No Ordinary Man: The Life and Times of Miguel de Cervantes

No Ordinary Man: The Life and Times of Miguel de Cervantes

by Donald P. McCrory

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The first biography to be aimed at the general reader as much as at students and historians, No Ordinary Man is a fascinating study of the life and work of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), the writer known as the 'Spanish Shakespeare' and author of the timeless classic Don Quixote. A renaissance man in all senses of the term, Cervantes was, in his time, an adventurer, spy, soldier, hostage and creator of the first European novel. This biography is based on the latest original research and incorporates previously unpublished material on Cervantes' long period of captivity in Algiers, his involvement in piracy in the Mediterranean, espionage and the Spanish Armada and his work for the Spanish government. Containing much information never before available in English, No Ordinary Man makes an important contribution to the understanding of this unique literary and historical figure.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), somewhere between Renaissance man and jack-of-all-trades, underwent his own implausible reversals of fortune and twists of fate before he inflicted the same on a fictional knight of La Mancha as McCrory illustrates in this serviceable biography. After fleeing Spain as a young man because of a duel, Cervantes briefly landed in Italy and joined the army in time for the decisive naval battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire. What should have been a comparatively triumphant return to Spain by a wounded veteran with a recommendation from the celebrated commander Don John of Austria, however, turned upside down when he and his brother were captured by Algerian pirates and held for ransom for four years. Finally returned to Spain after a last-minute reprieve from the galleys, Cervantes went from one job to another, serving as court petitioner, civil servant and itinerant tax collector, and suffering two terms of imprisonment over financial dealings. Success and fame came late in life, after Cervantes had attempted a little poetry and then embarked on picaresque fictions, including arguably the last work of chivalry and the first modern novel. Compared with his contemporary Shakespeare, Cervantes has a relatively complete documentary record, although McCrory (head of Hispanic studies at American International University in London) must caulk over the gaps in cause and motive with inference and supposition. Nonetheless, this biography incorporates recent research and rounds out the basic facts of Cervantes's life with political and economic information, from the workings of Philip II's court to the massive financing of the Armada, but fails to bring to life the vivid literary scene of the time. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Library Journal

Not many know that Don Quixote de la Mancha was an instant best seller in 17th-century Spain, although unlike today's best-selling authors, Miguel de Cervantes did not reap many financial rewards. Cervantes's life was un vaiven, a pendulum swing of experience that ranged over his occupations as soldier and spy, diplomat and then poet and artist. Wounded in the Battle of Lepanto during Spain's war with the Ottoman Empire, Cervantes was imprisoned by Algerian pirates before being ransomed to return home to serve as a government agent until the death of Philip II inspired a commemorative sonnet and awakened his impulse to write. This incredible life is re-created in this biography by McCrory, former head of Hispanic studies at the American International University in London and author of six volumes of poetry. McCrory's portrait of Cervantes is the most comprehensive in over a decade. Much of his data is owed to scholar Krzysztof Sliwa of Indiana University, whose research uncovered some previously unused documentation related to Cervantes and his family. McCrory blends Sliwa's findings with his own thorough exploration of Spain's history, especially its golden age, his study of other major biographies of Cervantes, and his painstaking examination of Cervantes's work. The result is a thoroughgoing and credible biography that opts for carefully researched conclusions over hearsay. The rich background in Spanish history will be a plus for many readers, and the family tree that McCrory includes is fascinating. Should academic and public libraries consider another biography of Cervantes? Yes, for the lives of the great are always worth reconsidering, and this is one of the few current Cervantes biographies available in English.-Nedra C. Evers, Sacramento P.L., CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720616286
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

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No Ordinary Man

The Life and Times of Miguel de Cervantes

By Donald P. McCrory

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2005 Donald P. McCrory
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1630-9



Verifiable documented references to the family of Cervantes go back four generations before the birth of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and begin with the mention in Córdoba of Ruy Díaz de Cervantes, who, in March 1463, 'took possession of a vineyard'. Ruy Díaz, a cloth merchant, was the paternal great-grandfather of the Cervantes who rose to become Spain's most celebrated writer. The son of Ruy Díaz was a Juan de Cervantes, and he first appears in a summons to the court to explain 'certain transactions and claims related to cloths' that is dated 17 June 1500. It was also in Córdoba in October 1483 that we find the first mention of Juan Díaz de Torreblanca who was the father of Cervantes' paternal grandmother and is recorded as 'leasing out an orchard for two years to the gardener Andrés Martínez for an annual rent of 2,500 maravedís'. Such entries suggest that, in the century before Cervantes' birth, his father's family was affluent and well established in Andalusia. This is in line with an early reference to the origins of the name of Cervantes that is found in the work of a famous poet of Córdoba, Juan de Mena (1411–1456), who served as the chronicler to King Juan II. In a curious and incomplete work on genealogy, Juan de Mena makes the undocumented claim that the ancestors of what was destined to become the family name of Cervantes originated in Galicia, in the remote north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. He writes:

Those from the lineage of Cervatos and Cervantes are of noble blood and stem from the Munios and Aldefonsos, rich families in León and Castile who are buried in Sahagún and Celanova; they were Galicians and sprang from the loins of Gothic kings and were related by marriage to the kings of León. From Celanova the Aldefonsos went to Castile and took part in the capture of Toledo and having settled in the village of Cervatos took that as their new family name.

Mena goes on to say that one of these men, named Gonzalo, 'so as to distinguish himself from the rest of the Cervatos clan took the name of Cervantes'. When the same source later tells us that the family name of Cervantes is mentioned in connection with the capture of Seville it is clear that new roots in the south of Spain had been established. From this branch we find a Don Juan de Cervantes, who became the Archbishop of Seville as well as a cardinal of the Church of Rome and was buried in Seville Cathedral in 1453. But that was not all. For, arising from that same branch, there is record of 'the grand prior of the Order of St John, named Rodrigo de Cervantes the Deaf'. It is this ecclesiastical offshoot of the ancestry based in Andalusia that will prove significant in the biography of Miguel de Cervantes. Indeed it was the grandson of Rodrigo the Deaf who was to become the Knight Commander of the Order of Santiago and who married into the Saavedra family. Although Cervantes' father, Rodrigo, was to use the surname of Saavedra, it was left to Cervantes himself to make greater use of it, but for causes and in circumstances neither man would have envisaged.

It is clear from the account of Juan de Mena that the campaigns in which the Cervantes family took part helped to shape the political, religious and social conditions that later members of the family were to encounter. A little-studied aspect of the life of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is the role played by his ancestors, although there is no denying the rivalry among Spanish towns and cities to claim the family as theirs. This has resulted in the creation of a number of false documents that, in turn, have spawned spurious claims. And it is not only in relation to his birthplace that such inauthentic documents occur. Their existence has hindered progress in the discovery of the truth about the man the Spanish affectionately call the 'prince of geniuses'.

There is nothing inauthentic, however, about the documentation relating to Cervantes' paternal grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, an eminent lawyer who was born c. 1470 in Córdoba, a city that from 711 until 1236 was under Moorish rule and which, because of its culture and learning, had earned the title 'the Athens of the West'. The earliest reference to Cervantes' great-grandparents on his mother's side is to a Juan de Cortinas, who, in Arganda, Castile, in 1485 donated a chalice to the parish church. Indeed, of the few surviving records from Arganda most concern family donations to the Church, whereas those of Córdoba relate mainly to the buying, selling or renting of lands and of houses. The ability to either give or buy possessions indicates success and suggests that both families enjoyed comfortable lifestyles. The fact that Juan Díaz de Torreblanca, the father of Cervantes' grandmother on his father's side, was a physician and surgeon is a further indication. Active in Córdoba, his success is seen, inter alia, in the ability to purchase houses (with their winepresses) in 1490, in the joint company he set up in 1495 for the 'leasing of the sales-tax on cloths' and in the 55,000 maravedís he paid for 'the purchase of houses' in June of that same year. From the few records that relate directly to the great-grandparents of Cervantes in Andalusia and in Castile, it is clear that they were prosperous and respectable citizens of their communities. Fortunately, documentation for the families of both of Cervantes' grandparents is extant, especially so with reference to Juan de Cervantes, and it is with the help of bona fide records relating to his life and activities that we are able to place the family in a clearer social and historical context.

Despite early attempts at collecting material for the purposes of writing a biography of Juan de Cervantes that were made known in 1887 by Julio de Sigüenza, no biographical study has yet appeared-there are as many as 288 extant documents relating to his life most of which refer to accusations against him: accusations of abuse of office (theft or appropriation of goods) or of serious breaches in common courtesy. Although the context in which these accusations and alleged breaches of etiquette has been lost, the picture that emerges from a study of the documentary evidence is that Juan was ambitious, restless, short-tempered and enjoyed the good life. He was also resilient and always made a point of responding to charges levelled against him, and whenever he lost a case he almost always appealed against the decision.

