Miguel de Cervantes Biography – Spanish Writer, Novelist, Don Quixote, Legacy

Miguel de Cervantes biography
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Miguel de Cervantes. Zarateman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Miguel de Cervantes Biography and Legacy

Miguel de Cervantes was a Spanish writer, who is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language and one of the most influential writers of all time.

Few writers have impacted and influenced the language that they wrote in, in such a huge way as Cervantes has. He is best known for his novel Don Quixote, which is considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

In this biography, we will take a brief look at the life and times of Miguel de Cervantes.

Early Life

Most of the details regarding the life of Cervantes are still uncertain and unknown, including his actual birth date, name, background, and how he looked.

But in spite of such ambiguity, it is generally believed that Cervantes was born on 29th September 1547, in Alcala de Henares, a city in the community of Madrid, Spain.

Cervantes was the fourth of seven children of Rodrigo de Cervantes, a barber-surgeon, and Leonor de Cortinas. The family lived in Cordoba until 1556, until Cervantes’grandfather died.

Rodrigo was constantly searching for work, in debt, and moving about from one place to another along with the family. Eventually, they settled down in Seville in 1564.

It is speculated that Cervantes attended the Jesuit College in Seville for a couple of years until his father ran into debt again and the family moved to Madrid.

Enrolling in Military Service

On 15th September 1569, an arrest warrant was issued against Cervantes, who was charged with wounding a certain Antonio de Sigura in a duel.

The arrest warrant was discovered by a biographer of Cervantes only in the 19th century. It is believed to be the most likely reason for Cervantes leaving Madrid.

After fleeing from Madrid, Cervantes made his way to Rome, where he found a position in the household of Guilio Acquaviva, an Italian bishop.

When the Ottoman-Venetian War began in 1570, Spain became a part of the Holy League, a coalition arranged by Pope Pius V which included the major Catholic powers of southern Europe, who intended to break the Ottoman Empire’s control of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Seeing an opportunity to get his arrest warrant quashed, Cervantes moved to Naples, where he was given a commission under the Marquis de Santa Cruz, a Spanish admiral famous for never being defeated in his fifty-year-long military career.

Cervantes’ younger brother Rodrigo soon joined him in Naples. And in September of 1571, Cervantes, aged 24, sailed on board the Marquesa, a ship part of the Holy League fleet.

The Battle of Lepanto

On 7th October 1571, the Holy League fleet fought and defeated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras.

The fleet of the Holy League was sailing east from Messina, Sicily when they encountered the Ottoman fleet sailing westward from their naval station in Lepanto.

According to his own account, Cervantes was given command of a small boat with twelve men in order to attack enemy galleys, even though he was suffering from Malaria at the time.

In the ensuing battle, Cervantes was wounded thrice, twice in the chest and once on his left arm, which rendered the arm useless. 120 other crew members of the Marquesa were wounded and 40 others died.

The extent of the injury to Cervantes’ arm is uncertain, as the only source of the incident was Cervantes himself. However, the wounds he received were serious enough for him to be confined to a hospital in Messina for six months.

For the rest of his life, Cervantes took a great deal of pride in the role he played at the Battle of Lepanto.

Back to Military Service

Cervantes returned to military service in July 1572. But according to the records at hand, his chest wounds were not completely healed even until February 1573.

Upon his return, he was based in Naples along with his brother Rodrigo. He took part in the expeditions to Navarino (now known as Pylos), a town in Messenia, Greece, and Corfu (also known as Kerkyra), a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. He also took part in the occupation of Tunis and La Goulette (known in Arabic as Halq al-Wadi), which were recaptured by the Ottomans the following year.

The reoccupation of Tunis was a major military setback for Spain and the Ottoman-Venetian War was eventually won by the Ottomans in 1573.

After the war, Cervantes went to Palermo and was paid off for his services by the Duke of Sessa.

Captured by the Ottomans

In September 1575, Cervantes, along with his brother Rodrigo, left Naples on a galley. Unfortunately, a few days later, as they approached the city of Barcelona, their galley was captured by Ottoman pirates (known as Ottoman Corsairs or Barbary Pirates).

Cervantes and Rodrigo were taken to Algiers in order to be sold as slaves or to be held for ransom, whichever was more profitable.

In 1577, Rodrigo was ransomed by their family, but they could not afford to ransom Cervantes. And so, he remained in captivity. He tried to escape on multiple occasions but failed.

Gaining Freedom

In 1580, Spain and the Ottoman Empire agreed to a truce, leading to an improvement in their relations.

Due to this change, after almost five years of captivity, Cervantes was finally set free with the help of the Trinitarian Order, a Catholic religious order that specialized in ransoming Christian captives.

On achieving his freedom, Cervantes made his way to Madrid.


Little is known about Cervantes in the years immediately following his release from captivity. It is said that he found it extremely difficult to find employment as the Spanish economy was down since the end of the War.

In April 1584, Cervantes visited Esquivias, located in the province of Toledo, to help organize the affairs of a recently deceased friend.

