The World of Don Quixote

Hana Layson and Glen Carman

How did Cervantes’ Don Quixote respond to the social conditions and literary traditions of early modern Spain?

Introduction

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1605, has been described as the first modern novel—and the first postmodern novel. The novel’s parody of chivalric romances seems to draw to a close a feudal society based on family lineage and rigid social hierarchy. It opens up the possibility of the modern individual, shaped by his or her own beliefs and actions. “Each man is the child of his deeds,” Don Quixote tells us.

Critics have also described the novel as a work of metafiction—fiction that self-consciously reveals its own techniques—in ways that anticipate postmodern writing. Think of the proliferation of authors, editors, and translators, of found manuscripts and uncovered histories that Cervantes provides. Think of the very nature of Don Quixote’s madness: he has internalized the chivalric world he read about in books and now seeks to impose that imaginary world on the people and things he encounters. These elements in the novel encourage us to consider the problem of representation (the relationship between reality and fiction) itself. They encourage the reader to ask questions: Who is telling this story? How are they telling it? What is the reader’s role in the narrative’s creation?

Yet if Don Quixote strikes readers today as an uncannily modern work, the novel spoke powerfully to seventeenth-century readers as well. Don Quixote was an immediate success in Spain, throughout Europe, and, thanks to Spain’s extensive empire, the Americas. Originally published in Madrid in 1605, the first volume was translated into English, Italian, French, and German in less than a decade. Cervantes published the second volume in 1615.

While critics often remark on the novel’s ability to reach readers across different cultures and historical periods, it is worth noting that much of the work’s power and relevance comes from Cervantes’ skillful navigation of the specific social conditions in Spain around 1600. Roughly 100 years earlier, Spain had become a politically unified country, ruled by Catholic monarchs, and had begun a course of exploration and conquest of the Americas and Asia. During Cervantes’ lifetime (1547–1616), the country profited from its vast, New World empire and maintained a strong political and military presence in Europe.

At the same time that Spain became such a formidable global power, the government embarked on a profound internal remaking of the country by means of the Inquisition. Medieval Spain had large Muslim and Jewish populations and is considered to have been the most diverse and tolerant society in western Europe. Moors (North African and Arab Muslims) ruled large swaths of the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth century through the fifteenth. Regions under Christian control were also multireligious. As scholar Carroll B. Johnson notes, “In an age when other European monarchs styled themselves ‘Defender of the [Christian] Faith,” the king of Castile was proud to be known as ‘King of the Three Religions.’”

Spain’s relatively tolerant social structure began to change during the fourteenth century with increasingly violent persecution of Jews. The persecution became official policy under Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand (the same monarchs who launched Columbus on his journey to the Caribbean). In 1478, with the pope’s sanction, the monarchs created the Inquisition, a new legal system dedicated to seeking out and punishing heresy (religious beliefs that contradicted Roman Catholic teachings). In 1492 Jews were given the choice of leaving the country or converting to Christianity (becoming conversos). Muslims, at first, were subject to conversion (becoming Moriscos) but, in the early seventeenth century, were expelled from the country. People accused of heresy were subject to torture, loss of property, and, if convicted, burning at the stake. In the century that followed 1492, Spanish society became organized around a new division between Old Christians (whose families had always been Christian) and New Christians (the converts and their descendants). New Christians were systematically excluded from participation in the leading political and religious institutions.

Cervantes could not help but be affected by these conflicts within Spanish society. As Johnson explains, not only was Cervantes himself probably descended from conversos, but every writer was subject to scrutiny by the Inquisition’s censors. The Inquisition “exercised absolute control over what could and could not be published” and carefully suppressed statements that appeared unorthodox or critical of the church or government. Writers had to avoid any suggestion of dissent. For Cervantes, Johnson argues, the solution was to develop a style rich in ambiguity and a “pervasive and systematic irony.” The very qualities that help Don Quixote resonate with modern readers were essential to protecting the author and getting his work past the censors.

