by Sean Jobst
19 July 2017
One of the most rewarding parts of travelling is making the history of a place "come alive". Stories and accounts read about the past are made all the more relevant, and so too the historical personalities associated with a specific area. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I recently visited Spain. A leading interest of mine was to trace the footsteps of the great Castilian novelist and writer, Miguel de Cervantes, whose influence upon the Spanish language is such that its often been termed la lengua de Cervantes. I visited several important places associated with this great writer, so that his personality, works and legacy were made alive to me as an expression of la alma castellana.
This is the modest house in Alcalá de Henares where Miguel de Cervantes was born on 29 September 1547. However, he spent much of his childhood moving from town to town, given his father's work as a barber-surgeon. Nevertheless, this house was an important site for me to visit, on 18 June 2017. I even made some notable "friends" right outside this Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes, whom I met a year previously in Madrid....
Barely more than a week old, Cervantes was baptized in the Church of Santa María la Mayor, on 9 October 1547. The church is today at one end of the Plaza Cervantes in Alcalá de Henares, whose skyline is dominated by a statue of the great writer within sight of the church.
Alcalá de Henares continues to celebrate its renown as Cervantes birthplace, with many murals and street art featuring the novelist and my two "friends," the hidalgo Don Quixote and squire Sancho Panza from Castilla-La Mancha.
Venturing through some alleyways pass Plaza Mayor in Madrid, on 16 June 2017 I came across a yellow-brick building on Calle de la Villa, near the Plaza de la Cruz Verde. The current building dates back only to 1870, but the site was originally the Estudio de la Villa as was uncovered by the Spanish prose and travel writer, Ramón de Mesonero (1803-1882), whose explorations around his beloved city reinvigorated a madrileño public with a new passion for their history and literature.
This is where a young Cervantes studied the craft of creative writing under the inspiration of his teacher, the great poet Juan López de Hoyos (1511–1583). This teacher made it his mission to instruct a new generation of budding writers in the humanities. Madrid was relatively new at this point, so the Estudio de la Villa was closely bound up with the cultural foundations of this great city. It also harkens back to my mind the great Guild structures of medieval Europa, with Hoyos being the "master" who instructed a whole generation of "apprentices" such as Cervantes, whose works would become "immortalized" even after their mortal deaths. Is it not fitting that a writer such as myself "found" this site by coincidence, much like Mesonero?
Although a prolific writer, Cervantes' most renown work came within the last decade of his life: Don Quixote. The first edition was published in 1605 by the printer Juan de la Cuesta. His shop still stands on Calle Atocha (87), now the headquarters of the Sociedad Cervantina. The neighborhood that grew around the print shop came to be known as Barrio de las Letras, due to the role of Cervantes and his contemporary, the great playwright and dramatist Lope de Vega. The Sociedad Cervantina building was under renovation during my venture into the Barrio on 20 June 2017.
On the aptly-named Calle Cervantes (2), I found the house Cervantes lived in prior to the nearby one where he died. In 1833, the proprietor wished to demolish the house to make room for a new one. Thus alerted, the vigilant literary-cultural hero Mesonero wrote a passionate article in Madrid's literary newspaper warning about the impending destruction. This attracted the attention of el Rey Fernando III, who acted after the demolition by ensuring that an alternative entrance was constructed on the side-street (Calle Francos) now named Cervantes.
Now, throughout this article it should be clear I'm not a biographer. But some mention should be made of another important aspect of his life. He joined the Spanish Navy, serving with great distinction in Lepanto and other battles against the Ottomans from 1571 to 1574. He refused to abandon the battle even when taken with fever, and kept fighting even after he lost the movement of his left hand. In this and other aspects, he embodied the later character of Don Quixote whom we may suspect was at least partly modeled on the author himself. This was indeed a common practice of the Renaissance works of Chivalry; he had pursued his own "quest" in the warm waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean, just as his characters pursued their "quest" on the plains of La Mancha. And in both cases, it was from the inner desire to make a mark upon history and an outer desire to serve the higher ideal of Castilla y España.
A most traumatic yet defining period of Cervantes' life occurred after his capture by Barbary pirates in 1575, which began his five-year sojourn as a slave in Algiers. This is a very dark period in history which has largely been covered up due to European self-guilt and Political Correctness, but over a million white Europeans - including a very large number of Spaniards, such that large areas of the Spanish coast remained depopulated over the next few centuries - were simply snatched up in coastal raids or at sea (like Cervantes), and taken as slaves by the Barbary states of North Africa. Ever possessive of the will to survive, Cervantes attempted escape four times. He remained resilient throughout his enslavement, until he was finally ransomed by his parents and the clerical order of the Trinitarians. This experience inspired his two plays and the "Captive's tale" in Don Quixote.
Ever the hidalgo, with that deep Castilian self-pride and chivalrous upholding of higher, more noble values, Cervantes used the experience not to feel like the victim but rather to compel him to new heights in his writings - and its indeed no accident nearly all his works came afterwards. These values are not indicative of rank, for he was and remained a man of humble means. As is common with many writers, he struggled with the ability to make a living from his words, so that he often had to take various jobs in accounting.
Although best known for his fictional characters upon whom he projected his own wit, Cervantes was a philosopher with many thoughts on life, love and ethics. Some have even pointed out his observations about government that could be viewed as proto-Anarchic. He had a certain detachment from the elites, both due to his own humble background and his concern with certain higher ideals that he viewed as quickly in decline during his time. His aphorisms and observations are straightforward, indicative of a man who was unwilling to degrade himself by flattering the elites for cheap favors. Those would never appeal to his humility and detachment, in any case.
Cervantes knew how to appreciate life and those who had enriched or impacted it in some way. Under his own advice that "La ingratitud es la hija de la soberbia" (Ingratitude is the daughter of pride), Cervantes was so grateful to the Trinitarian order that had rescued him from slavery that he issued express wishes that upon his death, he lay to rest in their convent. So it was that upon his death on 22 April 1616, he was buried in the Convento de las Monjas Trintarias (Calle Lope de Vega, 18). Unfortunately, when I visited this Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, on 20 June 2017, it was closed for repair work. Reburied elsewhere in 1673, his remains could have been lost to history if not for the advances of forensic archaeology, so that they were rediscovered in 2015 and thereafter re-buried in the Convent. How fitting that even after his death, interesting stories still abound around his life, his character - even his remains.