At Esquivias, Cervantes met Catalina de Salazar y Palacios. She was the daughter of Catalina de Palacios, a widow who owned some land of her own.

In December 1584, Cervantes married the widow’s daughter, who was then between 15 to 18 years old.

Cervantes’ First Published Work

Cervantes’ first book La Galatea was published in 1585.

The story, using pastoral characters, is an examination of love, containing many allusions to contemporary literary figures. It was regarded as a conventional pastoral romance novel and received very little notice.

The book was not reprinted after its first print, and the sequel that Cervantes had promised was never written.

Cervantes would not publish another work for another 20 years.

Finding Employment

In 1587, Cervantes, aged 40, was appointed as a government purchasing agent. He worked in this capacity until 1592 when he became a tax collector.

In 1596, he moved to Seville, where he lived until 1600.

Publication of Don Quixote, Part One

On 16th January 1605, Cervantes’ second literary work Don Quixote was published.

The book revolves around the humorous adventures of a hidalgo (noble) from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano and a simple farmer named Sancho Panza, who acts as his squire.

Alonso Quixano has read so many chivalric romances that he loses his mind and decides to become a knight-errant in order to revive chivalry and serve his country under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He hires Sancho Panza as his squire to accompany him on his adventures.

In the book, Don Quixote does not see the world for what it really is. Instead, he imagines that he is living out an old-fashioned knightly story, regularly breaking into long rhetorical monologues on knighthood and chivalry.

On its publication, the book was an instant success among the general public and was considered to be a comic novel.

Life After Don Quixote

After the commercial success of Don Quixote, Cervantes achieved a certain degree of financial security which he had never had before. The popularity of the novel also led to widespread demand for a sequel, which Cervantes promised to write.

In 1606, Cervantes moved back to Madrid and settled down there for the rest of his life.

Publication of Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels)

In 1613, Cervantes’ third book Exemplary Novels was published.

The book is a series of twelve novellas, written by Cervantes between 1590 and 1612.

The novellas are generally grouped into two categories, those that are characterized by an idealized nature and those that are characterized by a realistic nature.

The novellas belonging to the first category contain improbable plots that deal with amorous entanglements, idealized characters, and a low reflection of reality. Whereas, the novellas belonging to the second category mostly contain realistic plots, characters, and surroundings, with intentional social criticism in many cases.

Even though the novellas of the first category were more popular at the time, the ones that are realistic in nature are more acclaimed and popular today.

Publication of Don Quixote, Part Two

In late 1615, Don Quixote, Part Two was finally published.

The second part is different in focus from the first part. The first part was more comical in nature and had much greater popular appeal. The second part, on the other hand, is more complex, sophisticated, and philosophical in nature, with a greater depth of characterization.

In 1617, the first and second parts were published as one edition in Barcelona.

The Significance of Don Quixote

Over the years, the combined edition of Don Quixote increased the novel’s popularity across the world, as it was translated into several languages and published in several countries around the world.

Through the novel, Cervantes challenged a form of literature that had been a favorite for more than a century. He stated that his purpose was to undermine and attack the vain and empty chivalric romances, which were quite popular at the time and even before that.

Cervantes’ portrayal of real life, with the use of everyday speech in a literary context, was considered to be innovative and original for the times, thereby contributing to the book’s instant popularity and success.

In the 19th century, the novel came to be seen as a social commentary. However, in recent times, many critics have come to see the work as a tragedy in which Don Quixote’s idealism and chivalry are viewed as insane and idiotic in a post-chivalric world.

Don Quixote is now one of the most translated books in the world and is considered a founding work of Western literature, often regarded as the first modern novel. It is almost universally considered one of the greatest works ever written.


It is generally believed that Cervantes died on 22nd April 1616, due to what could possibly have been diabetes, according to the symptoms described.

In accordance with his will, Cervantes was buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, in Madrid.

Cervantes’ Last Work

In January 1617, Cervantes’ last work The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda was published posthumously.

The book is a romance novel that embraces fantastic rather than realistic or commonplace elements.

It is said that the work was completed by Cervantes just three days before his death.

Cervantes had also written almost twenty plays and several poems, all of which were short-lived and received little notice.


Cervantes’ literary contribution and influence on the Spanish language is so great that Spanish is often referred to as ‘the language of Cervantes’.

He is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. A writer who singlehandedly changed the direction of the Spanish language with his masterpiece Don Quixote, which is considered one of the pinnacles of world literature.

Don Quixote’s influence on world literature can be witnessed by seeing the direct references made to it by subsequent writers in their own works, such as Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers, and Salman Rushdie in Quichotte.

Writers such as Anton Chekhov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Salman Rushdie have been greatly influenced by the novel.

The novel also inspired numerous other plays, poems, novels, music, paintings, sculptures, statues, ballets, illustrations, opera, and film adaptations, making it one of the most influential works of literature ever.

Rest assured, Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote have both become a permanent part of Spanish culture and world literature.