The documents that follow offer teachers and students a deeper understanding of the world that Cervantes—and Don Quixote—negotiated. They include seventeenth-century maps of Spain and Europe, a letter from King Philip II regarding the Moriscos, illustrations from the books that drove Quixote mad, and, finally, evidence of the work of the Inquisition’s censors.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • What was the geography of Spain in the seventeenth century? Where is La Mancha? What regions does Quixote travel through?

  • How were Moriscos (descendants of Moors) regarded by the Spanish government and the Christian majority in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain? How can knowledge of this history help us understand Cervantes’ representations of Moriscos in Don Quixote?

  • What were the books that Quixote loved and that drove him insane? How do Don Quixote and Don Quixote—the character and the novel—compare to the knights and chivalric tales that he so admired?

  • How did the Inquisition shape the world of letters in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain? How did Cervantes respond to the Inquisition’s practice of censorship in his representation of the “inquisition” into Quixote’s library in Volume 1, Chapter 6?

The Geography of Quixote’s World

The maps below can help orient readers to the geography of Cervantes’ and Quixote’s world. However, they should not be approached as neutral or objective documents. The first two maps are taken from John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great-Britain. This English atlas is best remembered now for having provided the first detailed maps of English and Welsh counties and towns when it was originally published in 1611 and 1612. The maps below were first printed in 1627 as part of the atlas’ fifth book, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, viz. Africa, Europe, America.

Relations between England and Spain were tense during much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and twice broke into war (1587–1604 and 1654–1660). The antagonism was due, in part, to religious differences: Spain’s monarchy was loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, while the English rulers Elizabeth I and James I supported Protestantism and the Church of England. Furthermore, Spain reached the height of its imperial powers during this period. Spain was the dominant European power in the Americas and derived immense wealth from the gold and silver mines in its colonies there. England sought not only to remain independent of Spanish rule, but to build its own American empire.

The title of Speed’s atlas signals his commitment to English imperialism and his description of the Spanish is particularly critical. Speed claims that Spain is more sparsely populated than the rest of Europe because its women are less fertile. Furthermore, he finds the Spanish “Superstitious beyond any other people … For how can hearty [religious] devotion stand with cruelty, leachery, pride, idolatry, and those other Gothish, Moorish, Jewish, Heathenish conditions of which they still favor.”

Even so, Speed’s maps usefully represent the knowledge available in Europe of regions and towns in Spain and provide a sense of Spain’s relationship to North Africa (“Barbarie”) and the rest of Europe. Note that Portugal does not appear as an independent country; it was incorporated into Spain from 1580 to 1640.

The final map below traces Don Quixote’s route through La Mancha and eastern Spain. Literary critic Carroll B. Johnson notes that, while Don Quixote sought to ennoble himself by incorporating his homeland into his name, la mancha “means ‘stain’ in Spanish, and is the name of a region with nothing particular to recommend it: no cities, no illustrious families, the site of no important historical events, a semiarid plain given over mostly to wheat and dotted with windmills.” This map appears in a 1780 Madrid edition of the novel, the first in a series of deluxe, illustrated editions printed in Spain.

Questions to Consider

  1. What information does Speed’s map of Spain include? Can you identify regions, towns, and natural features?

  2. Examine the portraits that appear in the borders Speed’s maps of Spain and Europe. What differences do you notice in the costumes associated with specific regions in Spain and with different countries in Europe? Is Spain’s association with Moors or Jews evident?

  3. Describe the cities that appear at the top of both maps. Which cities does Speed consider the major ones of Europe? How do Spanish cities compare?

  4. Evaluate the map of Don Quixote’s route based on your knowledge of the novel. Does the novel provide sufficient information to create a precise map of his route?

  5. Why do you think printers in the late eighteenth century were interested in mapping Quixote’s route? How does the map contribute to the text’s playful claims to be a true history?

