The goatherds had been boiling goat meat in a pot over a flame, and they invite Sancho and Don Quixote to share their meal. Quixote magnanimously invites Sancho to eat with him as equals, because everyone is equal in the pursuit of knight-errantry. After the meal, Don Quixote makes a sentimental speech about the golden age of mankind, when food was shared and readily available. Everyone was simple and truthful, modest and chaste. Now the world is darker and more complicated, so knights errant must defend the innocent and helpless. The goatherds listen silently and uncomprehendingly.
Sixteenth-century Spain was a place of sharply defined social hierarchies. Quixote is a hidalgo, so he is more noble than Sancho, who is a peasant. But in knight errantry, a person’s values and virtues matter more than birth: nobility is based on merit, not heredity. As Quixote makes clear, his idea of chivalry is deeply sentimental and nostalgic. His role, he believes, is to bring back a time of goodness and decency.
Soon, a young man who knows the goatherds comes along and sings a love ballad he wrote, accompanying himself on the violin. The ballad describes a beautiful but stony-hearted girl who won’t reply to her lover’s pleas. After the song, a goatherd applies rosemary and salt to Quixote’s ear wound.
The goatherds may not understand Quixote’s theories about goodness, but they seem to understand certain basic aspects of human well-being much better than he does. They feed him a nourishing meal and heal his wounds, as though he were a child.