Medieval Warfare in Don Quijote

Throughout the novel Don Quijote, by Miguel de Cervantes, the protagonist Don Quijote engages in a multitude of altercations in the traditional style of the medieval knight.  In addition to this, he also employs an arsenal of weapons and armor very typical to a warrior of the late medieval period.  This article details said arsenal, as well as describing the ways they were used in the story.

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A set of late medieval plate armor resembling what Don Quijote would have worn. (Helmet exempt)

Beginning on page 15, Cervantes describes the armor that Don Quijote equips for the majority of his journey.  The main suit of armor that is described in the novel was “[Don Quijote’s] great-grandfather’s suit of armor, which for a century or so had been lying, thrown in a corner and forgotten, covered with mildew and quietly rusting away.” (Cervantes 15). Now, as the novel Don Quijote was published in the year 1605, it can be assumed that the actions taking place in the story are taking place roughly in the late 16th/early 17th centuries.  This particular set of armor has been sitting idle for what would likely be around seventy or eighty years, and seeing as armor in that era was extremely valuable (and extremely expensive), it is likely that sets such as these would be passed down from generation to generation, putting the date of construction for the set probably somewhere in the 14th or 15th centuries.  This was the golden era for sets of plate armor.  A typical set, such as the Quijote family set, would consist of a variety of different components.  These components would include a cuirass (chest/back plate), pauldrons (shoulder plates), gauntlets (gloves), greaves (leg plates), boots, and faulds (plates that extended over the mid-section and protected the upper thighs).  While Cervantes does not specify what type of armor this is, whether it was made for battle or for jousting purposes, it can be assumed through Don Quijote’s use (to be laid out in greater detail later) that it is probably just a set intended for general use.  This in use in an early modern environment, combined with the fact that it has been deteriorating for such a long time, make the set of armor incredibly ineffective.  Quijote then throws together a half-iron, half-cardboard helmet to go along with the set, further contributing to his unprofessional appearance.

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The espada ropera: a 16th century Spanish sword model that Don Quijote is likely to have carried with him.

Cervantes goes on to describe Don Quijote’s weapons of choice, namely his sword (which he uses to test the strength of his newly-made helmet on page 15), and his spear/lance, a typical weapon of knights from that era that would be used from horseback to run through opponents while at full gallop.  He also employs the use of a shield, which would also be made of steel/iron, that would prove incredibly ineffective against the firearms and heavy poleaxes of the 17th century.  All these descriptions contribute to Cervantes’ painting of Quijote as an extremely unconventional, ineffective, and bumbling warrior, especially for one around this time period.

In addition to just laying out what pieces of weaponry Don Quijote is using as he rides over the Spanish countryside, Cervantes also includes plenty of examples of Don Quijote actually using these weapons and, more often than not, failing miserably.  The first of these instances is on page 24, during Don Quijote’s first stay at a roadside inn.  Don Quijote believes this inn to be a castle, and among other things convinces the innkeeper to go through the process of knighting him.  While this is all happening, the Don has stored his ramshackle set of armor in the stables on top of a horse trough.  A muledriver, working in the stables, tosses the armor out of the way as he attempts to use the trough.  Don Quijote sees this, and raising his spear above his head with two hands, brings it down on the head of the muledriver, wounding him horribly.  Clearly, in his rage Don Quijote seems to have forgotten how to use a spear properly.  As a spear is basically a long wooden rod with a metal point on the end, it is designed to be used through horizontal thrusts, with the weight of the rod contributing to the inertia of the metal point.  It is most certainly not designed for use as a blunt object.  Cervantes uses this as the first example of the Don in combat to show not only how quick to anger and irrational he is, but also that he has absolutely no idea how to fight.  It becomes clear to the reader throughout the story that Don Quijote might as well be an aged farmhand that slapped some metal plates on his body and proclaimed himself a knight errant.

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A knight armed with a lance charges his opponent.