“Spaine Newly Described, with Many Adictions, Both in the Attires of the People & the Setuations of Their Cheifest Cityes”

John Speed. From The Theatre of the Empire of Great-Britain, 1676.

Image of Spaine Newly Described, with Many Adictions, Both in the Attires of the People & the Setuations of Their Cheifest Cityes

John Speed included this map of Spain in his world atlas, the earliest compiled by an Englishman.

Image of Spaine Newly Described, with Many Adictions, Both in the Attires of the People & the Setuations of Their Cheifest Cityes

Detail.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Spaine Newly Described, with Many Adictions, Both in the Attires of the People & the Setuations of Their Cheifest Cityes
Short Title Spaine Newly Described, 1676
Book Title The Theatre of the Empire of Great-Britain
Place of Publication London
Publisher Thomas Bassett and Richard Chiswell
Creator John Speed
Publication Date 1676
Call Number VAULT oversize Ayer 135 .S7 1676 map [80] (PrCt)
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Evrop, and the Cheife Cities Contayned Therin”

John Speed. From The Theatre of the Empire of Great-Britain, 1676.

Image of Evrop, and the Cheife Cities Contayned Therin

This map of Europe appeared in the earliest world atlas compiled by an Englishman.

Image of Evrop, and the Cheife Cities Contayned Therin

Detail.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Evrop, and the Cheife Cities Contayned Therin
Short Title Europe, 1676
Book Title The Theatre of the Empire of Great-Britain
Place of Publication London
Publisher Thomas Bassett and Richard Chiswell
Creator John Speed
Publication Date 1676
Pages map 72
Call Number VAULT oversize Ayer 135 .S7 1676 map [72] (PrCt)
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Map of Don Quixote's Route through Spain”

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. From El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha], 1780.

Image of Map of Don Quixote's Route through Spain

This map appears in a deluxe, illustrated edition of Don Quixote printed in Spain in 1780.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Map of Don Quixote's Route through Spain
Short Title Don Quixote's Route, 1780
Book Title El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]
Place of Publication Madrid
Publisher Don Joaquin Ibarra
Creator Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Publication Date 1780
Edition Nueva edicion corregida
Language Spanish
Call Number Case folio Y 722 .C3478
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Politics of Quixote’s World I: The Inquisition and the Moors

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote as Spain was completing its transformation from a society in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived alongside one another in conditions of relative tolerance to one that would be—at least officially—exclusively Catholic and absolutely intolerant of religious differences.

At the beginning of the eighth century, North African and Arab Muslims, known as Moors, invaded the Iberian peninsula and, for over 700 years, remained a significant presence in the region. At their height, Muslim states, known collectively as al-Andalus, extended across the peninsula into southern France. Beginning in the eleventh century, Christian kingdoms in the north defeated the Muslim states in a series of wars and steadily took control of the peninsula in a process known to the Christians as the Reconquista or “reconquest.” In 1492 the Emirate of Granada, the last Muslim province in Spain, surrendered to Queen Isabel of Castile. She implemented an ultimately unsuccessful policy of forced, mass conversions.

Seventy years later, the Moriscos remained a largely unassimilated population that spoke Arabic, followed Muslim customs, and often practiced Islam in secret. In 1566, suspicious that they might be colluding with Algerians and Turks against Spain, King Philip II ordered Morisco property in Granada to be confiscated and forbade the speaking of Arabic as well as the use of Muslim names or clothing. The Moriscos rebelled and, after their defeat in 1571, the king ordered them deported from Granada and scattered throughout Castile, a province in northern Spain. But a number of religious and political figures urged the crown to expel the Moriscos from Spain entirely, describing them as a disease that threatened to infect the entire political body. On September 22, 1609, the new king, Philip III, ordered their expulsion and, within five years, approximately 300,000 people had been deported to North Africa.

