January 28, 2015
Miguel de Cervantes: lost and found?
by Taylor Sperry
It’s kind of a weird fetish, to get excited about the remains of a famous person–especially the possible remains of a famous person. But that’s what’s happening right now at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid, where forensic experts believe they may have discovered the coffin belonging to Miguel de Cervantes, father of the modern novel and author of the 17th-century epic Don Quixote.
Cervantes’ bones have been lost within the convent complex since the building underwent construction in 1673. (We know he’s here somewhere, we’re just not quite sure where.) More than 300 years, 50,000 euros, and 20 scientists later, researchers have found a casket bearing the initials “M C” on the outside and containing the bones of at least ten different people mixed up on the inside. The casket itself had been obscured by the boxes and bookcases that a publishing company left behind when it was renting out the convent. (Whoops!)
Luckily for posterity, the identification process could be pretty straightforward from here on out: Cervantes was shot in the chest and hand during the Battle of Lepanto and his remains would still show evidence of the injuries; his shoulders sagged from arthritis; he had only six teeth by the time he died. Discovering his body–or parts of it–could tell us not only what he looked like in life, but also what eventually killed him. Some academics believe Cervantes drank himself to death and died of cirrhosis; others suggest he suffered from diabetes, malaria, heart and/or liver failure. (You can read an earlier MobyLives report about Cervantes’s missing corpse here.)
There is, of course, a long and rich history of this sort of thing–usually under more nefarious circumstances. Eva Peron’s corpse “probably spent time in a van parked on the streets of the capital, behind a cinema screen in Buenos Aires, and inside the city’s waterworks” before the Vatican helped smuggle it to Italy. JFK’s brain was “stolen”; Mozart’s skeleton is missing; and Napoleon’s remains are all over the place–his intestines in London and his penis in New Jersey, where it’s been since Dr. John Lattimer (a urologist to Nazi prisoners at the Nuremberg trials) bought it in an auction. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold,” says Tony Perrottet, the author of Napoleon’s Privates. “It was in a little leather presentation box, and it had been dried out in the air. It hadn’t been put in formaldehyde so it was rather the worse for wear, a bit like beef jerky.” (ed. note: If you’re interested in Napoleon’s penis, listen to this episode of The Bugle immediately—the bit starts at 22:15. And if you’re just interested in the odd histories of famous corpses, Paul Collins wrote what I think is the definitive book on the subject, The Trouble with Tom, which tracks Thomas Paine‘s corpse over two centuries.)
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.