Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1547-1616


Attributed to Juan de Jáuregui y Aguilar (circa 1583 – 1641) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Although we are not sure this is actually Cervantes, many subsequent portraits were based on this one.

Four hundred years ago on this day Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the most influential writer in the Spanish language, died in Madrid. This blogpost gives a taste of the future online exhibition that will feature the rich variety of material held at the Library by, and related to, Cervantes. We hold multiple versions and interpretations of everything that he wrote, but of course most of it relates to his masterpiece, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.

Little is known about the birth of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, but he was baptised in Alcalá de Henares on October 9, 1547. The first part of his life was adventurous, marked by travels around the Mediterranean and 5 years of captivity in the hands of Ottoman pirates before his return to Spain in 1580. There, he remained unsuccessful in his attempts at supporting himself through his writing (although he won first prize – three silver spoons – in a poetry competition in 1595). All would change with the publication of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.

The immediate success of Cervantes’ masterpiece is evident in the speed with which new editions were brought to the press. In July 1604, Cervantes sold the rights of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha to the publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles. License to publish was granted in September, the printing was finished in December, and the book came out on 16 January 1605. Many of the 400 copies of the first edition were sent to the Americas. Within a few weeks of publication at Madrid in 1605, three pirated editions of Don Quixote were issued at Lisbon. A second authorized edition, imperfectly revised, was rushed to the press at Madrid.

This is a rare copy of the third authorised edition, printed at Valencia, with its approbation date of 18 July 1605. (Hisp.8.60.7)


The 1605 Valencia edition (Hisp.8.60.7)

Novelas ejemplares (Hisp.8.61.4) (“Exemplary Novels”) is a series of twelve novellas written between 1590 and 1612. They follow a model established in Italy, and are the first example of this kind of Spain (Cervantes claimed in this prologue to be the first to write original novellas in Castilian). The collection was printed in Madrid in 1613 by Juan de la Cuesta. Following Cervantes’ success with Don Quixote, it was well received. Eight and a half years after Part One had appeared, there was also the announcement of a forthcoming Segunda Parte (Part Two). “You shall see shortly,” Cervantes says, “the further exploits of Don Quixote…”. The second part of Don Quixote, published by the same press as its predecessor, appeared late in 1615.


A work wrongly attributed to Cervantes (7700.d.740)

Cervantes was known in England soon after the publication of the first part of Don Quixote, and his success never faltered. The UL’s large collections of XVIIIth century material inspired by Cervantes, such as Henry Fielding’s the History of the adventures of Joseph Andrew (S727.e.77.2). In “The Diverting Works of the Famous Miguel de Cervantes(7700.d.740) the translator Edward Ward even wrongly pretended to translate works from the famous Spanish author which in fact were taken from the Para Todos of Juan Pérez de Montalbán. They are a testimony of Cervantes’ continuous success in this country.

Presented with the weight –both physical and symbolic- of a Don Quixote volume, one tends to forget the humorous and sometimes even comical side of the work. Spanish-speaking audiences are often put off by the work’s intricacies, its length and by the need to refer to long footnotes to fully comprehend the text. There is in fact no long tradition of adaptations or abridgements of the work in Spanish, as there are in English. Particularly in the 19th century there seems to have been a realisation of the story’s potential to entertain and enlighten young spirits, as Don Quixote’s adventures are a source of both amusement and wisdom. One very fine adaptation for children is Emily Underdown’s “The adventures of Don Quixote” (Waddleton.d.9.1174). The book has fine colour plates and marginal illustrations throughout. It was published in 1910 and the Library’s copy has a dedication note signed “To dear Florrie, with love from auntie Emmie”.

As some early editions of the work show, the imagery of Cervantes’s language in Don Quixote lends itself very well to artistic interpretations. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of modern adaptations of the work in graphic novel format. As an example, The complete Don Quixote (2016.9.1556), adapted and illustrated by Rod Davis and received in the Library through Legal Deposit, depicts Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza in landscapes and colours that sometimes recall Western-style adventures, thus giving way to multiple new readings of the work and how it can be perceived by contemporary readers.

Clara Panozzo and Sophie Defrance (Rare Books department)

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