Don Quixote and Sancho, painted by Alexandre Decamps.

Cervantes and the Censors

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) is generally credited with writing the first modern novel, his famous Don Quixote. The story of the addle-brained old gentleman who decides to become a knight and recruits his gullible neighbour as his squire has appealed to the imaginations of generations of readers ever since it was published over 400 years ago. His ill-advised battle with a windmill has become proverbial and his misguided adventures and attempts at chivalry remain hilarious to modern readers.

However, besides Don Quixote being a great literary masterpiece, getting it published was no easy task either. Cervantes lived in agitated times. His own life was quite nearly as eventful as that of his famous knight, and it is something of a miracle that he survived long enough and found the time to write as much as he did.

Outside of Cervantes’ personal obstacles, though, he found another in the censure of the Church. In the 16th century, religion was a hot topic. Luther kicked off the Protestant movement near the beginning of the century, and when Cervantes was born, it would still be some hundred years before the European powers would stop waging wars over the issue. Spain was devoutly Catholic and sworn ally of the pope against all forms of heresy. In Cervantes’ homeland, the Spanish Inquisition held considerable sway.

Censorship was simply a fact of life for Cervantes and his contemporaries, and Cervantes’ aims did not necessarily please the Church. At the time, there was a sharp division of jurisdiction in literature: prose was meant for true knowledge and fiction was to contain itself to poetry. If you wanted make up a story, it was preferred that you did so in verse, so no one would be tempted to take your writing for truth; and if you wanted to write your story in prose, it had better be an historically accurate piece.

Cervantes managed to get his novels – fictional prose – past the censors for the first time, which is why he is credited with writing the first modern novel. Not that no one ever wrote fictional prose before, but most of it was pulpy and the Church certainly didn’t approve of anyone reading it. The main genre was chivalric romance – pious knights and damsels in distress, sorcery and impossible quests – exactly the type of book Cervantes is ridiculing in Don Quixote.

This distinction between prose and poetry also puts the knight himself into a bit of perspective. To the modern reader, it seems ridiculous that anyone could start to believe in chivalry and think himself a knight, just because he read a lot of fictional books on the topic. In Cervantes’ day, though, the thought is a bit less silly because, by convention, prose contained truth. A fantastical story written in prose could conceivably be mistaken to be historical, since it was presented in the same format as historical books. Such a mistake could put some strange ideas into someone’s head and this is exactly what the theologians were afraid of.

Cervantes had to convince the censors that his writing, though it didn’t fit the old paradigm, was not morally harmful to anyone. In fact, he believed his prose offered lessons to be learned. The position of the Church was that a book could not be good for a person if what it said wasn’t true. Cervantes, however, wanted to stretch this a little bit: he thought it was enough for a story to be believable, to have a semblance of truth. If the reader could believe that the story might have happened, and the story provided some kind of lesson, what was really the difference between such a realistic fiction and a true story?

Cervantes therefore chose an aim for his work that he could align with the views of the Church. The theologians disapproved of books of chivalry, so Cervantes told them the aim of Don Quixote was, as he writes in his preface, “no more than to destroy the authority and acceptance that books of chivalry have had in the world.” He wrote a book about a poor soul who goes crazy from reading too many chivalric romances, so he is essentially telling the Church he agrees with their censure and wants to join in their quest to rid the world of such harmful books.

But here he pulls a clever little sleight of hand. By doing so, he instills his own book – which is after all technically also an heretical fiction – with a moral purpose, a lesson to his readers. By taking up arms against one unaccepted kind of book, he tries to win acceptance for his own.

Obviously his ploy succeeded: Don Quixote got by the censors, was published and has survived the sands of time. It was a stroke of genius. This little trick of his, which established the modern novel, adds a whole new dimension to our admiration of Cervantes, on top of that which we have for his marvelous writing.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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  1. Marcel Moura

    Great post Marco, congrats! Gave me a new perspective for when reading Don Quixote =)

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