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Miqeul de Cervantes >> Don Quixote (page 2)


It is only natural, therefore, that the biographers of Cervantes,forced to make brick without straw, should have recourse largely toconjecture, and that conjecture should in some instances come bydegrees to take the place of established fact. All that I propose todo here is to separate what is matter of fact from what is matter ofconjecture, and leave it to the reader's judgment to decide whetherthe data justify the inference or not.

The men whose names by common consent stand in the front rank ofSpanish literature, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Calderon,Garcilaso de la Vega, the Mendozas, Gongora, were all men of ancientfamilies, and, curiously, all, except the last, of families thattraced their origin to the same mountain district in the North ofSpain. The family of Cervantes is commonly said to have been ofGalician origin, and unquestionably it was in possession of lands inGalicia at a very early date; but I think the balance of theevidence tends to show that the "solar," the original site of thefamily, was at Cervatos in the north-west corner of Old Castile, closeto the junction of Castile, Leon, and the Asturias. As it happens,there is a complete history of the Cervantes family from the tenthcentury down to the seventeenth extant under the title of "IllustriousAncestry, Glorious Deeds, and Noble Posterity of the Famous NunoAlfonso, Alcaide of Toledo," written in 1648 by the industriousgenealogist Rodrigo Mendez Silva, who availed himself of amanuscript genealogy by Juan de Mena, the poet laureate andhistoriographer of John II.

The origin of the name Cervantes is curious. Nuno Alfonso was almostas distinguished in the struggle against the Moors in the reign ofAlfonso VII as the Cid had been half a century before in that ofAlfonso VI, and was rewarded by divers grants of land in theneighbourhood of Toledo. On one of his acquisitions, about two leaguesfrom the city, he built himself a castle which he called Cervatos,because "he was lord of the solar of Cervatos in the Montana," asthe mountain region extending from the Basque Provinces to Leon wasalways called. At his death in battle in 1143, the castle passed byhis will to his son Alfonso Munio, who, as territorial or localsurnames were then coming into vogue in place of the simplepatronymic, took the additional name of Cervatos. His eldest son Pedrosucceeded him in the possession of the castle, and followed hisexample in adopting the name, an assumption at which the youngerson, Gonzalo, seems to have taken umbrage.

Everyone who has paid even a flying visit to Toledo will rememberthe ruined castle that crowns the hill above the spot where the bridgeof Alcantara spans the gorge of the Tagus, and with its broken outlineand crumbling walls makes such an admirable pendant to the squaresolid Alcazar towering over the city roofs on the opposite side. Itwas built, or as some say restored, by Alfonso VI shortly after hisoccupation of Toledo in 1085, and called by him San Servando after aSpanish martyr, a name subsequently modified into San Servan (in whichform it appears in the "Poem of the Cid"), San Servantes, and SanCervantes: with regard to which last the "Handbook for Spain" warnsits readers against the supposition that it has anything to do withthe author of "Don Quixote." Ford, as all know who have taken himfor a companion and counsellor on the roads of Spain, is seldomwrong in matters of literature or history. In this instance,however, he is in error. It has everything to do with the author of"Don Quixote," for it is in fact these old walls that have given toSpain the name she is proudest of to-day. Gonzalo, above mentioned, itmay be readily conceived, did not relish the appropriation by hisbrother of a name to which he himself had an equal right, for thoughnominally taken from the castle, it was in reality derived from theancient territorial possession of the family, and as a set-off, and todistinguish himself (diferenciarse) from his brother, he took as asurname the name of the castle on the bank of the Tagus, in thebuilding of which, according to a family tradition, hisgreat-grandfather had a share.

Both brothers founded families. The Cervantes branch had moretenacity; it sent offshoots in various directions, Andalusia,Estremadura, Galicia, and Portugal, and produced a goodly line ofmen distinguished in the service of Church and State. Gonzalo himself,and apparently a son of his, followed Ferdinand III in the greatcampaign of 1236-48 that gave Cordova and Seville to Christian Spainand penned up the Moors in the kingdom of Granada, and his descendantsintermarried with some of the noblest families of the Peninsula andnumbered among them soldiers, magistrates, and Church dignitaries,including at least two cardinal-archbishops.

Of the line that settled in Andalusia, Deigo de Cervantes,Commander of the Order of Santiago, married Juana Avellaneda, daughterof Juan Arias de Saavedra, and had several sons, of whom one wasGonzalo Gomez, Corregidor of Jerez and ancestor of the Mexican andColumbian branches of the family; and another, Juan, whose son Rodrigomarried Dona Leonor de Cortinas, and by her had four children,Rodrigo, Andrea, Luisa, and Miguel, our author.

