Cervantes And The Grandeur Of Spain

Before the rise of England to the status of a world power in the seventeenth century, Spain’s empire in the sixteenth century covered an immense portion of the globe. Yet the character of this nation, so unlike any other in Europe, confounds easy explanation. Inheriting the bloods and passions of its constituent peoples, it blended Arabic, Hebraic, native Iberian, and Latin stocks into a mixture of perfervid and turbulent vitality.

No other nation in Europe was as devoutly religious as Spain; and the preference of the people was for a creed rich in miracles and stern in conception. Even criminals carried religious paraphernalia and scapulars; in 1600 Spain contained some 9,000 monasteries and over 32,000 Dominican and Franciscan friars, nearly all of them imbued with a zeal that marked them off from their milder counterparts in Italy.

Agriculture and industry had suffered grievously from the expulsion of the Moriscos and Jews; and the peasantry, disdaining manual labor, settled into an enervating lassitude that found the guitar and songbook more congenial than the plow. The Inquisition—always more severe in Spain than in Italy—cast a pall over cultural life, retarding the growth of free inquiry and cutting the nation off from the stimulating strains of European thought that had galvanized Renaissance Italy and Reformation Germany. Spain chose to remain medieval. She stayed contentedly so.

The surfeit of gold from the New World, ironically, contributed to Spain’s decline. As fast as the money was unloaded from the galleons, it was spent on wars and on the purchase of manufactured goods from England or Holland. Prices exploded as the law of inflation caught up with the influx of precious metals: in Andalusia, we are told, prices of good increased by 500% in the sixteenth century.

The money could not last forever. Galleon traffic from the Americas in 1700 was less than half what it had been a century earlier. The bullion had proven to be as addictive as it was fleeting. One is reminded of the similarly corrosive effects of petroleum wealth on some Middle Eastern nations.


As the money dried up and the military reversals mounted, Spain found herself saddled with a parasitic class of nobles, a dour clerical establishment, and an inadequate manufacturing base. These proved incapable of modernizing the country. Spain settled into a long period of political and military decline. And yet there was—and remains—an incomparable majesty and grandeur in Spain, even as her decline became a European tragedy. The conquest of an empire that spanned the globe, the seeding of the New World with a transformed Latin blood and culture, the fanatical propagation of the Roman creed into strange and savage lands: is this not one of history’s great dramas?

It is against this backdrop of valor and decline that we must consider Spain’s greatest novelist. Miguel de Cervantes was born at Alcalá on October 9, 1547.  His father was an itinerant physician, scratching out an uncertain living from the generosity, and the ailments, of the peasants with whom he disdained to rub shoulders. At age 22 he had some of his poems published by a Madrid teacher, and in the same year was banished from Spain for ten years as punishment for dueling. In 1571 he signed as a seaman in the armada assembled by Don Juan of Austria (most likely to escape prison) and saw action against the Turks at Lepanto, enduring three wounds and the loss of use of his left hand.

In 1575 he and his brother Rodrigo, on their way back to Spain, were captured by Saracen pirates and (as was customary at the time) impressed into slavery in Algiers. For five years he was held in bondage. His sisters tapped into their marriage dowries, his mother tapped her friends and contacts, and together they raised the five hundred crowns needed to ransom him. From this experience he gained a wealth of stories, a knowledge of Arabic and of Islamic customs, and a genially philosophic view of life. But perhaps this was enough. He returned to Spain rich in nothing but experience.

Further military adventures brought him little except a healthy skepticism of swordplay and war. In 1584 he married a loyal and patient woman named Catalina, eighteen years younger than he, and oversaw the publication of a mediocre romance titled Galatea; further efforts as a playwright produced little in the way of lucre.

Appointed a tax collector at Grenada in 1594, he was eventually jailed for ninety days on suspicion of embezzlement; released, our hero was locked up again in Argamasilla. Like his Portuguese contemporary Camões and his English predecessor Thomas Malory, he found prison a wonderful concentrator of literary effort, and there completed the manuscript for what would eventually become one of the most cherished novels in world literature.


