What are the odds that this is the grave of Cervantes?

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What are the odds that we’ve found the grave of Miguel de Cervantes? Pretty good, I’d say. The author of Don Quixote (1547-1616) asked to be buried at this Trinitarian convent, and sure enough, with ground-penetrating radar, the researchers have found a crumbling wooden coffin with the initials “M.C.” spelled out in metal tacks. It’s one of the half-dozen graves identified in the graveyard of the brick-walled convent in the heart of Madrid, which is a pretty nice city to be lost in.

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Maybe Cervantes, maybe not.

It’s not his first wandering, by a longshot. In 1569, he traveled to Rome where he was the chamber assistant to a cardinal. By 1570, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Navy Marines, and the following year participated in the pivotal Battle of Lepanto, in which the Holy League defeated the Ottoman Empire. Though taken with a fever, he insisted on taking part, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than keep under cover. He almost did: he received three gunshot wounds, one which rendered his left arm useless. In Journey to Parnassus he was to say that he “had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right” (thinking of his career as a right-handed author). And that’s how we may be able to identify him.

According to The Guardian:

Experts said his bones should be easy to identify as they would bear the marks of wounds suffered during the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Cervantes received wounds to his chest and arms during a battle which saw a Spanish-led fleet defeat their Ottoman enemies in the Gulf of Patras off western Greece.

“He received a blast from a harquebus in the chest and another wound that left him unable to use one hand,” [historian Fernando] Prado said. “Those two things will have left some imprint on his bones.”

Cervantes was buried in the convent after dying at his home nearby in 1616. … Cervantes’ bones went missing in 1673 when building work was done at the convent. They are known to have been taken to a different convent and were returned later.

So what are the chances? The Book Haven puts down its bet for “yes,” although the experts are advising caution. And who knows? Scientists may be able to tell whether he did indeed die of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, and so was the tippler he was rumored to be. I’m more interested in whether his DNA will show whether he was a converso, that is, of Jewish descent. Just about everybody brilliant in Spain seemed to be, including the leading Spanish poet (and mystic) of all time, his contemporary Juan de la Cruz. Forensic archaeologists may even be able to reconstruct the face of a man only known from a picture painted by artist Juan de Jáuregui a couple decades after his death (see above).  Current scholarship does not accept this, or any other graphic representation of Cervantes, to be authentic.


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