The pedigree of Cervantes is not without its bearing on "DonQuixote." A man who could look back upon an ancestry of genuineknights-errant extending from well-nigh the time of Pelayo to thesiege of Granada was likely to have a strong feeling on the subject ofthe sham chivalry of the romances. It gives a point, too, to what hesays in more than one place about families that have once been greatand have tapered away until they have come to nothing, like a pyramid.It was the case of his own.

He was born at Alcala de Henares and baptised in the church of SantaMaria Mayor on the 9th of October, 1547. Of his boyhood and youth weknow nothing, unless it be from the glimpse he gives us in the prefaceto his "Comedies" of himself as a boy looking on with delight whileLope de Rueda and his company set up their rude plank stage in theplaza and acted the rustic farces which he himself afterwards tookas the model of his interludes. This first glimpse, however, is asignificant one, for it shows the early development of that love ofthe drama which exercised such an influence on his life and seems tohave grown stronger as he grew older, and of which this verypreface, written only a few months before his death, is such astriking proof. He gives us to understand, too, that he was a greatreader in his youth; but of this no assurance was needed, for theFirst Part of "Don Quixote" alone proves a vast amount ofmiscellaneous reading, romances of chivalry, ballads, popularpoetry, chronicles, for which he had no time or opportunity exceptin the first twenty years of his life; and his misquotations andmistakes in matters of detail are always, it may be noticed, thoseof a man recalling the reading of his boyhood.

Other things besides the drama were in their infancy whenCervantes was a boy. The period of his boyhood was in every way atransition period for Spain. The old chivalrous Spain had passed away.The new Spain was the mightiest power the world had seen since theRoman Empire and it had not yet been called upon to pay the price ofits greatness. By the policy of Ferdinand and Ximenez the sovereignhad been made absolute, and the Church and Inquisition adroitlyadjusted to keep him so. The nobles, who had always resistedabsolutism as strenuously as they had fought the Moors, had beendivested of all political power, a like fate had befallen thecities, the free constitutions of Castile and Aragon had been sweptaway, and the only function that remained to the Cortes was that ofgranting money at the King's dictation.

The transition extended to literature. Men who, like Garcilaso de laVega and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, followed the Italian wars, hadbrought back from Italy the products of the post-Renaissanceliterature, which took root and flourished and even threatened toextinguish the native growths. Damon and Thyrsis, Phyllis and Chloehad been fairly naturalised in Spain, together with all the devices ofpastoral poetry for investing with an air of novelty the idea of adispairing shepherd and inflexible shepherdess. As a set-off againstthis, the old historical and traditional ballads, and the truepastorals, the songs and ballads of peasant life, were being collectedassiduously and printed in the cancioneros that succeeded oneanother with increasing rapidity. But the most notable consequence,perhaps, of the spread of printing was the flood of romances ofchivalry that had continued to pour from the press ever since GarciOrdonez de Montalvo had resuscitated "Amadis of Gaul" at the beginningof the century.

For a youth fond of reading, solid or light, there could have beenno better spot in Spain than Alcala de Henares in the middle of thesixteenth century. It was then a busy, populous university town,something more than the enterprising rival of Salamanca, andaltogether a very different place from the melancholy, silent,deserted Alcala the traveller sees now as he goes from Madrid toSaragossa. Theology and medicine may have been the strong points ofthe university, but the town itself seems to have inclined rather tothe humanities and light literature, and as a producer of books Alcalawas already beginning to compete with the older presses of Toledo,Burgos, Salamanca and Seville.

A pendant to the picture Cervantes has given us of his firstplaygoings might, no doubt, have been often seen in the streets ofAlcala at that time; a bright, eager, tawny-haired boy peering intoa book-shop where the latest volumes lay open to tempt the public,wondering, it may be, what that little book with the woodcut of theblind beggar and his boy, that called itself "Vida de Lazarillo deTormes, segunda impresion," could be about; or with eyes brimming overwith merriment gazing at one of those preposterous portraits of aknight-errant in outrageous panoply and plumes with which thepublishers of chivalry romances loved to embellish the title-pagesof their folios. If the boy was the father of the man, the sense ofthe incongruous that was strong at fifty was lively at ten, and somesuch reflections as these may have been the true genesis of "DonQuixote."