In 1605, his meandering manuscript finally saw print, and touched heaven. It was titled The Life and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. It is a genial tale of a kindly lunatic, who time has passed by, wandering the Spanish countryside (although trying to follow Cervantes’s geography is impossible) and upholding feudal values against brigands, miscreants, and windmills.

Here we find some of the most touching creations in Spanish literature: the loyal Sancho Panza and his donkey, the Lady Dulcinea, and the odd assortment of characters whom the Don encounters in his rambling quest. Don Quixote himself is animated by a desire to right injustices and to protect the weak; he longs to return to an imagined golden age of knights and heroes, and seeks to recreate this ethic in his tragi-comical dealings with the Spanish peasantry. Cervantes channeled a lifetime of suffering and failure into the most optimistic, kindly, and profound of all novels.

Cervantes even achieves something more, for he turns this strange figure into a philosopher, and has him and Sancho Panza amuse the reader with a flood of well-placed adages. Despite his master’s shortcomings and befuddlement, Sancho loves him, serves him loyally, and provides the comic relief needed in a narrative of eight hundred pages.  The book is a goldmine of proverbs, a fountain of wisdom, a vein of memorable episodes, and at times a tiresome bore; yet we are swept along by the bubbling stream of the narrative, the cheerful humor of the whole, and its ability to tap into the deepest recesses of our consciousness.

We love Don Quixote because we see ourselves in him. We identify with his hopeless quests, his need to dream great dreams, his veneration of a lost ideal, and his protective self-delusions in an unforgiving world.  We share the hardships and humiliations of the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” because we have lived them, and go on doing so.


Miguel de Cervantes: a life of adventure and difficulty

Don Quixote is one of the glories of the written word. It has seen more translations than any other book except the Bible; the Don and his loyal squire are drawn with such precision and sympathy that we feel offended when Cervantes humiliates his heroes. At the end of the tale, the old Don takes ill, and feels the approach of the Reaper. The final deathbed scene is one of the great passages of world literature. Who will object to our quoting it here at length?

As all human things, especially the lives of men, are transitory, their very beginnings being but steps to their dissolution; so Don Quixote, who was no way exempted from the common fate, was snatched away by death when he least expected it…A physician was sent for, who, upon feeling his pulse, did not very well like it; and therefore desired him of all things to provide for his soul’s health, for that of his body was in a dangerous condition. Don Quixote heard this with much more temper than those about him; for his niece, his housekeeper, and his squire, fell a weeping as bitterly as if he had been laid out already…

At length he awaked, and, with a loud voice, “Praised be the Almighty,” cried he, “for this great benefit he has vouchsafed to me!”  The niece, hearkening very attentively to these words of her uncle, and finding more sense in them than there was in his usual talk, at least since he had fallen ill; “What do you say, sir?” said she; “has any thing extraordinary happened? What mercies are these you mention?”  “Mercies,” answered he, “that Heaven has this moment vouchsafed to show me, in spite of all my iniquities…”

Don Quixote’s words put them all into such wonder, that they stood gazing upon one another; they thought they had reason to doubt of the return of his understanding, and yet they could not help believing him…The curate thereupon cleared the room of all the company but himself and Don Quixote, and then confessed him…These dismal tidings opened the sluices of the housekeeper’s, the niece’s, and the good squire’s swollen eyes, so that a whole inundation of tears burst out of those flood-gates, and a thousand sighs from their hearts…

“Woe’s me, my dear master’s worship!” cried Sancho, all in tears, “do not die this time, but even take my counsel, and live on many years. For shame, sir, do not give way to sluggishness, but get out of your doleful dumps, and rise…”  “Soft and fair gentlemen,” replied Don Quixote; “never look for birds of this year in the nests of the last: I was mad, but now I am in my right senses; I was once Don Quixote de la Mancha, but I am now (as I said before) the plain Alonzo Quixano; and I hope the sincerity of my words, and my repentance, may restore me to the same esteem you have had for me before…”

Thus died that ingenious gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha…with design that all the towns and villages in La Mancha should contend for the honour of giving him birth, as the seven cities of Greece did for Homer…Several epitaphs were made for his tomb, and will only give you this, which the bachelor Carrasco caused to be put over it:

The body of a knight lies here,

So brave, that, to his latest breath,

Immortal glory was his care,

And made him triumph over death.

