Friday, September 18, 2015

Geology through Literature - Don Quixote

The next up on my Geology Through Literature thread is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. 

The story is basically a man who has gone "mad", or more likely has dementia, who wants to rebuild the knights of old in Spain during a time period when they are considered by most to be merely legends. To do this he battles giants (windmills), evil villains (other people passing by), and massive armies of people (sheep). 

Although Don Quixote is a rather long book (over 1,000 pages) there is not much in the way of geological content. There are however, two scientifically related parts I would like to point out.

Part II, Book V, Chapter I
"Besides in Sicily thigh-bones and shoulder-bones have been found of so immense a size, that from thence of necessity we must conclude by the certain rules of geometry, that the men to whom they belong'd were giants, as big as huge steeples." 
This is actually a real life occurrence! For thousands of years people had been unearthing extinct dwarf elephant bones on Sicily, Italy. The people who had unearthed these remains had thought they were the remnants of giants, and not just any giants, it was where the origin of the cyclops began.   The skull of a dwarf elephant looks a lot like a human skull with one giant hole in it where the "eye socket" was. Because of reverence for the dead, these remains were often reburied, however now they were laid to rest in a more human like pose. When future people uncovered these now reburied remains, there was really no reason for them not to think that these were the remnants of ancient giants. 
Dwarf elephant skull from Sicily (c) AMNH
Part II, Book V, Chapter XVIII
"With that addressing himself to Don Quixote, Sir, said he, you seem to me to have frequented the schools; pray what science has been your particular study? That of Knight-Errantry, answer'd Don Quixote, which is as good as that of Poetry, and somewhat better too. I don't know what sort of a science that is, said Don Lorenzo, nor indeed did I ever hear of it before. 'Tis a science answer'd Don Quixote, that includes in itself all the other sciences in the world, or at least the greatest part of them: Whoever professes it, ought to be learned in the laws, and understand distributive and commutative Justice, in order to right all mankind. He ought to be a Divine, to give reason of his faith, and vindicate his religion by dint of argument. He ought to be skill'd in Physick, especially in the Botanick part of it, that he may know the nature of simples, and have recourse to those herbs that can cure wounds; for a Knight-Errant must not expect to find surgeons in the woods and desarts. He must be an Astronomer, to understand the motions of the celestial orbs, and find out by the stars the hour of the night, and the longitude and latitude of the climate on which fortune throws him; and he ought to be well instructed in all the other parts of the mathematicks, that science being of constant use to a professor of arms, on many accounts too numerous to be related. I need not tell you, that all the divine and moral virtues must center in his mind."
Although, this passage is not strictly geologically related, I found it interesting in that he seems want to list all the major "sciences" of his day (early 1600's). This is a satirical story though and only so much should be read into what sciences the author deemed important.



  1. Cervantes also shows readers that during the Renaissance the willingness to question previously held truths and search for new answers resulted in a period of major scientific advancements.This is why acharacter named Grisostomo" who is particularly well versed in Astronomy" or the science of the stars" explains the movements of the sun and moon in relation to the earth" predicting" with precise accuracy" the cyclical occurrence of solar and lunar eclipses. This is significant because during the Renaissance people began to approach the world empirically and draw rational conclusions based on observation. Thus" based on his knowledge of the movements of cosmic bodies, which he uses to forecast weather patterns, Grisostomo predicts" with precise accuracy"if a year is fruitful" or not. Due to his agricultural predictions" Grisostomo's father" and many of his friends" sow barley" wheat" chicpeas" or olives" enriching themselves with bumper crops in the process. Such a reliance on the cosmos to predict climate patterns suggests the scientific spirit of the new times that were coming. Other characters use the stars to navigate. For example" (Sancho Panza often resorts to the lore he learned as a little shepherd by plotting the sun's position relative to the stars. This is important because it marks how influential Renaissance astronomy was on the everyday man. One further scientific development during the Renaissance was not a specific discovery per se" but rather the further development o$ the process of discovery" the scientific method.

    For more analysis, visit

    1. Thanks Sagitarius! This is some great information for my post.


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