An arid region in central Spain, La Mancha is still largely based around agriculture, as it was in Cervantes' time. It is ironic that, although he ensured its name would live forever with the success of his masterpiece, Cervantes probably selected it as the perfect example of placid, rural anonymity. Having his would-be knight 'Don Quixote of La Mancha' hail from the middle of a dry, dusty expanse of farmland made the satirical bent of Cervantes' novel clear from its very title. As John Ormsby rather uncharitably wrote in the preface to his 1885 translation, 'even a glimpse of La Mancha will give an insight into the meaning of Cervantes such as no commentator can give. Of all the regions of Spain it is the last that would suggest the idea of romance'.
A testament to the region's unspectacular appearance is the fact that the only significant historical depictions of it are to be found in illustrations for various editions of Don Quixote itself. Over the years, as the book grew from a popular farce to become a celebrated icon of classic literature, perceptions of La Mancha itself seem to have gained in grandeur purely through association. Gustave Doré, who also illustrated genuine medieval romances including Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, sets Quixote's misadventures against a spectacular background which seems to indulge rather than satirise his delusions.
If the setting of La Mancha acts as a humble contrast to Don Quixote's delusional adventures, the same cannot be said for the broader culture in which he was conceived. Sixteenth-century Spain, like the mind of Cervantes’ hero, was saturated with a particular brand of romance, the same values of violent conquest and masculine courage enforced by a strict social code. Following the end of a gradual 'Reconquista', which eradicated Muslim power from the nation and established total Christian authority, the 'Golden Age' of Spanish culture lasted roughly from the late-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. Under the ruling Hapsburg dynasty Spain became a dominant global power, claiming territories reaching from the New World to the Far East as part of an empire seen as divinely protected, and won through force of arms.
This national identity was bound up with the genre of chivalric romance which consumes the mind of Cervantes' hero. Not only did the historical conflicts of the 'Reconquista' inspire many of the most popular fictional cycles, in particular the exploits of Charlemagne and his legendary circle of knights, but the conquistadors who sought and plundered new kingdoms drew inspiration in turn from the stories themselves. When explorers under the command of Hernan Cortes discovered what was mistakenly assumed to be an island to the west of the New World, they dubbed it ‘California’ – the name of a fantastical island filled with Amazon-style warrior women and golden treasures, featured in Las Sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. In a 1524 letter to the King of Spain, Cortes himself recounted rumours of ‘an island populated by women, without a single male…very rich in pearls and gold’ as though they were tangible reports to be investigated.
The depiction of Spanish society in Don Quixote is similarly divided between fiction and reality. Alongside the outlandish chivalric persona of Quixote himself we see more mundane versions of the same principles operating in the casual violence, sexual attitudes, and racial prejudices of his ordinary, 'sane' countrymen, suggesting Cervantes' lunatic may stand for, rather than out from, his wider setting.