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Don Quixote | Context

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Don Quixote was written and set in early 17th-century Spain. Spain had been conquered by Muslim invaders from North Africa in 711. Over seven centuries, in what has been called the Reconquista (Reconquest), Christian kingdoms began reclaiming territory. In 1492, under the leadership of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain was defeated. By 1547, when Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born, Spain was the most powerful country in the Western world.

The Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was a judicial institution founded in 1478 with the express purpose of weeding out heretics, or people who did not believe in Christianity. Muslims and Jews were interrogated about their religious practices, and those who did not convert to Christianity were banished, tortured, or killed. Even Christians were subject to speculation about their beliefs, which is why many (including the character of Sancho Panza) identify themselves as Old Christians, or people whose families had always been Christian. Only Old Christians were allowed to serve in the government or religious institutions.

The Inquisition controlled Spanish society during Cervantes's lifetime, including which books or pamphlets could be published. Any text that disagreed with the teachings of the Church or was critical of its leaders and practices was destroyed. Authors who wished to comment on the Church had to do so ironically, so that the literal meanings of their texts were complimentary to prevailing ideology, while the tones suggested skepticism. Cervantes was particularly good at balancing praise for the Church, while subtly questioning some of its practices.

Class

Spain in the 17th century followed a class system similar to those in other European countries. Royalty was at the top, followed by nobles, well-to-do members of the middle class, landowners, merchants and farmers, and, finally, peasants. Those at the top of the chain had all the money; those at the bottom did all of the work. Many peasants were tenant farmers, meaning they rented land from wealthier people. The landlords took a large percentage of any profits the tenant farmers made. Peasants paid the highest percentage of taxes, while the nobility and Church paid nothing. Nothing about this system made working harder attractive to peasants, nor was there any incentive to find ways to improve agricultural technology.

People at the top end of the class scale lived lives of leisure. With peasants working the land, there wasn't much for landlords to do. Many merchants, envious of this idle and idyllic lifestyle, purchased land and titles for themselves so that they would no longer have to work for an income. There was also an explosion in the number of men entering the Church or enrolling in universities. They, too, avoided the hard labor needed to keep the economy stable.

The inverse relationship between class and one's work output severely damaged the Spanish economy. The diminishing labor force meant that Spain had to import more than it exported. The elite purchased luxury goods from other countries. Spain eventually had to borrow money from its neighbors, and by the 1630s, it was no longer the wealthiest and most powerful country in Europe. Cervantes was around at just the right time to witness the decline of Spain, an event that had a significant impact on his writing. He drew on personal experiences to create a work that is truly a snapshot of its historical time, capturing the decline of Spain as a superpower and the disillusionment of its people.

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