Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, one of six children, was born on 29th September 1547 and christened on October 9 of that year in Alcalá de Henares, Spain.
His father was Rodrigo de Cervantes, a surgeon which, in those days, was an ill-paid profession of low repute. This would not help matters later on and would result in him serving time in a debtor’s prison. His mother, Leonor de Cortinas, was possibly a descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity.
Very little is known of his early life except that he studied at the “Estudio de la Villa” where his teacher teacher, Juan López de Hoyos, referred to him as “our dear and beloved pupil,”. This was, however, a common form of address in those days. In 1569 he left Madrid for Rome, the reasons for which are unclear.
Some sources state that a warrant was issued for the arrest of one Miguel de Cervantes for having fought a duel and wounded the master builder Antonio de Sigura.
Once in Rome, Cervantes became an attendant of the Cardinal Julio Acquaviva and he published some elegies. He also joined a Spanish regiment there and was wounded while fighting in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571; as a consequence of which, he lost the use of his left hand.
From then on he was called ‘el manco de Lepanto’ (the one-handed man of Lepanto). As a highly paid soldier, Cervantes received letters of recommendation from important persons such as Don John of Austria and the Duke of Sessa.
In 1575, while returning to Spain, he and his brother Rodrigo were captured by Barbary pirates based in Algiers. There he became the slave of the Greek renegade Dalí Mamí and later the Bey Hassan Pasha. The Bey, finding the letters of recommendation, set a ransom of 500 gold ducats.
Cervantes’ family was poverty-stricken and, according to some sources, his sisters had to resort to unorthodox procedures to be able to raise the required sum. He was held captive in Algiers, tried several times to escape, unsuccessfully, and was ultimately freed in 1580 when his ransom was paid.
The experience of 5 years in captivity inspired numerous passages in his work, such as the history of the Captive in the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha and the drama Los Baños de Argel (The Baths of Algiers).
Upon returning to Spain he found that no posts were available in the kingdom in spite of his letters of recommendation. Penniless, he married Catalina de Palacios Salazar y Vozmediano of Esquivias in 1584 and lived in the town of Esquivias, Toledo. He published La Galatea a year later. To earn a crust, he was also a supplier of provisions to the Spanish Armada and, at one time, a tax collector.
Cervantes began writing Don Quixote in 1597 while imprisoned in Sevilla for debt. In 1605 he published Part I of his major work, formally known as El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha).
Part II did not appear until 1615. Between Part I and Part II of Don Quixote he published Novelas Ejemplares (The Exemplary Novels), a collection of twelve short stories. In 1615, he published Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses Nuevos Nunca Representias. His most famous play, La Numancia, stayed unedited until the 18th century.
His novel Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda was published posthumously one year after his death, in Madrid, in 1616.. Cervantes himself considered it to be his best work and far superior to Don Quixote.
His influence was such that in French and Spanish, the Spanish language is referred to proverbially as la langue/la lengua de Cervantes.