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A sixteenth century trial and the writing of Don Quijote

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Cervantes published his Segvnda parte del ingenioso cavallero don Qvixote de la Mancha in 1615, ten years after the same printer, Juan de la Cuesta, stamped the first one for the first time, under the title of El ingenioso hidalgo don Qvixote de la Mancha. Cervantes had his pie en el estribo and felt con ansias de la muerte, that is, felt he was about to die, on April 19th 1616, as he wrote in the prologue to his last novel, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (dated by Juan de la Cuesta on 1617). He effectively passed away four days later. As we approach those dates, we are now feeling some commotion in the Cervantine forces. Each anniversary of something, something like that happens. This was not going to be any different.

The catalog of Cervantine discoveries is longer than his opera omnia –and not as good. We have seen everything, with, perhaps, one single exception: as yet, nobody has found a judicial process involving a couple of dogs who were able to keep a conversation in which one of them marvels at the fact that he can speak, whereas the other one is rather astonished by the fact that he can understand his partner in dogness. Other than that, there are models for every single one of his inventions. Many of these models are pretty reasonable, like the case of a man convinced that his body is made out of glass, presented in a Latin Dignotio et Cura Affectuum Melancholicorum written by Alonso de Santa Cruz, possibly the royal doctor of Philip II –but published, along with other opuscula medica, in 1622 (1624) and for Philip IV.

In the last few days, in a first wave of Cervantine events that will lead us uninterruptedly from right now to at least, the end of 2016, two archivists from some place of La Mancha have found the documents from a trial against a Francisco de Acuña, that they assure is the model for Don Quijote and Don Quijote. They explain that the case is very close to the basic plot of Don Quijote, and so are the dates, 1581. Furthermore, the victim of an enraged knight Francisco de Acuña nearby El Toboso is a Villaseñor, the same last name that appears in the historia setentrional of the Persiles, chapter three, book nine. For now, nobody has said –so, I hurry to say it myself before anybody else does it– that the trial involving Acuña and Villaseñor is the aljamiado manuscript, the very work in Arabic written by none other than Cide Hamete Benengeli. There would be reasons to do it: look at the image attached to this post, this notarial script (similar to a letra procesal), typical of the Spanish notaries of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (and beyond, before and after), a script created to be understood by notarial officers and professionals alone, while the rest of us either get a heavy headache or confuse it with Arabic script. Reasonable.

Whereas the two archivists who have discovered these documents explain with little doubt that they have found the grail (which reminds me that two other historians actually found the grail some months ago, and it was in León, Spain), Winston Manrique Sabogal has been polling here and there illustrious male Cervantists of the likes of Darío Villanueva and Andrés Trapiello, to set some cloudy doubts on the discovery. Francisco Rico in one of his journalistic sylvae (he does not call them like that –I do), sentences that, if anything, the real models one can find in and around Cervantes are part of private jokes among friends. Journalist for El Mundo Eva Díaz Pérez has been a bit more creative and has all but rewritten the beginning of Don Quijote with one of her eyes looking at the document unearthed by the two archivists.

Does it matter that there are “real models” of whatever kind for Don Quijote? It looks like it does. For instance, generations of philologists have spent countless hours trying to find every single textual source for every single piece of text produced by Cervantes. Those are real models, and seem to be of great importance to those philologist. I think they are, because, among other things, they allow us to understand the creative process. The only real problem comes when the finding of a source or any other real model is given to us in order to deactivate this creative process, that is, in order to simplify the literary or the artistic work. The artistic work, moreover, is not about models of sources, but about questions and thought.

Is this case between Acuña and Villaseñor the model of Don Quijote? Not really. Simply because the main plot of Don Quijote does not have anything to do with the case presented in these documents. There is no errant knight (Acuña is an enraged urban knight accompanied by other knights, all of them properly armed), there is no literary thought (nobody seems to have been reading too much), there is no reflection on truth and fiction, there is no discourse on the Golden Age, there are no Giants, and so on and so forth. So, whoever thinks the case of Acuña and Villaseñor is close to the main plot of Don Quijote either did not read Don Quijote or did not understand a single word of what he or she read.

There is another possible reflection, perhaps more methodological, but for today it will remain here as a simple question. The document containing the procedures for the trial is probably extremely interesting. It won’t allow us to understand better the creation of Don Quijote, let alone the questions and the complexity of the questions raised in the enormous two parts in tens of editions. It would probably give us, nevertheless, new ideas on how to think about local violence, or walled cities, or even the legislation regarding portable weaponry in civil spaces. But the two researchers –and probably the journalists– have closed this door, by establishing an impossible link with Cervantes’ work. Looking at the documents from the perspective of the Cervantine model will probably deactivate the very possibility to study these documents in themselves, and they will become, at best, a footnote in a future edition of Don Quijote –perhaps not even that. The lives of Acuñas and Villaseñores will become irrelevant. This is at the opposite side of responsible history.

Those among us who work with documents and legajos from the archives know very well the spellbinding presence of the new discovery, how it really relocates some of our certainties. We know, as well, that in those cases we need to proceed with caution before screaming that we have found the grail. What we do in the archives and the way we study the documents do not come without consequences.

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