Cervantes: What is it about the title "Don Quixote"?

Cervantes: What’s in a Title?
Don Quixote

"Hidalgos" were low-born
nobles exempt from paying
taxes.

Of all of Cervantes’s works, the one  people know best is Don Quixote or, to give it its full title, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha  (The Ingenious Low-Born Noble Don Quixote of La Mancha). There is plenty of evidence to show that when the book first appeared (i.e. Part I in 1605), readers saw it as a funny book.  The title certainly suggested as much, and only the adjective "ingenioso" is not compatible with such a reading.  But we’ll come back to that.

Cervantes liked to play with titles, as other works of his attest.  In this case, let’s start with our hero’s name: Quixote. Where did Cervantes get it from? There are lots of possibilities.  1) In 1584, Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar from the village of Esquivias, between Toledo and Madrid. It so happens that one of Catalina’s relatives was called Don Alonso Quijada Salazar (Quijada is mentioned as a possible surname for Don Quixote at the very beginning of the book! Don Alonso was also an avid reader of romances of chivalry and thought them to be histories!)

Two other coincidental names: 1. the parish priest of Esquivias was called Pero Pérez, the same name as the priest of don Quixote’s village, 2. Mari Gutiérrez, one of the names attributed to Sancho Panza’s wife, was also recorded in Esquivias.  

2) Scholars commonly associate "Quixote" with the Catalan word "cuixot", which refers to a piece of armour covering the thigh. So, Don Quixote is comically no more than Don Thigh-Armour. 

3) Cervantes may also have had in mind the famous Arthurian hero Lancelot, Lanzarote in Spanish. Lanzarote first appears in Part I, chapter 2 in a parodic context when his name is evoked by Don Quixote.  It’s a testing moment for Don Quixote. He has just left his village and arrived at an inn, which to his mind is a castle. There he is “attended” by two “ladies” –in reality two prostitutes— and adapting a famous ballad about Lancelot, he considers himself a most fortunate knight to be served by such “ladies.”

4) In view of Don Quixote’s comical mishaps, Cervantes may have associated his protagonist’s name with the Spanish word-ending –ote which tends to denote something clumsy or ungainly. There is a poem in Part I, chapter 26, where Quijote is made to rhyme with most unpoetic words:  "escote" ("low neck line"), "estricote" ("swinging back and fore"), "pipote" ("little barrel"), "azote" ("a whip"), "cogote" ("back of the neck"). 

5) Another possibility has surfaced lately: the name of a fictitious Arab character, transcribed as Quixu, who was the protagonist of jokes and funny stories.  Cervantes could well have heard about this figure during his years of captivity in Algiers (1575-80: See Life).

6) Since Cervantes was likely a converso (i.e. a Jew ostensibly converted to Christianity or descendant of Jewish converts), there is a possibility that he was acquainted with people with some knowledge of the Talmud, either during his captivity in Algiers or with conversos still practising Judaism in secret.  Two possible sources arise from Cervantes's possible contact with Jewish culture: 1) the Hebrew words Ki shoteh meaning "a fool," and 2) the Aramaic word "qeshot" meaning "truth" or "certainty." According to these readings, Don Quixote is a converso or cristiano nuevo (New Christian), a possibility strengthened by his silence whenever Sancho boasts of his status as cristiano viejo (Old Christian).

What about de la Mancha? Knights-errant came from exotic sounding or distant places. Don Quixote’s favourite knight, Amadís, is from Gaul (Amadís de Gaula). Chapter 6 of Part I of Don Quixote gives us some other names, e.g. Palmerín de Inglaterra or Florimorte de Hircania. Don Quixote, however, comes from La Mancha, an arid, inhospitable area south of Madrid, largely inhabited furthermore by Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity).

La Mancha comes from the Arabic "al-mansha", meaning "dry land." 

In a country as obsessed by Christian "limpieza de sangre" ("purity of blood") as 16th and 17th-century Spain, Moriscos were both suspected of being closet Muslims and despised for being of impure blood. Could Don Quixote have been conceived initially as a Morisco, whose exploits furthermore are chronicled by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli (as we are first told in Part 1, 9)? Chapter 9 also informs us that the original text was in Arabic, and what follows is really a translation carried out by a Morisco! Confirmation of Don Quixote’s possible Morisco blood is the other meaning of "mancha": a "stain" or "blemish." A contemporary dictionary by Sebastián de Covarrubias refers specifically to "mancha en un linaje": "a stain on one’s lineage," which was the case for all Christians of Moorish (Muslim) or Jewish descent. Curiously enough, Don Quixote makes no claim to being of Christian stock, unlike Sancho Panza who boasts of being a "cristiano viejo" ("old Christian" e.g. Part I, 47).  This was a boast commonly made by peasants, since historically marriage between peasants and Jews or Muslims was virtually unheard of.