Nor has his death the world deceived

Less than his wondrous life surprised;

For if he like a madman lived,

At least he like a wise one died.

All of Spain wept with Sancho. No one who has dared to dream impossible dreams, who has been inspired by a just and noble cause, or who has sought to attain the unattainable, can fail to be moved the pathos and humanity of this story.

If anyone should doubt the enduring greatness of Spain, let him stand beneath the fantastic spires of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; let him touch the sublime arches of the Alhambra; and let him hear the rhythm and beauty of the Spanish language, spoken in all its forms across the globe, which cedes to no other tongue its primacy.

The venerable old Don, despite all his human flaws and follies, possessed a nobility of purpose that redeemed the limitations of his powers. Spain honored him, loved him, and forgave him.

Read More: An Epic Poem Of Discovery And Adventure

65 thoughts on “Cervantes And The Grandeur Of Spain”

    1. If my experience with university in the 1990’s is any indicator, then sadly sir, no, they are no longer doing this. I can only assume, of course, that the extreme leftist sneer at Western society has gotten much worse since the 1990’s, where even then it was awful to behold.
      Well done, as always Quintin.

        1. That is also the impression I’m getting. So what classes and subjects are they teaching in replace of this?The history of gays and trannies?

        2. They are only teaching literature in a way that fits their own narrative. The only way to interpret a work of fiction is the way they teach us. Any differing viewpoint is wrong and will result in failure.

        3. No, the herstory of the *oppression* of gays and trannies. Have some sensitivity, cis-head.

  1. Thank you for writing this magnificent article, this makes me want to visit Spain one day!!!!

  2. That was beautiful Quintus…as the son of a Spaniard and one who rereads el Quijote once every 5 years or so…thank you!

      1. ¡Sí se puede! Si yo, gringo que soy, tenga tala esperanza en mi proprio corazón, vuestra merced también puede realizar su deseo. Mi maestra de Español, en el colegio, me explicaba que hay un buen diccionário dedicado al Español del época de Cervantes. Con este diccionario, estoy seguro que el lucho será más fácil. Se me olvidó el nombre del diccionário, pero pienso que se llama “Diccionário del Siglo de Oro.”

        1. También es fácil encontrar ediciones con generosas notas a pie de página que explican y ofrecen un buen contexto para los arcaísmos.

        2. Así habría imaginado yo. Si los escritores más grandes (y antiguos) de mi idioma también tienen tales ediciones, me parece muy natural que los hispanohablantes también querrían un método para conservar una familiaridad con su herencia literaria. Pienso que es una vergüenza, cuando un hombre Inglese tiene que leer Shakespeare en tala edición; ¡pero quizás no hay que avergonzarme, hacer así con un escritor de otro idióma! ¿Me puede recomendar una buena edición?

  3. you often manage to stir the thirst for history & literature Quintus and this is no exception. I’ve noticed though that you (deliberately?) left out a famous phrase always associated with Don Quixote but which will no doubt arise within the comments. Something to do with windmills of course.
    And that’s not to mention the wondrously beautiful Dulcinea. Anyone care to rate Dulcinea on a scale of 1 to 10 (at the risk of being sexist)?
    Its worth remembering that if Don Quixote was mad, it was precisely his madness, his psychotic blue-pillness that made him such a fine character and furnished us with such a great story. Sometimes seeing beauty where it might seem to be absent isn’t entirely a lost cause.
    n.b. I went straight from this to the scatalogical or rather urological Gargantua & Pantagruel which if nothing else demonstrates how good Don Quixote is in comparison

    1. Did you know that in Dulcinea’s hometown, El Toboso, nowadays there are women named like that even though that name was made up for Aldonza?

