Cervantes. Life. Part I. 1547-80.

Miguel de Cervantes 1547-1616. Part I

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s life can be divided into five general stages:
1. 1547-1568: his early years about which we know little with any certainty.
2. 1569-1580: years spent away from Spain, first in Italy from 1569 to 1575 and then as captive in Algiers, 1575-1580.
3. 1580-1587: had an affair that produced an illegitimate daughter, got married and wrote his first literary works.
4. 1587-1600/01: worked in Andalusia as requisitioner of provisions for the Great Armada of 1588, and later as tax collector.  Twice imprisoned.
5. 1600-1616:  period of greatest literary activity. Lived with family in Madrid, Valladolid and again in Madrid.

Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, a university town about 30 kilometres east of Madrid. He was the fourth of seven children born to Rodrigo de Cervantes, a poor itinerant barber-surgeon, and his wife, Leonor de Cortinas.   Little is known of Miguel’s early life. His family moved to Valladolid –then capital– when he was 3 years old where his father was imprisoned for debt; later, when Cervantes was 7, the family relocated in Córdoba where Rodrigo’s father lived.

Said to be a portrait of Cervantes by Juan de Jáuregui, but it is no longer believed to be genuine.  

In 1564, Cervantes’s father was in Seville (probably with his family); two years later, they were in Madrid, recently established as capital of the country and undergoing a frenzied expansion.

By now Miguel was almost 20.  In Madrid, he briefly attended an academy (Estudio de la Villa) run by an Erasmian scholar, Juan López de Hoyos.  In 1569, Hoyos published an obituary volume commemorating the death of Philip II’s third wife, the young Isabel de Valois. This volume isn’t particularly noteworthy, but Cervantes (whom Hoyos calls my beloved pupil) contributed four poems in memory of the queen, his first literary efforts to appear in print.

Late in 1569, Cervantes turned up in Rome, working in the household of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva. The reason for Cervantes’s departure from Spain is cloudy, but we do know that on September 15, 1569 a warrant was issued for the arrest of a student named Miguel de Cervantes.  The warrant accused Cervantes of wounding a rival in a duel; punishment would have been the loss of his right hand and exile from Madrid for 10 years. Under such circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that Cervantes fled the country, and Italy –largely under Spanish domination— had long been the destination for many Spaniards (students, soldiers, diplomats, church dignitaries, and artists).

Cervantes worked only a few months for the cardinal before enlisting in a Spanish regiment. In 1571, he saw action against the Turks in the historic sea-battle of Lepanto (near Corinth, Greece). According to the testimony of two witnesses, Cervantes was suffering from a fever when battle broke out, but refused to remain below deck despite the urging of the ship’s captain. It was during this battle that he was wounded in the chest and lost the use of his left hand.

The wound was always a source of pride for Cervantes, and he never tired of referring to the importance of Lepanto for Christianity (in the Prologue to his collection of Novelas ejemplaresExemplary Tales, published 1613, Cervantes called the battle the most memorable occasion witnessed by past centuries, and future centuries will see no greater, a sentiment he had already expressed in almost identical words in the Prologue to Part I of Don Quixote, published in 1605).

He remained a soldier for another four years, during which he saw further military action, for example in Western Greece and Tunis. In 1574, following a stay in Naples –where he was joined by a younger brother, Rodrigo– Cervantes boarded a galley for Spain. On the return trip, the galley was captured by Berber pirates, and Cervantes was taken to Algiers (North Africa) where he spent the next five years in captivity.

During those years, Cervantes attempted to escape four times. What probably saved him from death were the letters of recommendation he carried with him when he left Italy for Spain. One was from Don Juan de Austria, the commander of the forces in the Battle of Lepanto (and half brother to the king, Philip II). The ransom of prisoners was a lucrative trade between Christians and Turks in those days, and presumably more might be gained with Cervantes alive than dead.

Cervantes was eventually ransomed by his family in September, 1580 and returned to Spain in October, after an absence of 12 years. Having served as a soldier and suffered as captive in a Muslim milieu, Cervantes had a sound idea of both military life and the conditions of captives in a foreign environment. His experiences are reflected in many of his works, both in drama and prose fiction. For example, Don Quixote contains an extended short story, El capitán cautivoThe Captive Captain, which has parallels to Cervantes’ military career in the Mediterranean and captivity in Algiers.

Here we’ll adopt a technique much favoured by Cervantes of interrupting the narrative (e.g. for comments, inserting extraneous tales etc.) and continuing it elsewhere.  Cervantes returned from Algiers with high hopes of getting a hero’s welcome and secure employment at court since his war wounds made the military option out of the question.  What he ended up with were thankless tasks and endless travel…

Canavaggio, Jean  Cervantes Transl by J.R.Jones.  New York 1991

Cervantes, Miguel de  Don Quijote ed. T.  Lathrop.  Newark  2001
Cervantes, Miguel de  Exemplary Stories ed. L. Lipson. Oxford 1998
Close, Anthony  in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature ed. David T Gies Cambridge:  2009, pp. 201-21
McKendrick, Melveena  Cervantes  Boston 1980

http://lib.utsa.edu/Research/Subject/cervantesguide.html  A useful guide to internet research on Cervantes and the Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) from the University of Texas at San Antonio.