The documents below include a 1583 letter written on behalf of Philip II regarding the Moriscos as well as the title page of Jaime Bleda’s Chronicle of the Spanish Moors. Bleda was the priest of a town with a large Morisco population. He campaigned for years to persuade Philip III to expel them from Spain.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the letter on behalf of Philip II and read the translation of the first paragraph. What is the purpose of the letter? What are Philip’s fears regarding the Moriscos? How does his government attempt to manage the threat he believes they pose?

  2. Examine the title page of the final book of Bleda’s Chronicle of the Spanish Moors. What can you learn from the title about Bleda’s views on the expulsion of the Moriscos? What is the significance of referring to Philip III as a conquistador? How do ideas of conquest and expulsion frame the history of a population that had inhabited the Iberian Peninsula for almost 1,000 years?

  3. Consider Cervantes’ frequent references to Moriscos in Don Quixote in light of the government’s policies and the anti-Morisco views of many Old Christians. Why do you think Cervantes attributes most of the “found” history of Don Quixote to the “Arab historian” Sidi Hamid Benengeli (also spelled Cide Hamete)? How do you interpret Morisco figures like Zoraida (Vol. 1, Ch. 37–42) and Ricote (Vol. 2, Ch. 54)?

Letter of King Philip II of Spain and Portugal

1583.

Image of Letter of King Philip II of Spain and Portugal

This letter written on behalf of Philip II concerns the Moriscos, Spanish descendants of the Moors.

Su Majestad ha sido avisado que los moriscos de Aragon y Valencia andan inquietos, y que en cierta junta que hubo entre algunos dellos se offrescio uno de los de Granada de passar al reyno de Valencia diez o doce mil de los que están repartidos por Castilla poco a poco hasta mediado el mes de Abril deste año, con los quales y el favor que esperan del rey de Argel piensan ocupar aquel Reyno. Su Majestad manda que luego se escriva y encargue de nuevo a las justicias de Castilla, que no den licencias a los moriscos, y que los obliguen y apremien a residir en los lugares donde estan alistados.

El Señor Marques de Desia desea mucho tener con brevedad el despacho de la facultad que su Majestad le concedio. Guarde y espere Nuestro Señor la ¿? persona y casa de vuestra merced, como sus servidores desseamos, de Lisboa, 24 de enero, 1583.

His Majesty has been informed that the Moriscos of Aragon and Valencia have gotten restless, and that, in a certain meeting that some of them held, one of those who had come from Granada offered to send to the Kingdom of Valencia ten or twelve thousand of those who are scattered throughout Castile [transporting them] slowly up until mid April of this year, with whom, and along with the support that they expect from the king of Algeria, they plan to occupy that kingdom. His Majesty orders that the justices of Castile be written immediately and instructed not to grant leaves to the Moriscos, and to require and insist that [the Moriscos] reside where they are registered.

The Marquis of Desia very much wishes to have as soon as possible the communiqué of the authority that his Majesty granted him. May our Lord protect and ¿? the person and house of your grace, as we his [your] servants desire, from Lisbon, the 24th of January, 1583.

Transcribed and translated by Glen Carman.

Image of Letter of King Philip II of Spain and Portugal

Reverse side of manuscript letter.

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Letter of King Philip II of Spain and Portugal
Short Title Letter of King Philip II, 1583
Publication Date 1583
Language Spanish
Call Number VAULT Greenlee MS 11
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Coronica de los Moros de España [Chronicle of the Spanish Moors]

Jaime Bleda. 1618.

Image of Coronica de los Moros de España [Chronicle of the Spanish Moors]

The priest Jaime Bleda published this eight-volume work after he helped persuade Philip III to expel the Moors from Spain.

