowners formerly based in Old Castile. Cervantes’s maternal family later settled in Arganda, a town near Madrid. It is believed that Rodrigo and Leonora were married in 1542, but there is no extant marriage certificate to verify the date. Cervantes was the second son and the fourth of seven children born to the couple. Most of his siblings, except for Juan, who was born in Córdoba, and Cervantes’s youngest sister, Magdalena, born in Valladolid in 1552, were also born in Alcalá de Henares. 

The Cervantes family left Alcalá after Rodrigo experienced professional difficulties, which may have ended his career as a barber surgeon. They relocated to Valladolid. Rodrigo’s hardships followed him, however, to the new city. He even spent a year in debtor’s prison between 1552 and 1553. Rodrigo took his family to live with his father, Juan, in Córdoba in 1553. There, Juan assisted Rodrigo with finding employment, probably in hospital administration. Meanwhile, Cervantes attended Jesuit schools in Córdoba, starting at age six. Scholars believe that he developed his love of learning there, as well as his passions for the theater and the picaresque literary tradition that started in Spain with the novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), later found to have been the work of the Jewish humanist Alfonso de Valdés. The picaresque style was later developed by Cervantes in Don Quixote

The Cervantes family may have moved to Cabra, Spain, in 1558 after the death of Cervantes’s paternal grandfather, which would have ended Cervantes’s studies in Córdoba. Cervantes then moved to Seville in 1564, where his father managed a property. Cervantes would have likely attended another Jesuit school there. In 1566, after a creditor seized his belongings, Rodrigo moved the family again, this time to Madrid, in the autumn of that year. Around this time, Cervantes met the humanistic curate of the parish of San Andrés Juan López de Hoyos, who became his teacher, in addition to publishing Cervantes’s first literary work—four poems that marked the death of Elizabeth of Valois, Queen of Spain and the third wife of Philip II, who died while giving birth to a stillborn child. The poems established Cervantes’s early reputation as an extraordinary and precocious poet. 

In December 1569, Cervantes moved to Rome. He may have left after severely wounding a man named Antonio de Segura in a duel three months earlier. In Italy, he served as a chamberlain, or household manager, to Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva before enlisting as a soldier in the Spanish infantry regiment in Naples in 1570. The city had been under the rule of the Spanish crown. Cervantes did not see active duty until a confrontation with the Turks near Corinth in October. He returned to Naples and remained there between 1572 and 1575. It is likely that he immersed himself in reading Italian literature during this time. In September 1575, Cervantes sailed back toward Spain with the intention of working in service of the king. He carried with him numerous letters of recommendation from notable figures. In the midst of the voyage, Barbary pirates seized his ship. Cervantes and his brother, Rodrigo, were sold into slavery in Algiers. Cervantes was released in September 1580, three years after Rodrigo, after his family raised his ransom money. The letters that Cervantes carried with him during the voyage gave the pirates the impression that he was a man of importance, which led them to ask for more money for his return. The episode of captivity inspired “the Captive’s Tale” in Don Quixote, in addition to providing material for two plays—The Traffic of Algiers and The Bagnios of Algiers

After returning to Spain, Cervantes supported himself with dull administrative jobs. He also had an affair with a young married woman, Ana Franca de Rojas, which, in November 1584, produced a daughter named Isabel—Cervantes’s only child. Cervantes then married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios one month after Isabel’s birth. He was eighteen years his wife’s senior. 

In 1585, Cervantes published his first book, Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, in his hometown. The book would be reprinted twice in Cervantes’s lifetime—first in Lisbon, in 1590, and finally in Paris, in 1611. Cervantes focused on writing plays in the 1580s, including Confusion, which he believed to be his best work. He later claimed that he wrote between twenty to thirty plays during this period, which is regarded as the Golden Age of Spanish theater. In the late 1580s, Cervantes became a commissary of provisions for the Spanish Armada and remained in the post until the Spanish Armada’s stunning defeat by the English naval fleet in July 1588. Cervantes’s mother died in 1593 and he moved to Seville a year later. He remained there briefly before relocating to Madrid to work as a tax collector. He did not last in the job, however, for more than two years. Cervantes then moved back to Seville, where he may have been writing poetry and short stories. He won first prize in a Zaragoza poetry competition in 1595. His financial troubles, however, lingered. As was the case with his father, Cervantes’s inability to pay outstanding debts landed him in jail for about a year between the summer of 1597 and April 1598. Ana Franca died in the latter year.

Sometime early in 1599, Cervantes went to Valladolid where he probably began writing Don Quixote. The idea for the novel supposedly came to him while he was imprisoned. He sold the rights to Part I in July or August 1604. The first half of the novel was an instant success. He released Part II in 1615. The novel became famous in every major Western European nation soon after its début. Despite his immense popularity, Cervantes still benefited little financially from the sale of his publishing rights. Other calamities ensued: a stabbing incident in Valladolid in June 1605, domestic discord, and dire financial straits. In 1613, Cervantes published 12 Exemplary Stories. He claimed that the short fiction pieces, which he had written in earlier years, were the first novellas ever written in Castilian, which scholars believe is likely true. In the following year, Cervantes released Journey to Parnassus, a long allegorical poem and his best-known work of poetry. Cervantes, however, did not believe that he possessed great talent as a poet. He also held the art form in the highest esteem. 

Miguel de Cervantes died in Madrid on April 22, 1616, supposedly on the same day as William Shakespeare.