Recent research proves that Juan was also a man of prominence who, despite setbacks in his long and active career, was highly regarded in the circles that mattered. Proof of this is seen in the substantial sum of 10,000 maravedís he received from the king in 1508 for his services over several years as a scholar and lawyer 'in lawsuits and disputes relating to the revenue for the city of Córdoba'. It is no surprise therefore to find Juan as the mayor of that city in 1516 and, after one year in office – the post was temporary – as its chief magistrate. After various similar offices in both Toledo and in Cuenca, the Duke of Alzadas appointed him as his deputy in Cuenca (where Juan apprehended a Miguel Ruiz, who had stabbed to death 'as many as twelve or thirteen constables') and one year later as his judge in Guadalajara. Juan went from strength to strength, and, when appointed Judge in Residence for the city of Plasencia (1538–41), to be followed by the post of mayor for the Duke of Sessa's estates in Baena (which included Cabra, a city many believe to be important in the early life of Cervantes), his success had turned full circle. When, in 1551, he returned to Córdoba he was welcomed as 'one of the city's most esteemed scholars'. The professional career of Cervantes' grandfather is also significant in that those who posit the notion that Jewish blood ran through his veins point to the grandfather's university education and career as a lawyer, a profession that Juan's own father and his father-in-law both practised, and one in which Jews flourished. Although the bulk of documentary evidence argues against such and similar claims, the 'converso' issue – were the Cervantes family converts from Judaism? – remains a bone of contention. It is clear that Juan enjoyed high social standing in Córdoba and valued his status among the nobility. When he finally retired to Córdoba to work for the Inquisition, he could look back upon a varied and successful career.

Successful as he was, there was one major blemish on the family record which was possibly to have bearing on his grandson's career. The origin of this lay in a dispute concerning payments to do with illegitimacy, and it is well documented. Juan de Cervantes had a very desirable daughter named María who caught the eye of the archdeacon of Guadalajara. As luck would have it, the archdeacon Don Martín de Mendoza – nicknamed El Gitano (The Gypsy) – was himself the illicit fruit of the union between his father, the duke Diego de Hurtado Mendoza, and a gypsy woman, who had been pensioned off and long forgotten. The liaison between María de Cervantes and the archdeacon led to an illegitimate daughter, named Martina de Mendoza. When Juan de Cervantes discovered what had happened he compelled the archdeacon to sign an obligation to the tune of 600,000 maravedís, in order to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of both mother and child. Marriage was out of the question, and the child was sent to Madrid to be brought up. This private arrangement held up well until the duke died and was replaced by his successor, who immediately set about clearing all the family debts. Discovering the obligation imposed on the archdeacon, he immediately sacked Juan de Cervantes who, although he tried to exact just retribution, soon realized that he was fighting a losing battle, so he decided to go to Alcalá de Henares and from there continued his lawsuit. When we learn that one year before the old duke died that he had secretly married a commoner and had left her some 2 million maravedís we can better understand the fury of his successor, who believed that his father's friend and confidante Juan de Cervantes – whom he believed had conspired with his father against him – was to blame for his dramatic loss of revenue. The 'dowry' to the commoner amounted to one fifth of the total value of the successor's inheritance.

In 1532 the tribunal in Valladolid finally decided in Juan's favour, but the decision was hotly disputed and the rancour continued. The affair very soon became public knowledge, and the scandal – that was what it became in the kingdom of Toledo – was reputedly the most talked-about matter during the early years of Charles V's reign. With so much money at stake, a whole series of accusations and counter accusations inevitably ensued in which attacks on Juan's sexual morality loomed high. Unhappily for Juan such acrimony brought the family name of Cervantes into the spotlight. Even two years after the tribunal's verdict in Valladolid we find a reference to a 'letter sent by the graduate Mejía to Dr Vaquer, the inquisitor for Toledo, about the charge brought against Juan de Cervantes of acting as a pimp'. Records prove, however, that litigation was very common in Spanish public life. Juan's determination to defend his corner explains his family's return to Alcalá de Henares, for he had worked in the city from 1509 to 1512. His second child, Rodrigo, the future father of Miguel de Cervantes, had been born there. During his second stay in Alcalá de Henares, Juan de Cervantes worked for the constabulary as a magistrate in the local courts. Together with his wife, Leonor Fernández de Torreblanca, he set up house in what was becoming a fashionable and prosperous city. It was quite the place to be in early sixteenth-century Spain.

