Masterpieces have a date. Today, too many theories in flight before history make the history of thought into ‘a discontinuous series of singular totalities’. But those who are not alarmed by the future dare savour to the full the draught of concrete history which every masterpiece distils for us. For there is no structure so alien, no conjuncture so remote, that man’s intelligence cannot penetrate it, if armed (and if we, too, arm ourselves) with an understanding of man. Thus Don Quixote, this ‘universal’ book, this ‘eternal’ book, is first and foremost a Spanish book of 1605. It only gathers its full meaning in its true historical setting.

It is often said that it would be pointless to search in Cervantes for an interpretation of the ‘decadence’ of his country, ‘because he could not have foreseen it’. footnote1 This is to have a singular disregard for chronology. For if the word crisis rightly describes the passage from an ascending conjuncture to one of collapse, it is surely between 1598 and 1620, between the ‘grandeur’ and the ‘decadence’, that we must situate the decisive crisis of Spanish power, and, much more surely still, the first great crisis of self-confidence for the Spaniards. Well, the two parts of Don Quixote are dated 1605 and 1615.

Of course, the point is debatable. Castilian currency only collapsed in 1625, Iberian unity in 1640, the ‘famous infantry’ in 1643. And on the other hand it was nearly a century before this—as far back as 1558—in the wake of a celebrated State bankruptcy, that Luiz Ortiz, in his Memorial [para que no salga dinero del reino], made the first (and not the least forceful) gloomy forecast about the health of Spain.

But Philip II’s reign had been made up of that alternation between storms and fairer weather which encourages a beleagured populace to believe in miracles. The victory at Saint-Quentin had made them forget the State bankruptcy; Lepanto, the revolts of the Moriscos and the ‘Beggars’. When the Armada was routed, Hispano-Portuguese unity—the Empire of the Three Oceans—was barely ten years old. Spain seemed, if not at the dawn, at least at the high noon of its adventure. Silver was arriving from the Indies in greater quantities than ever. In the ears of the eminent, the lamentations of the Cortes very probably sounded like whinings, both petty-bourgeois and paltry.

Such signs, however, are always meaningful. Scarcely had the old King died in the Escorial, in the autumn of 1598, than far-sighted Spaniards were already venturing to concede the decline. Some even spoke of catastrophe. The prologue to a Memorandum addressed to Philip III in 1600 maintained that, since the virtues of the new Prince were equal to those of the dead king, the Republic was thus assured of recovery ‘however low its fortunes may have fallen’. Was this intended as insolence? The context argues against it. But this manner of demolishing in six words the whole of a carefully built up rhetorical effect was to be the favourite method (here entirely calculated) on which Don Quixote was to be constructed. The time had come when Spain—with laughter or with tears—was to confront her myths with her realities. The realities of 1600 were harsh. At the height of the 16th century’s great rise in prices, in which Spain was the leader, the rate of increase suddenly accelerated. Andalusian corn went from 430 maravedis [ancient Spanish currency] a fañega [about 1.60 bushels] in 1595 to 1,041 in 1598; Castilian corn from 408 in 1595 to 908 in 1599. Such figures still do not convey the full extent of the increase. Taxation, so often avoided, was occasionally imposed. footnote2 But in such cases it was the producer who suffered. Pamphlets multiplied during the last five years of the century, for or against the ‘bread tax’, for or against the public granaries or the montipos. Dr Cristobal Perez de Herrera, doctor to the prison-galleys, wanted to organize poor relief. What was in fact organized was the repression of vagrants. From 1599 to 1601, ‘the hunger which ascended from Andalusia’ met ‘the plague which came down from Castille. footnote3 This time, the terrible bubonic plague did not come from the Mediterranean but quite simply arose, as Dr Herrera tells us, ‘among the poor, who lacked all means of existence’. ‘Nearly the whole of Spain’—particularly inland Spain—was ravaged by it. footnote4