The eighth and final book. On the just and general expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain, executed by mandate of the Catholic King Philip III the final and supreme Conqueror of the Moors of Spain, great liberator and savior of the Kingdom

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Coronica de los Moros de España [Chronicle of the Spanish Moors]
Short Title Chronicle of the Spanish Moors, 1618
Place of Publication Valencia
Publisher Felipe Mey
Creator Jaime Bleda
Publication Date 1618
Language Spanish
Call Number Case folio F 4013 .105
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Quixote’s Reading: The Chivalric Romances

In the first chapter of Don Quixote, the narrator tells us, “Don Quixote so buried himself in his books that he read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity.” One of the books that has driven Quixote to madness is Montalvo’s Amadís of Gaul, a Spanish chivalric romance, published in 1508, that became a bestseller across Europe for the next century. Montalvo’s 12-volume series on the adventures of Amadis, his sons, and his nephews may have been scorned by a few scholars, but was passionately read by monarchs and saints, conquistadors and commoners “from Scandinavia to Sicily,” according to literary critic Diana de Armas Wilson. The stories portrayed heroic knights, loyal squires, and virtuous ladies as well as evil (often Muslim) antagonists and included plenty of sword fights and magic potions.

Another important influence on Quixote (and object of Cervantes’ parody) is Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, an Italian epic poem, published in 1516. Orlando furioso (“Orlando insane”) follows the plight of the knight Orlando (usually Roland, in English) of King Charlemagne’s court, who discovers that the woman he loves has eloped with a Moor in the enemy’s army. Orlando goes insane with rage, pulls up trees, and generally storms around until, as Carroll Johnson explains, another knight “flies to the moon on a magical horse, finds Orlando’s brains in a glass vial, and returns with them to earth.”

The engravings, below, from a sixteenth-century French edition of Amadis and an Italian edition of Orlando furioso suggest the kind of imaginary world that Quixote inhabited through these books. Engravings from the 1731 English and 1780 Spanish editions of Quixote offer an interesting contrast. While the popularity of the chivalric romance and epic declined dramatically during the sixteenth century, Quixote would continue to be widely read and beloved for centuries to come.

Questions to Consider

  1. What kinds of people, animals, and events do the illustrations from Amadis and Orlando portray?

  2. How would you compare the knights in the earlier works to the representations of Quixote as a knight?

  3. Consider the settings and captions in the Quixote illustrations. How does his world compare to Amadis’s and Orlando’s? Why do you think he would prefer to live in theirs?

  4. Can the same reader enjoy both? Or does Quixote spell the end of chivalric tales?

Le premier livre d'Amadis de Gaula [The first book of Amadis of Gaul]

Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, translated by Nicolas de Herberay. 1572.

Image of Le premier livre d'Amadis de Gaula [The first book of Amadis of Gaul]

This bestselling Spanish chivalric romance is one of the books that drove Don Quixote to madness.

Image of Le premier livre d'Amadis de Gaula [The first book of Amadis of Gaul]

Book 1, page 1.

Image of Le premier livre d'Amadis de Gaula [The first book of Amadis of Gaul]

Book 3, page 1.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Le premier livre d'Amadis de Gaula [The first book of Amadis of Gaul]
Short Title Amadis of Gaul, 1572
Place of Publication Anvers
Creator Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, translated by Nicolas de Herberay
Publication Date 1572
Volume Vol. 1
Number of Pages Title page, Book 1, and Book 3
Language French
Call Number Case Y 7675 .A459 v. 1
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Orlando furioso [Orlando insane]

Lodovico Ariosto. 1584.

Image of Orlando furioso [Orlando insane]

Don Quixote adored this popular Italian epic poem about a knight who goes mad when he discovers that his beloved has eloped with a Moor in the enemy army.

Image of Orlando furioso [Orlando insane]

Plate opposite page 1.

Image of Orlando furioso [Orlando insane]

Plate page 245.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Orlando furioso [Orlando insane]
Short Title Orlando Insane, 1584
Place of Publication Venetia
Publisher Appresso Francesco de Franceschi e compagni
Creator Lodovico Ariosto
Publication Date 1584
Number of Pages Title page and first pages of canto 1 and 23
Language Italian
Call Number VAULT Wing ZP 535 .F845
Location Special Collections 4th floor

The History of the Valorous and Witty-Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote, of the Mancha

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. 1731.

