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CLIO History Journal
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Don Quixote and the Decline of Spain
act history teachers' association
clio history journal
Don Quixote and the Decline of Spain
Alexander Osborne, Dickson College 2007
Miguel de Cervantes’ two-part novel of 1604, Don Quixote, is a strong symbol and prediction of the decline of the Golden Age of Spain in the seventeenth century. The novel, first published in 1604, has been hailed as a masterpiece of the Enlightenment and is one of the most famous works in literature to have come out of Spain. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Spain had undergone fundamental changes that established it as the world superpower of the time. Cervantes, born in 1547 and dying in 1616, would experience these changes first hand and, through this experience, create a character in Don Quixote that personified the downfall of the Spanish Empire.
Don Quixote’s fierce allegiance to king and country is rooted in Spain’s continual battles with the Islamic Moors of North Africa and in Cervantes’ own experience as a professional soldier in the Spanish army. These relentless and chivalric quests of Don Quixote’s, in which he invests all of his time and money, is exemplary of Spain’s continual foreign campaigns against other religions and of their neglect of the country’s economy. Spain, being a devoutly Catholic country, embarked on many campaigns in the name of religion, just as Don Quixote embarks on his crusades and is constantly referring to God’s divine will and His plans for him. A series of poor rulers over the last fifty years or so of Spain’s Golden Age would also contribute to its decline in much the same way as Don Quixote’s own mind would contribute to his. The life of Don Quixote was a long and distinguished one, which came to a sad end, in much the same way that Spain’s glory came to an end.
Don Quixote is a medieval knight in an enlightened world and as such, his values and ideals are portrayed as laughably primitive. The old traditions that he so faithfully follows signify the kind of attitude Spain held towards running a kingdom. During the Golden Age of Spain, its military campaigns were largely successful due to the enormous amount of funds coming from the discovery of the “New World”.
During this time, however, Spain had not developed its internal strength by building social and economic power unlike other states in Europe. Spain, while it had a military very advanced for Europe of that time, had fallen behind other states in the ideals with which it was governed. Cervantes describes Don Quixote as, “…a fine gentleman…yet verging on fifty…” (Cervantes, 1604). Spain, in its decline, could be described in the same way as a fine and distinguished country, but holding on to old and outdated traditions. Don Quixote had been successful as a young man, but now, old and obviously mad, continued to embark on pointless campaigns, making him,
…an implicit anachronism. A symbol of…a Spain ineffective because ill adapted to a modern world(Vilar, 1967)
Spain’s and indeed Don Quixote’s major downfall was the continued battles to which they committed themselves, with thought only of glory rather than self-preservation and without taking into account the necessary social and economic advances needed to sustain a country. Thus, Spain would fall from its position of great power.
Spain was a devoutly Catholic state. Many of Spain’s wars were fought in the name of God and justified by spreading God’s word. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is an embodiment of Catholic Spain. His belief that God has a plan for him and that he must do His will is a constant throughout the novel. During Spain’s Golden Age, it embarked on many voyages of discovery into the unknown. Many of the leaders of such voyages had very little interest in the religious purposes behind them and were rather more interested in the promise of the gold that the New World held. Under the guise of spreading Christianity, vast amounts of money were spent exploiting what was believed to be an unlimited source of income. Don Quixote would embark on a new and more expensive adventure, similarly at his own expense, in the name of God and honour.
I shall not perish, for God has given me a task…and this task I can not fail… (Cervantes, 1604)
Don Quixote, like the Spanish, held the steadfast belief that as long as they remained faithful to their God, they would be protected from demise. The relentless campaigning in the name of God, however, would lead to both Don Quixote and Spain’s decline. Again, the stress placed on Spain’s economy by these beliefs, drove the country further and further into a dire financial situation.
For the period of its decline, Spain was run by a series of poor and ineffective rulers. The situation was not helped by a growing number of wealthy nobles, or hidalgos, who had stopped taking an active role in politics, living instead off the fortunes acquired by previous generations.
…Neither Philip III…nor Philip IV…was competent to give the kind of clear direction that Philip II had provided…
It could not be said that a particularly reliable governing body was leading Don Quixote either. It is obvious to the reader that Don Quixote has long since lost his mind and it is from the ignorance of the other characters in the story that the novel gets much of its humour. Even Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire and most trusted friend, believes that he is just a brave soldier rather than insane. Much of the Spanish nobility of the time were so narrow-minded that they did not realise the country’s predicament. Philip III had spent so much of the country’s income on festivities and the practice of piety that by the time his son Philip IV had taken the throne, although believed to be a much better man more suited to ruling, military and political Spain had decayed beyond repair (Vilar, 1967). The ineptitude of both Don Quixote’s mind and the rulers of Spain from 1598 to 1665 are key factors that led to their demise.
The decline of the Golden Age of Spain in the seventeenth century has strong ties to Miguel de Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote. The life of this character can most definitely be referred to as a symbol and prediction of Spain’s decline. Due largely to the strong rule of smart and powerful kings, Spain in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had established itself as the superpower of the day. Cervantes lived through the reigns of these great rulers and fought in a number of their battles. From these first hand experiences, Cervantes would create the character of Don Quixote, who was inadvertently a symbol for Spain’s eventual fall from grace. The life of Don Quixote is similar to Spain’s decline in many ways. Don Quixote embarks on many foolish campaigns and adventures, at his own expense, using money left to him by his wealthy family. In the same way, Spain’s continued and fruitless campaigns against other European countries would exhaust even the vast amounts of gold coming from the Americas. Both Spain and Don Quixote’s fervent belief in God’s will and protection would lead them both astray and further remove attention from internal problems. Finally Spain’s poor and ineffective rulers were not as intelligent as they had once been and were ill equipped to recover Spanish fortunes. Even upon his deathbed, Don Quixote remained a chivalric warrior who died poor yet dignified and distinguished. The same could be said for the decline of the Golden Age of Spain.
Anonymous (Italian Jew),
On The Jew’s Expulsion from Spain
(trans. Hebrew), 1492
Cervantes, Miguel de, 1604 (1950),
(trans. John Michael Cohen), Penguin Books Limited, Middlesex, England
History of Spain
Jewish History Sourcebook –
The Expulsion from Spain – 1492 CE
Philip II, King of Spain:
Short History of Spain, A, www.conquistador.com/spainhistory.html, 1/1/1997
Spain: Historical Setting,
Spanish Golden Age,
Vilar, Pierre, 1967,
Spain–A Brief History
, Pergamon Press Limited, Oxford, England
, The 400th Anniversary of Don Quixote, 15/7/2005
Spain: Historical Setting,
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