Archaeologists Found the Grave of Famous Spanish Author, Cervantes
At the end of the 17th century Spanish novel Don Quixote de La Mancha, the author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra warns a plagiarizing rival author “to let Don Quixote’s weary and moldering bones rest in the grave, and not seek, against all canons of death, to carry him to Old Castile, compelling him to leave the tomb where he really and truly lies stretched out full length, powerless to make a third expedition and new sally.”
It turns out Cervantes was right to give a warning, but not necessarily to a rival author. Archaeologists digging in a church in Madrid’s Literary Quarter in 2015 found a coffin marked with tacks in the form of the initials M.C. They surmised these initials may stand for Miguel de Cervantes, the exact location of whose remains was lost in time. It took a few more months before they could say with any certainty if the grave actually belonged to the famed author. Let’s follow their, and Cervantes’ journey...
Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra by Juan de Jáuregui. (Public Domain)
Authorities in Madrid said they would like to reinter Cervantes’ bones and then build a monument or place a plaque to mark his grave.They eventually were able to mark Cervantes’ grave and permit people to view it. In June 2015, after identifying the remains as Cervantes' bones, NPR reported the research team reburied the author near where they found him. This followed Cervantes’ dying wish – to be buried in the convent – and still allowed for a monument to be dedicated to the author upstairs in the convent too.
The coffin with the initials M.C. was found in a niche in a cloistered convent in Madrid. He was known to have been entombed there, but before georadar mapping was undertaken, researchers were not exactly sure where his bones lay. Analysis showed the bones in the coffin were mixed with the remains of at least 10 people, some of them children.
Thus, forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria and others had to examine the remains to see if they could be Cervantes’. Etxeberria participated in the autopsy of Salvador Allende, president of Chile from 1970 to 1973, when there was a coup. The autopsy concluded Allende committed suicide.
Don Quixote fights a windmill on his horse, Rocinante, as Sancho Panza panics. (Public Domain)
Cervantes died in 1616 after an adventurous life of quite bad luck. He was born in 1547 in Alcala de Henares and moved to Rome 22 years later because he was involved in a duel and was sentenced to have his right hand amputated. He fought in the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto and was seriously injured. These injuries, two musket shots to the chest and one that crippled his left hand, helped investigators determine if the remains they found were really Cervantes’. Cervantes was in a Sicilian hospital for several months after being wounded but amazingly, he recovered.
“When I saw that rib — I thought, 'We've found Cervantes at last!',” Exteberría said on the discovery of the remains, “It was a special moment. The whole team was there in silence, underground, studying what we found — and we all knew.”
The ships with oars, or galleys, in Andries van Eertvelt’s painting 1622 painting The Battle of Lepanto, may be similar to the type of galley Miguel de Cervantes rowed on as a slave. (Public Domain)
In 1575, Cervantes left Italy for Spain with a letter bestowing a civil commission on him. This plan was thwarted when Barbary pirates boarded his vessel and took the Christians aboard to Algiers, where Cervantes remained for five years – despite daring escape attempts. Before he arrived in Algiers, he was forced to row as a galley ship slave. He was finally ransomed from Algiers and returned to Spain.
In the introduction to the 2001 Signet Classic edition of Don Quixote, Edward H. Friedman wrote that Cervantes likely did time in prison for accounting irregularities from the period when he was a tax collector. He served in several “less-than-distinguished positions” and never was the professional success he aspired to be. Cervantes apparently couldn’t even find solace with his wife, 19 years his junior. Friedman said they didn’t get along and lived apart regularly.
In 1605, Part I of Don Quixote was published. Though the publisher took most of the profit, Cervantes became famous and went on to write many more works, many of which have not survived.
Cervantes was 69 when he died, by which time he had six teeth remaining; this would also help researchers to eventually narrow the identification of his remains. With his age, his war wounds, and his missing teeth, Sancho Panza’s aphorism rings true: “Every man is as heaven made him, and sometimes a great deal worse.”
Some call Don Quixote the first in a new form of literary art then developing—the novel.
Walter Cohen, writing at the website Early Modern Culture, said:
Don Quijote (1605, 1615) is often taken to be the founding moment of the European novel, a form that is in turn frequently understood to be a uniquely original invention of the western tip of Eurasia that has proven to be the dominant literary genre of the modern world. Although all of these claims can be disputed, few would deny Don Quijote's significance for the European novel, the prominence of the novel form in European literature since the eighteenth century, or the global influence it has subsequently exerted.
Other writers say the Japanee novel Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, written in 1010 AD, was the first novel.
Let us allow one of Cervantes’ great creations and one of the great characters in the history of literature have the last word. Sancho Panza tells Don Quixote in Chapter VIII, when they’re discussing the eternal rewards of clergy vs. knights errant on the way to see the Don’s beloved Dulcinea:
So, dear master, it’s better to be a humble little friar of any order you like than a valiant knight-errant. A couple of dozen lashings will carry more weight with God than a couple of thousand lance thrusts, whether they be given to giants, dragons or other monsters.
Top Image: This photo by the Aranzadi Science Society shows the initials M.C on a plank of a coffin found on unidentified graves in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid's historic Barrio de las Letras, or Literary Quarter.
By Mark Miller