      1. I didn’t. I wonder if the parents there name their daughters by that name in the hope some desperate white knight will come along and swoop them up

  4. ” it blended Arabic, Hebraic, native Iberian, and Latin stocks into a mixture of perfervid and turbulent vitality.”
    No mention of the Visigoths?!? Sir, I protest, the exclusion of my Germanic brethren shows a high amount of bias!
    The Germanic Anti-Defamation League

      1. The Visigoths! Their kingdom in Spain lasted four hundred years, longer than the existence of the United States; they gave post-classical Europe its first law code (the Fuero Juzgo); and they sprinkled Germanic blood among the people and especially their progeny, the later Iberian nobilities.
        I’m sure you know, Quintus, that in independence-era Latin America, whites born in Spain were called godos by the resentful America-born whites… This was inexact, but not by accident.

        1. In the Canary Islands they still call other Spaniards godos.
          BTW, Hispano Americans only began calling themselves Latin Americans when the French imperialists convinced them to do so. So by that reasoning, the Quebecois are Latin Americans.

      2. No, the Vandals and Visigoths are different folk, the Vandals being overrun by the Visigoths just decades after their own arrival in Iberia. About a century after the Vandals had arrived, the victorious Visigoths converted to the Catholic Faith (from Arianism), beginning with St. Hermenegild. They ruled the Iberian peninsula without opposition until the Moslems invaded, but it was the mixed Gothic/Roman folk (then called “Hispani”) who regrouped and entrenched themselves in the mountainous regions of Asturias (where my aunt’s family was from!), from whence the Reconquista was launched. One of my patron saints, St. Rudericus (San Rodrigo de Cordoba) was a Visigoth, and one of the great saints of the early Middle Ages, now but little known, was St. Benedict of Aniane, a Visigoth (albeit from Southern France, not the Iberian peninsula).

  5. The most amazing thing is that Cervantes poke holes in the nice guy ethos four centuries ago. He tells the story of Grisóstomo who fell in love with Marcela, the most beautiful woman in the district, and pledged his love, his goodness, his wealth, his art, and his soul to her. She, in turn, cruelly spurned him, preferring to live as a reclusive shepherdess, and he died of a broken heart. When the funeral begins and the attending start decrying the heartless wench, she shows up to put a word in:
    You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her. What’s more, it could happen that the lover of beauty is ugly, and since that which is ugly is loathsome, it isn’t very fitting for him to say: ‘I love you because you’re beautiful; you must love me even though I’m ugly.’
    Why do you think I should be obliged to give in to you, just because you say you love me dearly? Or else tell me this: if heaven had made me ugly instead of beautiful, would I have been right to complain about you for not loving me? I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside…I have never given any hope to Grisóstomo or fulfilled any man’s desires, so it can truly be said of all of them that they were killed by their own obstinacy rather than by my cruelty.

    1. That doesn’t seem like a case of nice guy getting screwed over. More like, low-SMV man wanting a high-SMV woman, wanting what he wants from her while not bringing to the table whatever she wants.
      From the way you tell it, I don’t see how a red-pill man can blame Marcela for anything. She has been completely open about her rejection of him. Now, it would be a different matter had she, for example, led him on and milked him for his beta bucks while getting her alpha fucks from the charming rake or hunky apprentice blacksmith.

      1. He pledged his love, his goodness, his wealth, his art, and his soul to her because he is a nice guy. Women fall in love through their ears. It was not what she wanted to hear. He was too nice to her.

  6. Have you thought of walking the Camino de Santiago? My parents lived off and on in Southern Spain for many years. The food, the landscape, the people, beautiful country. I have been in Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Seville and passed through many other towns and cities. They have returned home now but I will return there and explore more of the country. Don Quixote is on my reading list. Can’t believe it has taken me this long. Thanks for the reminder to do it!

    1. The next Jacobeo will be 2012.
      “Thanks to the granted privilege, which was confirmed by Alexander II, during the year in which July 25th, St. James’ Day, falls on a Sunday, the grace of the Jubilee may be obtained in the Church of Compostela.
      Holy Years thus take place with apparent irregularity, separated by intervals of six, five, six and eleven years. The last Holy Years in the 20th century where 1993 and 1999. The first ones of the 21st century will be 2004, 2010 and 2021.”