For his more solid education, we are told, he went to Salamanca. Butwhy Rodrigo de Cervantes, who was very poor, should have sent hisson to a university a hundred and fifty miles away when he had oneat his own door, would be a puzzle, if we had any reason for supposingthat he did so. The only evidence is a vague statement by ProfessorTomas Gonzalez, that he once saw an old entry of the matriculationof a Miguel de Cervantes. This does not appear to have been everseen again; but even if it had, and if the date corresponded, it wouldprove nothing, as there were at least two other Miguels born about themiddle of the century; one of them, moreover, a Cervantes Saavedra,a cousin, no doubt, who was a source of great embarrassment to thebiographers.

That he was a student neither at Salamanca nor at Alcala is bestproved by his own works. No man drew more largely upon experience thanhe did, and he has nowhere left a single reminiscence of student life-for the "Tia Fingida," if it be his, is not one- nothing, not even"a college joke," to show that he remembered days that most menremember best. All that we know positively about his education is thatJuan Lopez de Hoyos, a professor of humanities and belles-lettres ofsome eminence, calls him his "dear and beloved pupil." This was in alittle collection of verses by different hands on the death ofIsabel de Valois, second queen of Philip II, published by theprofessor in 1569, to which Cervantes contributed four pieces,including an elegy, and an epitaph in the form of a sonnet. It is onlyby a rare chance that a "Lycidas" finds its way into a volume ofthis sort, and Cervantes was no Milton. His verses are no worse thansuch things usually are; so much, at least, may be said for them.

By the time the book appeared he had left Spain, and, as fateordered it, for twelve years, the most eventful ones of his life.Giulio, afterwards Cardinal, Acquaviva had been sent at the end of1568 to Philip II by the Pope on a mission, partly of condolence,partly political, and on his return to Rome, which was somewhatbrusquely expedited by the King, he took Cervantes with him as hiscamarero (chamberlain), the office he himself held in the Pope'shousehold. The post would no doubt have led to advancement at thePapal Court had Cervantes retained it, but in the summer of 1570 heresigned it and enlisted as a private soldier in Captain DiegoUrbina's company, belonging to Don Miguel de Moncada's regiment, butat that time forming a part of the command of Marc Antony Colonna.What impelled him to this step we know not, whether it was distastefor the career before him, or purely military enthusiasm. It maywell have been the latter, for it was a stirring time; the events,however, which led to the alliance between Spain, Venice, and thePope, against the common enemy, the Porte, and to the victory of thecombined fleets at Lepanto, belong rather to the history of Europethan to the life of Cervantes. He was one of those that sailed fromMessina, in September 1571, under the command of Don John ofAustria; but on the morning of the 7th of October, when the Turkishfleet was sighted, he was lying below ill with fever. At the news thatthe enemy was in sight he rose, and, in spite of the remonstrancesof his comrades and superiors, insisted on taking his post, sayinghe preferred death in the service of God and the King to health. Hisgalley, the Marquesa, was in the thick of the fight, and before it wasover he had received three gunshot wounds, two in the breast and onein the left hand or arm. On the morning after the battle, according toNavarrete, he had an interview with the commander-in-chief, DonJohn, who was making a personal inspection of the wounded, oneresult of which was an addition of three crowns to his pay, andanother, apparently, the friendship of his general.

How severely Cervantes was wounded may be inferred from the fact,that with youth, a vigorous frame, and as cheerful and buoyant atemperament as ever invalid had, he was seven months in hospital atMessina before he was discharged. He came out with his left handpermanently disabled; he had lost the use of it, as Mercury told himin the "Viaje del Parnaso" for the greater glory of the right. This,however, did not absolutely unfit him for service, and in April 1572he joined Manuel Ponce de Leon's company of Lope de Figueroa'sregiment, in which, it seems probable, his brother Rodrigo wasserving, and shared in the operations of the next three years,including the capture of the Goletta and Tunis. Taking advantage ofthe lull which followed the recapture of these places by the Turks, heobtained leave to return to Spain, and sailed from Naples in September1575 on board the Sun galley, in company with his brother Rodrigo,Pedro Carrillo de Quesada, late Governor of the Goletta, and someothers, and furnished with letters from Don John of Austria and theDuke of Sesa, the Viceroy of Sicily, recommending him to the Kingfor the command of a company, on account of his services; a donoinfelice as events proved. On the 26th they fell in with a squadron ofAlgerine galleys, and after a stout resistance were overpowered andcarried into Algiers.

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miqeul de Cervantes
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