First published in Fortean Times #340
If we overlook calendar discordances, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and William Shakespeare died on the same date: 23 April 1616. Both men’s lives and works have been studied extensively, yet both remain equally elusive. The unsolved questions in Cervantes’s life point to possible hidden meanings in his works –particularly in his masterpiece Don Quixote, widely regarded as the first modern European novel.
What do we know about Cervantes’s life? At the very least, it is worthy of being turned into a 17th century-set thriller: it’s a whirlwind of misfortune and fortuitous incidents, which, almost miraculously, saved his life on more than one occasion. Most of it remains a mystery – and it almost looks as if the author wished it so. But did the lionhearted, unlucky adventurer, later to be known as Spain’s “Prince of Letters”, have something to hide?
When he was a young man, Cervantes enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Navy. He survived the 1571 Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire, despite having gone to the front stricken with malaria and having suffered three gunshot wounds, one of which rendered his left arm useless. The episode earned him the nickname “the one-armed man of Lepanto”, but he always remained proud of taking part in what he described as “the highest occasion that the past centuries saw and that the coming centuries will not expect to see”.
He spent the following four years as a soldier. Having gathered a few letters of recommendation, he decided to go back to Spain – but his return journey in 1575 turned out to be doomed: Miguel and his brother Rodrigo were captured by Barbary corsairs somewhere between Naples and Spain, and taken to Algeria. The pirates demanded a high ransom for both, which put yet more pressure on the delicate financial situation of the Cervantes family, who had struggled with debt for some time. As they only managed to collect enough money to save one brother, Miguel renounced his freedom so that Rodrigo could return home. Miguel remained a prisoner in Algeria for five years, during which he tried to escape five times, always unsuccessfully. On two of these occasions he was betrayed by two different compatriots, one of them a Dominican friar; at least once, he declared himself to be responsible for the attempt, for which he was sent to the dungeons. It was the darkest time of his life, yet there seemed to be a relentless energy in him, a pulsating drive to survive and succeed at any price. He kept his intellect busy by observing what happened around him, studying how Algeria might be conquered, with the aim of offering valuable information to the secretary of the King and to his homeland. Finally, in 1580, his family, helped by two friars from the religious order of the Trinitarians, paid a ransom of 500 ducats for his release. When Cervantes returned to Spain he was 33. His father was elderly, deaf and ruined; Miguel was likely impatient to find a fair compensation for his years of captivity.
At the height of the Spanish kingdom – the original “empire where the Sun never sets”— the secret services of King Philip II were well-known for their ruthlessness: diplomats and ambassadors were authorised to blackmail, bribe and kill, and they did so on a regular basis. Cervantes knew that his experience, particularly his Algerian episode, made him an ideal candidate to become a spy for Philip II, so he travelled to a plague-quarantined Lisbon, where the Spanish court had taken residence, searching for a mission. The king entrusted him with one, but he would have to pay a price for it: in 1581, only a few months after he’d escaped his captivity, the author travelled back to Algeria to learn about the intentions of Turk admiral Uluch-Ali. He stayed until he was able to gather the information sought by the king. On his journey back he was nearly killed by the corsairs several times –though, yet again, he managed to arrive safe in Cartagena. In spite of his success, the king never asked for his services again. Cervantes had to content himself with a bag of ducats, but no promotion, nor the respectable position he hoped for.
Twice in his life, in 1582 and 1590, he requested to be sent to the New World, but his applications were denied. He had to find other means to survive, so he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and as a tax collector for the government, and continued to write in his spare time. It wouldn’t be until 1605, when the first part of Don Quixote was published, that he experienced some success, though not of the monetary kind. Misfortune hit him on several further occasions, and he went to prison at least four more times. The reasons varied: from tax irregularities to the unfortunate death of a man outside his house. More than once, it seems, the judge abused his authority.
Was there a reason behind his continued ill-fortune? Why was he never promoted? Why was he betrayed by his compatriots? Why did a man who was clearly intelligent, driven and courageous have to struggle to make a living?