Image of title page of first edition of
Don Quixote from Wikemedia

There's also "hidalgo" to consider.  We learn from the very first paragraph that Don Quixote was an "hidalgo" (a "low-born noble"), unmarried, and of very little means (as the description of his meals indicates). He’s around 50 years old, lean and gaunt, owns a skinny horse and spends most of his time doing nothing.  "Hidalgos" belonged to the lowest rank of nobility, and by the 17th century were objects of ridicule for their poverty and pretensions, which were proverbial. Given his modest means, age and physique, Don Quixote’s pretensions to be a "caballero andante" are simply ludicrous. And what made it even more so is the honorific "don," a title that was reserved for higher nobility, and not for "hidalgos." (In Part II, chapter 2 Sancho Panza reports that Don Quixote is reproached for having exceeded the limits of "hidalguía" by attaching "don" to his name.)  Don was used furthermore with the first name or first name and surname but not with the surname only (it still is the case: don Alonso or don Alonso Quijano, but not don Quijano). Don Quixote would ring a discordant note for any reader of the time.

The title of Part II has a significant change, "hidalgo" being replaced by "caballero" ("knight"): El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha.  Of course, this has been Don Quijote’s dream: to be a "caballero." But the laughter continues, because there is plenty of contemporary documentation to show that without wealth an "hidalgo" could not aspire to be a "caballero." Don Quixote’s niece –who lives with him—is right on when she reproaches him for having got into his head that he is a caballero. She concedes that "hidalgos" can be "caballeros" but not if they are poor: "[!que se dé a entender …]  que es caballero, no lo siendo, porque aunque lo puedan ser los hidalgos, no lo son los pobres!" “[You’d have us think that] you are knight without being one, because although hidalgos can be [knights], poor [hidalgos] can’t be!”

 In Part II, chapter 2, Sancho tells Don Quixote
that a book has been published about him entitled
El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, i.e.
the same title that appeared at the beginning of Part I.

In the titles of both Parts I and II, there is one word that certainly does not fit the comic implications of the rest of the words in the titles: "ingenioso". Titles are normally decided after a book has been completed, and this is probably the case with Don Quixote. Interestingly enough, however, we find another title in Part I, 9, which says simply Historia de don Quijote de la Mancha, written ostensibly by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Was this the title Cervantes originally had in mind, just the Story of Don Stained Thigh Armour? That might be so if Don Quixote was to be no more than an object of ridicule.  However, as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that Don Quixote’s madness is restricted to matters of chivalry, and the farcical episodes so prevalent in the earlier chapters are much reduced. Indeed, the narrator and several characters observe (in chapters 30, 37, 38, 49) that Don Quixote is remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable ("de buen entendimiento" is the expression most commonly used), except when he starts on about knight-errantry.  This is where "ingenioso" comes in.  Sebastián de Covarrubias, in his dictionary, defines ingenio as "una fuerza natural de entendimiento" ("a natural capacity of the intelligence") capable of discussing all kinds of subjects.  Sometime during the composition of the first half of Part I, Cervantes saw that Don Quixote could be more than a delusional old man and an object of laughter.  So, "ingenioso" was added to the title, providing yet another dimension to the comic connotations of the rest of the title.  How could Don Stained Thigh-Armour be intelligent and knowledgeable?

Sources:

Close, Anthony in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature ed. David T Gies 2009, pp. 201-21.
McGaha, Michael "Is There a Hidden Jewish Meaning in Don Quixote? in Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 24.1 (2004): 173-88
Rey Hazas, Antonio  El Quijote y la picaresca en la figura del hidalgo en el nacimiento de la novella moderna  in Edad de Oro, XV (1996): 141160
Riley. E.C        Don Quixote London 1986
Russell, P.E        Cervantes  Oxford 1985
For a summary of further possible meanings of "Quixote," see an article by Eric Mayer in Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 28.1 (2008):167-8 http://www.h-net.org/~cervantes/csa/artics08/Mayers08.pdf