  7. Quintus, with the help of a friend of mine, I run a webpage dedicated to the deconstrution of the stereotypes about the middle ages, perpetrated mostly by the marxist narrivative. There’s also some modern age articles we put work into.
    Unfortunately it’s still 100% dedicated to portuguese-speaking readers (we’re brazilain), and I would like to have your permission to translate some of your articles on the topic and post them on said page. The one about the Battle of Lepanto is particularly inspiring.
    Of course, your name and link to the original article would head each text. I’ll be anxiously expecting a response.
    Thank you.

    1. What is the webpage? I’d be interested in reading it, since it would be a great help in my path to learn portuguese.

      1. Here Untergang07
        Sorry that it has to be a facebook page. We tried running our own blog before but we ended up having close to no readers at all. Despite the disservice that facebook does with our social relations, it can help boost the spread of positive knowledge, as long as it doesn’t become mainstream. I am not the admin who identifies as Felipe, though. I haven’t even made a post myself so far (that depends on Quintus), only helped him with his research.

        1. Thank you for your response. It’s a pity you had to abandon your old blog, but that would be a better format than Facebook to be honest. I need to practice my Portuguese. I look forward to reading the material inmediately. Thanks

  8. Did Spain overspend the wealth it got from its colonies? If so then nothing changes eh?

    1. Properly speaking, Spain did not have colonies but overseas territories with the same status and rights as the peninsula. The Constitution of 1812, for instance, spoke of “Spaniards of both hemispheres”.
      After a long war there is usually a period of post-war depression or reconstruction as efforts are focused on rebuilding and healing. After nearly 800 years fighting the Muslims invaders (who kept receiving reinforcements from North Africa, while fort the most part, Europe didn’t lift a finger for Spain or Portugal) Spain embarked in the gigantic task of evangelizing most of America, parts of Africa, Asia and even Oceania.
      Instead of thanking Spain for keeping the Old World free from Muslim oppression and expanding Western civilization like no one else, a brutal campaign of lies was launched from Europe against Spain (see my comment about the Spanish Inquisition). And Spain had to embark in wars in Europe and elsewhere.
      The mystery is how the country has survived such titanic efforts.

  9. Glory to Spain and her sons, glory to Rome and her sons. Said by an argentinian.

  10. Really insightful analysis of Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote, and the milieu in which it was written. It really must form the basis of every man’s education as it reveals universal truths about men and women. It was this novel along with Edmund Rostrand’s Cyrano de Bergerac which influenced my views on women the most. Both were hard to digest at the time I read them as a young man, but as the years pass in my life I’m drawn back to both texts for containing lessons I’m still learning.

  11. Hey don’t forget about us semi illiterates,we enjoy your articles to ya know.thanks for reminding us about how it was back in the day,what we once were , and that we have the potential to get some of that back .I will purchase 37 soon even though I’m backed up with some unfinished reading, just to show my support. Hail quintus

  12. Cervantes had a very difficult time publishing his work thanks to his Patron being a grade A @sshole. Don Quixote was immediately hugely popular, but Cervantes saw very little remuneration in terms of either recognition or money. To add injury upon insult, some politically connected scumbag plagiarized his work and made handsome profit. This prompted Cervantes to write a sequel, killing off his hero so that nobody could plagiarize his work again.

    1. Yes, this is basically true. After Part 1 was published, someone (a politically connected flunky) “published” a fake second part. Cervantes was furious, of course, and rushed to finish his own Part 2.

  13. Spain is not a role model. Same goes for Portugal.
    Countries that used to rule over vast parts of the world are now low-tier European nations. Full of homosexuals (homo marriage is legal in Spain), sluts (Spanish women are sluttier than American ones), and cruelty against animals.

