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
But if such blood-lettings, a classic occurrence in the old economies, were in general speedily settled there, here the plague attacked a demographic structure that was already enfeebled: overpopulated towns, a barren countryside. The human deficit was to be a lasting one. After 1600, the ‘depopulation’ of Spain—a theme continually written about—was recorded in statistics: in census-figures—and in wages. A Castilian orchard-worker, paid 3,470 maravedis in 1599, received 9,000 in 1603. Between 1601 and 1610, the ‘real wage’ of the Spanish labourer made an unprecedented leap. footnote5 Should it be seen then as a Golden Age for the labourer? No. For there were no longer any labourers! No wage-earners, that is to say. For the Castilian tenantfarmer or the Morisco semi-serf still scratched at a capricious soil. Grain prices kept up their mad dance: between 1602 and 1605, a fañega of Andalusian corn went from 204 to 1301 maravedis; there was famine once again. But the high cost (or rather the absence) of manpower was a death sentence for the Castilian economy. By 1620 innumerable pamphlets were no longer concerned with the ‘bread tax’, but with the alarming invasion of foreign merchandise.
All the more so since the ‘general level of prices’ had been dropping since 1601. The same economic conjuncture, a different historical outcome. Silver arrived more slowly from the Indies, or, rather, it arrived at a higher price. There too, in Mexico or Peru, the exploitation of man had reached its limits. A terrible drop in the population footnote6 now forced the mine-owners to turn to semi-feudal agriculture. footnote7 The rise in the price of silver was to come to a halt—first of all in Spain. One of the mechanisms of colonial parasitism, which artificially maintained the latter well above its means, had just collapsed.