Image of The History of the Valorous and Witty-Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote, of the Mancha

This eighteenth-century English edition of Don Quixote includes vivid engravings.

Image of The History of the Valorous and Witty-Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote, of the Mancha

Volume 1, page 8.

Image of The History of the Valorous and Witty-Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote, of the Mancha

Volume 1, page 15.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The History of the Valorous and Witty-Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote, of the Mancha
Short Title Don Quixote, 1731
Place of Publication London
Publisher J. Walthoe
Creator Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Publication Date 1731
Number of Pages Title page, pp. 8 and 15
Call Number Case Y 1565 .C3317
Location Special Collections 4th floor

El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. 1780.

Image of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]

This deluxe, illustrated edition of Don Quixote was first printed in Spain in 1780. This illustration shows Don Quixote with his books before he sets out on his adventures. Volume 1, page 4.

Image of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]

Don Quixote being knighted. Volume 1, page 22.

Image of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]

Don Quixote with Sancho Panza. Volume 2, page 18.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]
Short Title Don Quixote, 1780
Place of Publication Madrid
Publisher Don Joaquin Ibarra
Creator Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Publication Date 1780
Edition Nueva edicion corregida
Number of Pages Title page, vol. 1 plates opp. pp. 4 and 22, vol. 2. plate opp. p. 18
Language Spanish
Call Number Case folio Y 722 .C3478
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Politics of Quixote’s World II: Reading and the Inquisition

In order to prevent the spread of heresy, the Spanish Inquisition exercised tight control over which books were published and sold in Spain. Every new book went through a process of review and licensing before it could be printed. Books already in circulation could be denounced and banned by later censors. For this reason, the Inquisition regularly published indexes, or lists, of prohibited books, revising and updating these lists as the Catholic Church’s precepts changed over time. Sometimes entire books were banned, and, especially in the early decades around 1500, the Inquisition staged ceremonial book burnings. Thousands of Jewish and Arabic books and manuscripts were destroyed in this way. Over the course of the sixteenth century, Inquisition officials increasingly chose to censor works more selectively. They carefully blotted out specific passages considered heretical, allowing the remainder of the work to survive for readers.

The Christian humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam was a writer whose works became widely influential during the early sixteenth century, only to be later targeted by the Inquisition. Critic Carroll B. Johnson explains, “Erasmus believed that the essence of Christianity is contained in the sacred texts, the Bible and the writings of the fathers, and not in the accumulation of traditional teachings and practices.” Erasmus insisted on the importance of inner devotion, rather than public rituals or displays of faith. In Spain, his ideas attracted many New Christians and intellectuals who modeled their spirituality after his teachings and sought to draw the Catholic Church closer in line with his views. By the middle of the sixteenth century, when Cervantes was born, the Inquisition had censored Erasmus’ work, finding it dangerously critical of the Church and close to Protestant heresy. However, Erasmus’ work remained influential and continued to circulate in secret. Johnson cites evidence that Cervantes was deeply familiar with Erasmus’ thought.

The documents below offer some context for and insight into Cervantes’ representations of both Catholicism and censorship in Don Quixote. The first is a passage on the Sileni of Alcibaides from one of Erasmus’ most popular works, the Adages. Erasmus discusses a scene in Plato’s Symposium in which Alcibiades defends the philosopher Socrates by comparing him to a popular wooden nesting doll. The outer doll represented Silenus, a clownish flute player and companion to Dionysus, the god of wine. The inner doll was a beautiful carving of a god. Alcibiades suggests that Socrates resembles these dolls: ugly and unimpressive on the surface, but great and wise within. Erasmus first explores this idea through figures from ancient Greece, then asks “And what of Christ? Was not he, too, a marvelous Silenus?” When he turns to Christ, the censor’s pen gets busy, carefully crossing out each line for nearly two pages. The censor then cut out the remaining six pages of the entry. The section stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the book, which the censor left almost completely untouched.