The Jewish roots of Cervantes
A large number of literary historians have now come to accept the thesis that Cervantes likely came from a family of conversos. This word is used to describe Spanish Jews who, after the Alhambra decree issued in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, were forced to convert to Christianity or leave their homeland. After the decree, Jews were officially prosecuted by the Inquisition, and those suspected of practising Judaism in secret were labelled as marranos, meaning “filthy”, “pig”, and “outcast”. The atmosphere of communal paranoia explains the Iberian obsession with “blood purity”: being a Christian was no longer good enough – a respectable position would only come from being able to prove one’s Christian lineage, which would confer the desired status of “Old Christian”.
There are several clues that support the thesis of Cervantes’s Jewish origin: namely, a 15th century document by Fernán Díaz de Toledo that lists the Cervantes family as New Christians; and the fact that the professions of his ancestors were traditionally carried out by Jews: clothiers, barber-surgeons, licenciados. Of course, the profession of tax collector, which Miguel adopted after leaving his life as a soldier, was also a traditional Jewish occupation.
The analysis of the surname Cervantes also reveals a Jewish connection. At the time, it was common among conversos to adopt as their new surname the name of the place from which they came. There are at least two villages named Cervantes in the Mountains of León, an area that he references in Don Quixote. Saavedra, his second surname, and Quijana, his mother’s, are also found there, among families of Jewish origin. It’s also worth noting that Don Quixote’s full name was Alonso Quijano, which may give us a clue to the religious background of the character.
Cervantes’s status of converso would certainly explain why he was never promoted, in spite of a respectable military career, and why he struggled to survive financially until his final days. But if that was the case, did he leave any clues about his secret in his works?
The occult meaning of Don Quixote
Many authors in the Golden Age of Spanish literature, such as Mateo Alemán, whose novel Guzmán de Alfarache is often cited as an inspiration for Cervantes, draw a distinction between the “masses” and the “discreet reader”, as if only the latter could understand the true meaning of the text.
In the prologue to his Novelas ejemplares, Cervantes admits to having incorporated “some hidden mystery… that redeems [the stories]”. The intention of the works would only be revealed after a careful reading: “If you look at them well, there’s none from which you can’t take out a beneficial effect”. Professor Rosa María Stoops states that the plot of each of these stories illustrates a different aspect of the alchemical process, with references to sacred geometry.
But it is of course Don Quixote that has been most analysed. Although it was first received as a satire of books of chivalry –a mere work of entertainment, which explains its immediate popularity – the first suggestions of a hidden, deeper meaning appeared at the end of the 18th century. In 1789, Vicente de los Ríos pointed to the double perspective between the protagonist and the reader, since the latter “merely sees a casual and ordinary event in what to Don Quixote is a rare and extraordinary thing”. The double perspective extends to the two main characters, who tend to see quite different – indeed, opposite – realities throughout their adventures. Also in the 18th century, author José Cadalso suggested a “hidden meaning” under the façade of entertainment and comedy, although he didn’t elaborate further.
The theory of a hidden Jewish meaning in Don Quixote, explored by several historians and literary critics, hasn’t always been well received in the most orthodox academic circles, but it’s a legitimate and fascinating area of inquiry. The twice Nobel Prize-nominated Dominique Aubier already suggested in 1966 that the word qeshot means “truth” or “certainty” in Aramaic. She also added that Quixano, the character’s original name, is an anagram for anokhi, the Hebrew first person pronoun, which would suggest Cervantes’s identification with his immortal character.
Meanwhile, the name of Dulcinea del Toboso, Don Quixote’s feminine ideal, would be derived from tov sod, Hebrew for “secret of the good”. Aubier also argued that Dulcinea symbolises the Shekhinah, in Kabbalah the feminine aspect of the divinity that accompanied exiled Jews –the Talmud tractate Megillah states that “wheresoever they were exiled, the Shekhinah went with them”. Where Sancho and the others merely see the peasant Aldonza Lorenzo, a “sturdy, manly lass” far from the chivalric ideal, Don Quixote sees Dulcinea, the embodiment of feminine perfection.
