Thursday, 30 July 2009

Cervantes, author of Don Quixote of Jewish origin?

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of Cervantes, not just the link!

Picture of Migeul de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote above)

This is not news for people in Cervantes studies, but I was surprised earlier today to find that it is widely believed to be from converso stock, that is from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity in the late Medieval Spain due to Christianisation of a new unified kingdom under Catholic monarchs. Spain had been very mixed between Christians, Jews and Muslims but a new strong monarchy thought it appropriate to repress religious variety. The preceding period was not one of tolerance and equal rights as we understand it, but did allow some pluralism.

Jews and Muslims were forced to covert or go into exile, and those who converted were still treated with suspicion and even cruelty. In the end even Muslim converts were expelled. Those who converted often wish to continue their old religion in secret, This reality intensified persecution by the Inquisition.

There is now a widespread belief that Cervantes, on his mother’s side. was from a Jewish family which had outwardly converted but who continued to practise the Jewish faith in secret. Reasons for this include the region of Spain his mother came from and what look like references to Judaism in Don Quixote. This includes a judgement given by Sancho Panza during his period as a semi-serious governor, the judgement appears to be a translation from the Talmud (book of commentary on Jewish laws, ethics and customs). The miserable meal the Don eats at the beginning of the book is named with a phrase which refers to Jewish mourning, including the sorrow of Jews exiled from Spain. Rather more esoteric discussions exist of what elements of Don Quixote might refer to in Jewish mystical tradition.

The whole idea that Cervantes was Jewish is inevitably speculative, he was not going to advertise this fact, if it is a fact, and no one was going to leave records, When discussion comes up of mystical meanings in his writings, then inevitably we are arriving at another level of inference and speculation. Nevertheless, the fact that such links can be found between Don Quixiote and Jewish texts, and practices, is of great interest, even if it was to emerge that Cervantes had found and incorporated such material for reasons other than being Jewish. It would certainly suggest strong sympathy for the persecuted Jews of Iberia.

It was already well established that Cervantes obliquely comments on the devastation and loss caused to Spain by the expulsions. The time after 1609, when the Moriscos (Muslim converts) were expelled is a time of decline for Spain, which became poorer and lost its status as premier European power to France. The expulsions are not the only reason, but it all fits a pattern of a state trying to dominate and control everything in religion, the economy and so on. Cervantes even hints at sympathy for Moriscos in the story of a girl returning to Spain in Don Quixite, though there is a lot of rhetoric justifying the expulsion in general to accompany the mercy shown in this case by the authorities. The Second Part of Don Quixote suggests that parts of the text comes from Moorish Arabic writers, which introduces the issue of reliability and deceit, but maybe also obliquely points out that varied sources of Spanish literary culture, and the culture in general.

I must re-read one of my three translations of Don Quixote again, and think about all these issues, which will also need to include some reading of scholarship on the Jewish aspects of Cervantes the person, and Don Quixote the novel. This is maybe the most important novel ever written, and is certainly one of the most important. The discovery of Judaic influences, and possibly a secretly Jewish author is something very important for the history of literature, and for literary studies. Maybe I should post about this again.

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