The second and third documents are excerpts from indexes of forbidden books. The 1571 Index was printed in Antwerp by order of Philip II of Spain and the Netherlands (ruled by Spain at the time). It includes a special section devoted to the works of Erasmus and probably provided the guidelines for the censor’s work on this copy of Erasmus’s Adages. The 1583 Index, published in Madrid, includes a rule prohibiting anyone who does not have the Inquisition’s approval from removing, tearing, crossing out, or burning books that contain errors.

The final document below is the frontispiece of the 1780 Madrid edition of Don Quixote, featuring an image of book burning. By this time, the Inquisition was in decline, challenged more and more openly within Spain and widely ridiculed abroad. It would not be finally abolished until 1834. It’s worth noting that Don Quixote itself passed through the Inquisition censors largely unscathed with only a few lines removed.

Questions to Consider

  1. In what ways does Christ resemble a Silenus figure, according to Erasmus? Why might the Inquisition have seen this passage as heretical or in some way critical of the Catholic Church? Why do you think the censor went to such lengths to preserve the two lines at the top of page 683 and to black out the passages that follow?

  2. What is the role of adages in Don Quixote? How might, for example, Sancho Panza’s use of adages respond to or play with the popularity and influence of Erasmus’s work?

  3. Why do you think the Inquisition issued a rule prohibiting people from censoring or burning books on their own, without official direction? Do Don Quixote’s friends violate this rule when they perform an inquisition of his library in Volume 1, Chapter 6? How do they decide which books to save and which to burn?

  4. Does Cervantes parody the Inquisition in Don Quixote? Provide evidence from the text to support your answer. If it is a parody, why do you think the censors did not object to it?

  5. Based on these excerpts from the altered copy of Erasmus and the two indexes, how would you characterize the methods of the Inquisition’s censors? What do you think they hoped to accomplish with their efforts? Do you think censorship was an effective way for the Spanish state to exercise power?

  6. Examine the frontispiece of the 1780 Madrid Don Quixote. How do you interpret the figures that appear alongside Quixote—the lion, the woman, and the cherub? What is the significance of the figure who conducts the book burning? What does this frontispiece suggest about the novel’s meaning to readers in late-eighteenth-century Spain, 175 years after its original publication?

“Sileni Alcibaides”

Desiderius Erasmus. From Des. Erasm. Rot. Opervm secvndvs tomvs Adagiorvm [Adages], 1540.

Image of Sileni Alcibaides

The title page of the Adages by the Christian humanist Erasmus.

Image of Sileni Alcibaides

The Inquisition selectively censored Erasmus’s work, as seen in these pages on the Sileni of Alcibaides.

… Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, who is preparing to deliver a panegyric of Socrates, draws a parallel between him and Sileni of this kind, because like them he was very different on close inspection from what he seemed in his outward bearing and appearance.

Anyone who had valued him skin-deep (as they say) would not have given twopence for him… Yet, had you opened this absurd Silenus [Socrates], you would have found, you may be sure, a divine being rather than a man, a great and lofty spirit worthy of a true philosopher, one who despised all the things for which other mortals run their races, sail the seas, toil, go to law, and fight in wars; a man above resenting any injury and over whom fortune had no power at all; so far from any fear that he despised even death…

[Beginning of crossed out passage] And what of Christ? Was not He too a marvelous Silenus, (if one may be allowed to use such language of Him)? And I for my part do not see how any who proudly call themselves Christians can escape the duty of reproducing this to the utmost of their power. Observe the outside surface of this Silenus: to judge by ordinary standards, what could be humbler or more worthy of disdain? … But this was the only system which He chose to set before His disciples and His friends—before us Christians…

Translation from Desiderius Erasmus. Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 34. Adages II vii 1 to III iii 100. Translated and annotated by R. A. B. Mynors. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. pp. 262–265.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Sileni Alcibaides
Short Title Erasmus's Adages, 1540
Book Title Des. Erasm. Rot. Opervm secvndvs tomvs Adagiorvm [Adages]
Place of Publication Basilae
Publisher Ex officina Frobeniana
Creator Desiderius Erasmus
Publication Date 1540
Language Latin
Call Number Case 6A 209
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Index expurgatorius librorum [Index of expurgated books]

1571.