Aubier suggests that the intention of Cervantes was to reconcile the three great monotheistic religions – for this reason, he combined elements of the three in his book: Don Quixote was a New Christian whose initiation, based on the Zohar, is narrated by a Muslim (Cervantes used the literary device of a “found manuscript” supposedly penned by Moorish historian Cide Hamete Benengelí). Perhaps, as María Rosa Menocal suggested, Cervantes was lamenting the loss of the culture of tolerance epitomised by the kingdom of Alfonso X “The Wise” (1221-1284), who fostered a cosmopolitan Spanish court where members of the three religions coexisted peacefully and collaborated intellectually.
Even if we don’t consider the book to be a Jewish allegory, there are several details that suggest that Don Quixote could have been conceived as a converso. The most obvious of all is the attitude of the two main characters: whereas Sancho emphatically claims to be an Old Christian on more than one occasion, Don Quixote avoids references to his religious background.
The infamous opening line of the novel (“In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind”) has also been interpreted as a reference to the Jewish background of the protagonist: La Mancha is a region of Spain, but it also translates as “the stain”, which could be an oblique reference to the secret status of Don Quixote – and that of the author himself.
One of the first descriptions that Cervantes makes of the character is that he “eats duelos y quebrantos on Saturdays”. The first English translation (1612, Thomas Shelton) uses “collops and eggs”; similarly, in French and Italian it’s been translated as eggs and ham or eggs and bacon. A poem attributed to Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) confirms the meaning, lost in modern Spanish. It is puzzling, however, that the name of the dish means literally “grieves and infringements”. Only a converso would regard the meal as a combination of both, since the Jewish faith prohibits eating pork, most of all on Saturdays, the sacred day of shabat.
The ambiguity of madness
There’s an interesting episode that deserves to be analysed in depth: while Don Quixote sleeps, his niece, his housekeeper, the curate, and the barber burn his books of chivalry, considering them to be at the root of his madness. His niece specifically says that the books “deserve to be burned like heretics”. As they go through them, they find a novel named “The Knight of the Cross”, which prompts the curate to say: “For the sake of the holy name this book has… its ignorance might be excused; but then, they say, ‘behind the cross there’s the devil; to the fire with it.” The curate saves some other books “because the author is a friend of mine”, and when the barber hands him “The Galatea” by Miguel de Cervantes, he also decides to save it, as he knows the author and the fact that he “has had more experience in reverses than in verses”. Most of their decisions are entirely arbitrary, and when they finally burn the pile, Cervantes writes that “some must have been consumed that deserved preservation in everlasting archives, but their fate and the laziness of the examiner did not permit it, and so in them was verified the proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty.” The criticism of the Inquisition and the burning of heretics is clear. The author even slips in the suggestion that evil (“the Devil”) might hide behind a cross, questioning the moral authority of Catholicism.
It is the ambiguity in Don Quixote’s madness that continues to inspire interpretations of the “occult truth” supposedly hidden in the novel. Don Quixote’s madness is similar to that of a visionary or a mystic. We may believe he’s an initiate, someone who is able to see through the veil of Isis. He reflects upon reality on numerous occasions: “…there is always a swarm of enchanters in attendance upon us that change and alter everything with us, and turn things as they please, and according as they are disposed to aid or destroy us; thus what seems to thee a barber’s basin seems to me Mambrino’s helmet”.
The story moves us because it sends a message of innocence and nobleness: what is regarded as vile or grotesque by others is perceived as beautiful and sublime by him. As Nabokov said, by the novel’s end “we do not laugh at [Don Quixote] any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.” Cervantes’s legacy is more poignant when we think of what he had to endure in his life. Don Quixote suffers at the hands of fate, but, just like his creator, he is able to transmute his hardships into the sublime.
Aubier, Dominique. Don Quijote, profeta y cabalista (1981)
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote.
Martínez Torrón, Diego. Sobre Cervantes (2003)
McGaha, Michael: “Is there a hidden Jewish meaning in Don Quixote?” From Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America (2004)
Menocal, María Rosa. “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” (2002)
Trancón Pérez, Santiago: Huellas judías y leonesas en El Quijote (2014)