  14. The historical facts presented in this article are quite inaccurate.
    Spain was not even a country at the time Cervantes lived, and by the way the Kingdom of Portugal was in an iberian union with Castile and Aragon. Phillip II of Spain also ruled in Flandes, Austria, Naples, Sicily, Milan, etc. So that map has no sense.
    The spanish galleons full of gold are also a myth. They were mainly full of silver from the Americas, and spices from Asia (which was brought across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico and transported inland to the Atlantic shore).
    And the biggest reason for spanish decline was the continous loss of human force due to conquests around the world and wars in Europe to protect dynastic possesions. At the end of XVI century the spanish army (The Tercios), were composed mainly of mercenaries from Central Europe, which was a burden in spanish finances and made Phillip II default several times. So as soon as the gold reached the Iberian peninsula was put in route to Flandes or Geneva to pay war debts.
    If you really want to make Spain’s history some justice you must check the School of Salamanca, their contributions to philosophy, to economics, even human rights. Long time silenced by protestant countries (winners dictate history), according to Schumpeter the founders of economic science, or as called by Rothbard the proto-Austrian economists.
    The real reason why the spanish excesses in the Americas with the native population are well known today, was they were the only colonial country in the world in which the debate was taking place at that time. The spanish intellectuals were who wrote about this.
    Anyway good article. Shows a genuine interest in culture, literature, in history and of course in personal growing.

    1. You forgot one thing more: the 200+ war Spain was forced to wage against the Ottoman empire, a war that no one else at the time (either Netherlands, England or France) was willing to wage unless the Ottomans were at their doorsteps…
      This protracted war was a real sink in terms of money, men and materials and delayed the development of Spain while other countries were free to invest in their betterment as they saw fit. The war ended when the Ottoman empire was exhausted, unfortunately so was the Hispanic empire…

  15. This part of the world including Italy and the Mediterranean islands are fascinating in the way their cultures have distinguished themselves from the rest of Europe. The mixture of Muslim and Latin culture have made for very interesting history. Sicily is another compelling example of a place that has been through endless siege due to Greek, Roman, Musilim, and Spanish conquest. Interesting stuff.
    I’ve been working up my Spanish proficiency to the point where I can read Don Quixote and 100 Years of Solitude without too much of a problem. This makes me want to put even more time into learning the language. Great article as per usual.

  16. Cervantes was a beast. Don Quixote, one of the greatest heroes of all of literature. We desperately need more Don Quixotes in this world, in the West. And more men like Cervantes, who knew a righteous battle when he saw one. Who knew an epic story when he saw one, either to pen or to live.
    A little mad in the head that Don Quixote, but a lot Righteous and more than enough Courage to go around. Today’s old-fart Baby Boomers are all coward, and a lot mad. Virtually zero righteousness in ’em.
    For even Christianity gives a bit of room for madness, for letting loose the reigns, in Righteousness and Courage, in Goodness and Light, in Fighting, for poetry, as it was meant to be. But never in evil.

  17. The whole Iberian peninsula, and the Spanish culture, have always fascinated me. One wouldn’t think that this country on the fringe of Europe would be such a cross-roads. But it saw Greek colonies in ancient times, and then was called the most Romanized of the provinces; it was then occupied by Visigoths and Islam in turn; it has the isolated Basque people and language to the north, and the Celtic-originating Galician culture to the Northwest. It is the final resting place of the Apostle James, the only other Apostolic tomb in Europe, and home to two unique Liturgical Rites: those of Braga and of Toledo (called “Mozarabic”). Then, colonizing and conquering places as far flung as California, Florida, South America and the Philippines, it has taken on a further coloring of many cultures. Some of the best and worst things to touch the Church are Ibero-Spanish – the Dominicans, the Hieronymites, the Jesuits, the Holy Grail, Santiago and the Pilgrim Trail, the Cantigas de Maria and the Codex Calixtinus, the flourishing of the Carmelites and the heights of the contemplative tradition, on the good side… the Inquisition, the Borgias, the slave trade and the New World horrors on the other.
    I had a Spanish aunt who embodied all these things to me: a woman as severe in her disapproval as she was effervescent in her approval, she was from Mexico but retained all the features of a proud, pure-blooded, aristocratic Asturian ancestry; she was full of disdain for the “Peyote-smoking border Indians” who dared to butcher her language, yet she made an unmistakably Mesoamerican mole poblano; she had become a bit of a Liberal, but still insisted on renting out the famously baroque San Xavier del Bac Church for her only daughter’s wedding, and flying in a priest from Brazil who knew how to celebrate the Latin Mass very well (this was back in the days of the “Indult,” while the Latin Mass was all but forbidden). This, my first Catholic Mass, was also redolent with this Spanish eclecticism: Ancient Roman ritual, gothic vestments, Spanish Baroque frescoes and architecture, Mexican folk-art, bultos and santos all around the grounds… and a bunch of gringos looking as lost and insecure as possible!
    Sorry to drone on about it, but the beginning of your article really hit upon the quintessence of the Iberian heritage, to me: the melting pot of Europe, almost. Don Quixote is one I have not gotten around to, yet. I attempted to read it over the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, in Spanish. It quickly became clear that the “Golden Age” Spanish in it, would be beyond my amateur capabilities. But I promised myself then, that the first time I read Don Quixote, it would be in Spanish. I didn’t want to have the editorial choices of a translation in my head first; I wanted to read it just as it is, and to know it in only that way. Now that I have Latin, and a couple other Romance languages under my belt, I imagine I could handle it. But, it hasn’t been able to make my list of priorities in recent years. I do remember the first couple pages, from my fumbling attempts to read it: Don Quixote has read too many books, and it has frazzled his mind. He is transported to the world of Romance, and looks the fool for it. But I always wondered if Cervantes was aiming a subtle criticism at the increasingly dry, intellectual, bookish world of the Renaissance, as opposed to the more full-blooded and full-hearted world that was quickly fading away, and hinting that the man full of grandeur was not really so much a fool, as he was doomed to look foolish in a world that no longer had room for him.
    Quintus, you’ve read it: what do you think?