In other instances of his ineptitude, Cervantes depicts using his lance and horse Rocinante to charge innocent people he encounters on the road, and even a few inanimate objects.  During an encounter with roaming country merchants, a heated argument with the leading merchantman causes Don Quijote’s honor to be wounded considerably.  In all his anger, the Don spurs Rocinante on and aims his lance for the chest of the quick-tongued merchant.  But in a stroke of good luck for all those involved, Rocinante stumbles and falls in the middle of the road in what might as well have been a scene from an episode of Looney Toons.  However, a muledriver accompanying the merchant then proceeds to “[thresh] like a load of grain” (30) Don Quijote as he rolls around on the ground like a tortoise, anchored by the weight of his armor.  In another instance, Don Quijote and his squire Sancho encounter a field full of windmills.  The Don, in his infinite wisdom, proclaims that these giant wooden structures are giants, and that the sails that spin the millstone are in fact their giant arms.  Despite Sancho’s protests, Don Quijote spurs Rocinante to a full gallop, aiming to drive his spear through the chest of the evil giant.  Just then, a sudden gust of wind sends the sail swinging hard around, “smashing the spear to bits and sweeping up the knight and his horse, tumbling them all bruised and battered to the ground” (44).  Clearly, these instances reinforce the way that Cervantes intends to display the Don Quijote, as nothing more than a bumbling idiot who has no business wielding a sword, shield, or lance.

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A pair of knights duel with sword and shield, in a situation similar to Don Quijote and the Basque servant.

However, some of the most exciting scenes in the story involve Don Quijote in combat, and sometimes he emerges from these engagements victorious.  These fights are also very good literary examples of dueling combat from the time, whether that is a one-on-one face off of Don Quijote with another on foot, or a jousting match.  Perhaps the most thrilling of these scenes occurs when Don Quijote encounters a group of travelers, half of which are a lady and her company of servants, the other half a group of traveling friars.  The Don confuses the friars for wizards, and the lady for a princess that they have kidnapped.  After a short skirmish Don Quijote is confronted by one of the lady’s servants, a Basque from northern Spain.  Using a pillow as a shield, the Basque draws his sword and duels with Don Quijote.  After a number of tremendous strokes, which thankfully fall harmless upon the armor of the Don, the Basque manages to land a swing on Don Quijote’s left shoulder, “[slicing] off all the armor on that side, knocking it to the ground along with most of his helmet and half of his ear.” (53).  The enraged Don Quijote then retaliates, knocking the Basque off of his donkey, and successfully winning the duel without losing more than a small piece of his ear.  While this reinforces Cervantes’s notion that Don Quijote’s armor is clearly not suitable for combat, it also is a good example of conventional medieval duels.  One against one combat was very common in instances of wounded honor in the period, and until the idea of using fencing foils came around, men would use whatever weapons they had at their disposal.

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A pair of knights participate in a formal jousting match.

Another instance in which Don Quijote participates in a duel of medieval significance is during his joust with the mysterious Knight of the Wood.  While journeying through the countryside, Sancho and Don Quijote meet a mysterious knight-errant who goes by the name of “the Knight of the Wood.”  After exchanging stories, food, and drink, the Knight of the Wood and Don Quijote get into an argument over whether or not the Knight of the Wood had or had not defeated Don Quijote in a previous engagement.  This disagreement ends in the two challenging each other to a jousting match, with the victor being the one who is right.  Each of the knights part twenty paces from each other, then turn to face the other.  Don Quijote immediately spurs Rocinante to a full gallop, sending him careening towards the Knight of the Woods.  As they move towards each other, the Knight of the Woods realizes his lance is not set in his shoulder, and struggles trying to set it into his socket.  At this moment Don Quijote’s lance “smashed into the Mirrored One [the Knight of the Wood] with utter impunity, completely without risk to himself, and tumbled him willy-nilly backwards off his horse.” (432). While at this point Don Quijote seems to have played the part of an experienced knight, it should be noted that this is much later in the story than events that were described earlier.  Regardless, this is a very good example of typical jousting procedures even though it is not in the traditional tournament setting.