Image of Index expurgatorius librorum [Index of expurgated books]

This list of books forbidden by the Inquisition devotes an entire section to the work of the Christian humanist Erasmus.

Image of Index expurgatorius librorum [Index of expurgated books]

The beginning of the section devoted to Erasmus.

The Expurgation of the Works of Erasmus of Rotterdam, completed and presented by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Louvain and by the College of Censors gathered at Antwerp, approved and upheld with Royal authority, published together with the other books contained in the expurgatory Index.

Image of Index expurgatorius librorum [Index of expurgated books]

Instructions for censoring the Sileni Alcibiades passage in Erasmus’s Adages.

Page 683 from the proverb “The Sileni of Alcibiades” and the 8 following pages are to be deleted all the way to the end of the adage, in other words to “More of a sailor than Saron.”

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Index expurgatorius librorum [Index of expurgated books]
Short Title Index of Expurgated Books, 1571
Place of Publication Antuerpiae [Antwerp]
Publisher Ex officina Christophori Plantini prototypographi regij
Publication Date 1571
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Wing ZP 5465 .P70152
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Index et catalogus librorum prohibitorum [Index and catalog of forbidden books]

1583.

Image of Index et catalogus librorum prohibitorum [Index and catalog of forbidden books]

This list of books forbidden by the Inquisition includes a rule prohibiting people from censoring or destroying books without the Inquisition’s approval.

Image of Index et catalogus librorum prohibitorum [Index and catalog of forbidden books]

From Rule 13: It is also forbidden for anyone, acting on their own authority, to remove such errors, or to tear, cross out words from, or burn books, papers, or pages in which such errors might be found, without first showing them to the Inquisitors, so that they might be aware of them and give orders for appropriate action.

Translated by Glen Carman.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Index et catalogus librorum prohibitorum [Index and catalog of forbidden books]
Short Title Index of Forbidden Books, 1583
Place of Publication Madriti
Publisher Apud Alphonsum Gomezium regium typographum
Publication Date 1583
Language Latin
Call Number Case Wing Z1020 .I583
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Frontispiece”

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. From El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha], 1780.

Image of Frontispiece

This frontispiece from the 1780 Madrid edition of Don Quixote features a book burning.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Frontispiece
Short Title Don Quixote frontispiece, 1780
Book Title El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha [The ingenious nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha]
Place of Publication Madrid
Publisher Don Joaquin Ibarra
Creator Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Publication Date 1780
Edition Nueva edicion corregida
Call Number Case folio Y 722 .C3478
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

de Aramas Wilson, Diana. “Editor’s Introduction.” In Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote. New York: Norton, 1999. pp. ix-x.

Carr, Matthew. Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. New York: New Press, 2009.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online. “Spain” and “Morisco.” http://www.britannica.com.

Johnson, Carroll B. Don Quixote: The Quest for Modern Fiction. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1990. pp. 2, 4, 5, 10, 43, and 75.

Skelton, R. A. “Bibliographical Note.” In John Speed, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, London 1627. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1966.

Wardropper, Bruce W. “Don Quixote: Story or History?” Modern Philology 63, 1 (August 1965): 1–11.

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Digital collection created in conjunction with Glen Carman’s Teachers as Scholars seminar, “History and Story in Don Quixote,” October 24–25, 2013.

This collection was last updated