    1. Let me first say that I can’t speak Spanish. My experience with the book was through the mists of translation. As for what Cervantes intended, I think he had many goals. Satire, entertainment, comic effects were all on his mind. He had tried writing many different things in his life and had not succeeded. Finally he hit on a winning formula, and the result was a timeless classic.

      1. Interesting; I had wondered if that theme, of book-learning and dry logic addling the brain, juxtaposed with the grandeur and (absurd) Romance of dying chivalry, was a theme that perdured through the whole work. It sounds like, if it did, it wasn’t at the forefront.
        I forgot to mention my gratitude for all the back story on Cervantes. I knew nothing about the man, really, and that was all very interesting! Maybe I should try to land in prison for a while so I could finish my own books. Somehow, I think prison may be different today…

      1. The Church-run Inquisition was fine; the State-run Inquisition, less so – though, I would heartily concur that even the abuses of the State were nowhere near so bad as commonly portrayed. In my personal opinion, the Church’s institutions rarely produce anything truly bad, though that doesn’t stop people from venting their spleen upon her, anyway. Given that fact, the Inquisition was one of the worst abuses of valid Ecclesiastical aims, but was still not in and of itself very bad.

  18. You say “The Inquisition—always more severe in Spain than in Italy—cast a pall
    over cultural life, retarding the growth of free inquiry and cutting the nation
    off from the stimulating strains of European thought that had galvanized
    Renaissance Italy and Reformation Germany.”
    For many years I wondered why it was that while Spaniards love to be
    tremendously critical about everything, beginning with their own nation, there is
    no tradition to deride, scorn or lament about the Inquisition. These people
    make jokes and tales about everything. Criticizing their own idiosyncrasy,
    history, and leaders is practically a civic duty. You’ll find jokes, tales, and
    sayings disrespecting everything. But there is no trace in Spanish folk culture
    about the Inquisition. No tales, no legends, no sayings specifically about this
    supposedly hellish institution. By contrast, there is, for instance, a play
    (Fuenteovejuna) about a commander who mistreated a village, but that was 2
    years before the Inquisition was created.
    I had an added problem with that. This typical image of torture, uncontested
    power, brutal intolerance, and innumerable deaths always made me think of Soviet
    or Nazi hellholes, but I could never imagine the laid-back Spaniards going that
    way. It just didn’t fit. At all.
    Then one day I decided to read what the Spanish Inquisition actually
    was. (Who needs to do that, actually, since we all know it was hell, hell,
    I found out, among other things, that:
    The first Inquisition was created in Languedoc (southern France) in 1184
    to inquire (hence the name), about violent civil unrest related to religion. The
    Inquisition was permanently established in 1229 under the Dominican Order in
    Rome and later in Languedoc.
    Spain was the last country to establish an Inquisition in 1478, first
    in the Kingdom of Aragon and then the Kingdom of Castile. Because it was such a
    latecomer in Spain, it was established with more legal requirements and
    guarantees than anywhere else. Many European rulers sent letters to the Spanish Kings congratulating them that at last Spain had an Inquisition.
    The Spanish Inquisition was originally created to investigate the false
    conversions from Judaism to Catholicism. It was a Jew convert who lobbied in
    the court of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) to promote
    these investigations. Contrary to public sentiment, the Catholic Monarchs had
    repeatedly defended Jewish communities (Queen Isabella’s gynecologist was a Jew)
    and were the last leaders in Europe to expel the Jews.