The generally agreed year of Rodrigo's birth is 1509, although the absence of a birth certificate has inevitably led to controversy as to the place of birth. The date is significant in the history of the city because it was the year that Cardinal Cisneros founded the university there. Thanks to the foresight and energy of Cisneros, Alcalá de Henares was soon to become the focal point of Renaissance Spain. Known in Roman times as Complutum and later occupied by the Muslims – the prefix 'al' tells us of its Arabic past – the city had been recaptured by Alfonso VI in 1085 and its site was given to the archbishops of Toledo in 1126. It is well known that the church played an active role in resettling the lands won back from the Arabs, and the archbishops did everything in their power to attract colonists and to make Alcalá de Henares a thriving metropolis. As a result it became an important medieval communication axis, capitalizing on its location on the road from Madrid to Saragossa. Alcalá de Henares also attained early prominence for its fairs and markets and as an agricultural centre. It was for these reasons that the city received the special support of the Catholic Monarchs in the 1490s. By the time Cervantes was born, no less than eight city gates gave access to rising numbers of university students who attended the city's twenty-four colleges. By 1565, with a population of some 13,000, Alcalá de Henares had matriculated over 3,000 students, a figure exceeded only by the universities of Salamanca and Valladolid. Clearly, with this sudden influx of students, the town was transformed. Most of the students lived on their own, in private houses or in special student houses, the pupilerías. With its colleges renowned for theology, classical languages, philosophy and architecture, the city also offered its visitors more than twenty convents, two major seminaries, five monasteries, three parish churches and two hospitals. In a detailed drawing of Alcalá de Henares by Anton van den Wyngaerde in 1565, mounted travellers are seen using the wide approach to the city, while in the foreground there is an inn with a spacious courtyard. 'By minimizing his references to secular life', states Richard Kagan, 'Wyngaerde seems to be suggesting that the city of Alcalá de Henares was dedicated to the study of theology and to the service of the Catholic Church, two of the university's avowed goals.' Had the concept of the cultural city of Europe been in vogue at that time Alcalá de Henares would certainly have been a strong candidate. Not only was the city in its prime, it was a prosperous period for the Cervantes family, too.

Not only was Juan's son Rodrigo born in Alcalá de Henares but also Rodrigo's son, Miguel de Cervantes. Endorsed by a notorial statement made by Juan Sánchez de Lugo in Valladolid in July 1552, it is clear that excluding the year 1532 (when the litigious dispute with Diego de Hurtado was at its height) the years in Alcalá de Henares from 1533 to 1538 number among the happiest for the Cervantes family, especially for Rodrigo. But things were to change when Juan agreed to accept the post of magistrate in Plasencia.

Despite the acknowledged 'high life' enjoyed by the family not all, so it seems, had been harmonious at home, and the offer to leave Alcalá de Henares provided Juan with the excuse he had been seeking to part from his wife. From the beginning of 1536 until late in 1537 he had been working in Ocaña, Castile, where he had fallen in love with a María de Córdoba, a girl described as between 'seventeen or nineteen years of age'. Although this secret love affair did not progress it caused Juan to desert. When we learn that in 1551 (five years before his death) he left 50,000 maravedís to María Díaz, his housekeeper-cum-mistress, 'for the services rendered to him over twelve years' – that is to say, shortly after his acceptance of a post in Plasencia – it is plain that involvement with his housekeeper followed hard on the heels with that of Maria de Córdoba. We have no record of any matrimonial problems between Juan and his wife, but the family well knew that its situation had not been at all helped by the demands of the fourth duke, Diego de Hurtado Mendoza, for the return of the gifts – gold jewellery, pearls, silks and rich clothes – and monies made to María, Juan's pretty daughter. By 1538 most or even all of the money may have been spent. The outcome of such liaisons and litigation was a desertion that was as sudden as it was harsh, especially for Leonor. It clearly brought with it a dramatic end to the family's halcyon days in Alcalá de Henares. Taking his older son, Andrés, Juan left behind a distraught wife, daughter and two other sons, Juan, who died in his youth, and Rodrigo.


Excerpted from No Ordinary Man by Donald P. McCrory. Copyright © 2005 Donald P. McCrory. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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