Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Spain's greatest literary figure, was born in Alcalá de Henares, a small university town near Madrid, where hewas baptized in the church of Santa María on October 9, 1547; he died in Madrid on April 23, 1616. We know little of his early life. The fourth of seven children, Cervantes, his siblings and motheraccompanied his father, an itinerant surgeon, who struggled to maintain his practice and his family by traveling the length and breadth of Spain. Despite his father's frequent travels, Cervantes receivedsome early formal education, in the school of the Spanish humanist, Juan Lopez de Hoyos, who was teaching in Madrid in the 1560s. His first literary efforts--poems written on the death of the wife ofPhilip II--date from this period.
In 1569 Cervantes traveled to Italy to serve in the household of an Italian nobleman, and joined the Spanish army a year later. He fought bravely against theTurks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he received serious wounds and lost the use of his left hand. After a lengthy period of recovery and further military duty, he departed Italy for Spain in1575, only to be captured during the return journey by Barbary pirates. He was taken to Algiers and imprisoned for five years, until Trinitarian friars paid a considerable sum of money for his ransom.This experience was a turning point in his life, and numerous references to the themes of freedom and captivity later appeared in his work.
His new-found freedom and return to Spain had stringsattached. He was deep in debt for the ransom paid to release him. In 1584 he married a woman almost twenty years younger (he was 37 at the time), and soon managed to obtain a position as a governmentofficial in the south of Spain, requistioning wheat and olive oil for the campaign of the Invincible Armada (1588). Within two years of the Armada's defeat, he requested permission to emigrate to the New...