    The Spanish Inquisition could only try people who had been baptized. It
    only dealt with cases of civil disturbances. It was only active in the Old
    World. Bartolomé de las Casas wanted to expand its activities to the Americas,
    the Catholic Monarchs forbade it.
    Only those who did not repent received some kind of penalty — often
    prayer. A common nuisance was that common criminals systematically tried to be
    judged by the Spanish Inquisition rather than the civil or military courts.
    The Spanish Inquisition very soon concluded that witchcraft was a case
    of delusion and as such should be pitied rather than punished. In Spain, the
    Spanish Inquisition was known as “el partido de las brujas” (the Witches’ Party) because while elsewhere in Europe they were easily burned, in Spain it took years of legal guarantees and in virtually every case they were released. The most infamous trial (Zurragamurdi) began with 5,000 suspects and ended with 11 found guilty, of which only 6 were killed. This pales in comparison to the witch-hunts elsewhere.
    From 1478 to 1834, it sentenced 4,333 people to death. Not all of them
    were eventually executed. It was common to sentence “en efigie”, that is, to
    burn a doll representing the person rather than actually burning the human
    being. In the same period, 150,000 witches were burned at the stake in the rest
    In the 16th century, the European country were fewer people were executed for heresy or religious persecution was Spain.
    The Spanish Inquisition never had the power to torture anyone so this
    had to be carried out by civil authorities. Which meant moving the prisoner
    from the Inquisition prison to some civil building. This often proved to be too
    much work. Out of 7,000 trials in Valencia torture was used in 2% of them. The
    most common method was to pour water down their throats. Never for more than 15
    minutes. And no one was tortured more than twice. Most torture devices seen in
    movies and “museums” did not exist at the time. The infamous “Iron Maiden” was
    never used in Spain.
    The Spanish Inquisition banned lashing women. And limited to a maximum
    of 5 years the dreadful galley penalty, which until then used to be perpetual
    Spanish Inquisition prisons allowed prisoners to receive visits from
    relatives. However a more common practice was home arrest which allowed to maintain one’s job. Common prisoners typically tried to be transferred to Spanish Inquisition prisons where, among other things, food was better and the death rate far lower.
    A frequent problem for the inquisitors was the dubious reliability of
    the accusers. This led to most accusations being routinely dismissed.
    Inquisitors asked the accused whom he believed the accuser was. If he got it
    right it was assumed it was a case of envy and the accusation easily dismissed.
    Those who provided false accusations received the penalty that the accused
    would have received. Witch-hunts and pogroms in Spain never became the fad that
    “galvanized” the Reformed Europe. Meanwhile, the discoverer of the circulatory
    system, a Spanish Catholic, was burned at the stake by Protestants in
    Switzerland, the sentence signed by Calvin. The infamous Grand Inquisitor Torquemada didn’t sign a single death sentence in his entire life.
    The greatest cultural and philosophical high in Spanish history took
    place exactly at the same time that the Spanish Inquisition was busiest. So it
    is disingenuous, to say the very least, that the Spanish Inquisition greatly
    harmed culture or thought. Cervantes, by the way, had relatives who worked for
    the Inquisition.
    By 1700 it was doing nothing. In 1834 was finally abolished after more
    than a century of total irrelevance.
    Here is a radio program about the Spanish Inquisition (June 15th, 2014.
    Spanish language. mp3 format)
    Here is a BBC documentary about the Spanish Inquisition (English
    language, YouTube video)

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