Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a writer born in Alcalá de Henares in September 1547, wrote one of the most important books in history: The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605). It is the first modern novel, translated into more than 50 languages. For the World Book Day we want to remember this great author with some important information about his life.
The World Book Day
UNESCO declared April 23 to be the World Book Day at the request of the Spanish government, since this day had been celebrated here for many years to commemorate the figure of Miguel de Cervantes on the date of his death, which also coincides with that of William Shakespeare. However, this is not entirely accurate since, to begin with, the calendar used in England and Spain in 1616 was not the same (so they did not die on the same day) and, in addition, death certificates were not signed on the day of death, but at least the following day. It is more correct to say that Cervantes died on April 22, 1616.
Lepanto’s one-handed (El manco del Lepanto)
He was given this nickname because he fought as a soldier in the battle of Lepanto, was wounded in the left hand and lost the movement of this. He did not lose his hand, but he did lose the use of it, hence he was called the one-armed man of Lepanto.
His second last name
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. His father’s name was Rodrigo de Cervantes and his mother Leonor de Cortinas, so Saavedra was not his real second surname. Miguel takes it from his captivity in Algiers. After the battle of Lepanto he had become one-armed and while he was imprisoned in Algiers, he was given a nickname: “shaibedraa”, which means “the man with the crippled hand”. He Spanishized it and began to sign his work with that surname, which was, in a way, a way of laughing at himself. In fact, Cervantes, in his marriage to a woman named Catalina de Salazar y Palacios has no offspring, but he does have a daughter named Isabel with a lover. When the girl is orphaned at the age of 16, Cervantes recognizes her as his own and in order not to tarnish his family name, he gives her the surname Saavedra.
What was he like physically?
There are no portraits of Cervantes painted during his lifetime. The many portraits we know, the most famous of which is the one in the Royal Academy of Language by Juan de Jáuregui, are based on Cervantes’ own description of himself in Exemplary Novels (1613): “aquiline face, brown hair, smooth forehead, corza nose, silver beard, big whiskers, small mouth…”. Here he also narrates aspects of his personality, such as the fact that he was a stutterer.
Plagiarism and copying
Don Quixote was a very successful book, so other writers wanted to take advantage of this to sell books themselves. This is the case of the author Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. Avellaneda wrote what is known as El Quijote de Avellaneda and published it under that pseudonym in 1614. This work is what prompted Cervantes to accelerate the writing and publication in 1615 of a second part of Don Quixote of his own, which ends with the death of the protagonist, so that no one could ever again write a sequel to the adventures of the famous nobleman.
Is there anything beyond Quixote?
Whenever we talk about Cervantes we always talk about Don Quixote, but the author wrote many other well-known works, such as La Galatea, published in 1585 in Alcalá de Henares, a shepherd novel whose main plot is about how Elicio, a shepherd, falls in love with Galatea, a beautiful shepherdess, but her father wants to marry her to another man, Erastro.
Lope de Vega and Cervantes lived at the same time, in the same city and on the same street. The former lived in a huge house with several floors and a garden, thanks to the fruits of his numerous plays. The other lived in a small apartment because his novels were not financially successful. For that reason he wanted to write theater, to earn more money and be on a par with Lope. But he did not know that his work would be better known and valued, nor that the street where they lived is not called Calle de Lope de Vega but Calle Cervantes.
We say goodbye with a quote from one of the most famous passages of Don Quixote to close this article about one of the giants of Spanish literature: “Look, your worship,” Sancho replied, “those that appear there are not giants, but windmills, and what they look like arms on them are the blades, which, turned by the wind, make the millstone go”.
Knowing a little more about Cervantes’ life, we invite you to test your knowledge with this quiz!