A Source for Pynchon’s Account of the Revolt in the Low Countries
Leo Belgicus, Jodocus Hondius, 1611
by Albert Rolls
Martin Eve is able to demonstrate in “Historical Sources for Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Peter Pinguid Society’” that Pynchon consulted a single source, F. A. Golder’s “The Russian Fleet and the Civil War,” while constructing the historical background of the Peter Pinguid Society. Tracking down other sources that Pynchon drew on to construct the historical elements of The Crying of Lot 49 might not turn out to be as straightforward as it ended up being for Eve, but doing so is not without its value. Take the resistance in the Low Countries to Phillip II of Spain’s attempt to assert greater authority over the region that led to William of Orange’s becoming “de facto master” (CL49 159) of it. Pynchon relied on more than one source, at least one that provided information about Thurn and Taxis and one that was about the larger historical context. The unrecognized source for Pynchon’s construction of that historical context seems to be Adrien de Meeüs’s Histoire Belgique (1928), which was published in an English translation as the History of the Belgians in 1962. Knowing Meeüs’s historical account not only helps explain some of the choices, as well as errors, Pynchon made but also helps one better characterize the Tristero’s place in history.
Meeüs’s History suggests itself as Pynchon’s source primarily because of errors in the text. William of Orange, for instance, entered Brussels in September 1577, not December of that year, the month given in the History of the Belgians (184) and The Crying of Lot 49 (159). Of course, a wrong date isn’t conclusive evidence of anything. More convincing is the fact that Meeüs’s simplified characterization of the dynamic of the rebellion is the one that Pynchon adopts. Meeüs characterizes the rebellion as a struggle between a popular Calvinist element and a Catholic elite, something that contradicts the actual history. The Committee of Eighteen, which both Meeüs and Pynchon note invited William of Orange into Brussels, actually “consisted in large measure of Catholic patriots” (Marnef 99), who felt comfortable with Orange’s leadership because he, although a Calvinist by that time in his religious development, was respected for his religious tolerance.
John Lothrop Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic, which Pynchon references in Lot 49 but probably did not consult and which attributes Brussel’s invitation to Orange to the Estates General (3:171) rather than the Committee of Eighteen, even emphasizes Catholic participation in the early phase of the resistance. That is not to say that the conflict did not develop into a conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Indeed, “Catholics who initially supported resistance . . . increasingly began to ask more questions about a revolt in which there was a chance their own religion might be undermined” (Marnef 100), and once they started raising such questions, they were purged from the ruling bodies of many of the cities participating in the revolt, although such purges sometimes did not happen until 1580, and replaced by Calvinists.
That Pynchon’s passing over Catholic involvement in the resistance to Philip of Spain derives from Meeüs seems to be confirmed by the similarities of the description of Orange’s coming to Brussels. Meeüs writes that Orange
had been called to the capital by a “committee of eighteen,” which, like the Paris commune of 1792, had been self-appointed after a day of revolutionary activity. It was made up of delegates from the ‘nations’—crafts and unions representing the popular element. This committee seized effective power and claimed to be the only representative of the people, as opposed to the deputies of the Estates General, whom they declared to be out of contact with the country because of their wealth and privilege. (185).
Pynchon is more concise, even as he draws attention to the Low Countries’ Calvinism—something Meeüs’s account of the region’s resistance to Spain does elsewhere—but he nonetheless echoes Meeüs, writing
In late December, Orange [. . .] entered Brussels in triumph, having been invited there by a Committee of Eighteen. This was a junta of Calvinist fanatics who felt that the Estates-General, controlled by the privileged classes, no longer represented the skilled workers, had lost touch entirely with the people. The Committee set up a kind of Brussels Commune. (159)
What does this account of the events in the Low Countries tell the reader about the Tristero? One should note that the Tristero emerged in opposition to what we might call a progressive revolt, for Hernando Joaquin de Tristero y Calavera appears to contest the appointment of the Calvinist Jan Hinckart, Lord of Ohain, as Grand Master of Thurn and Taxis. The Tristero is initially a conservative force, despite its apparent association with the counterculture, or progressive elements, of Oedipa’s time. That, of course, should be recognizable without Meeüs. What is interesting about Meeüs is his connecting the resistance in the Low Countries in 1577 to the French Revolution in 1792, a connection Pynchon alludes to with the phrase “a kind of Brussels Commune” but does not make obvious.
The French Revolution appears in Lot 49’s historical recounting of the Tristero later, first, when Emory Bortz speculates that the Tristero staged the French Revolution “to issue the Proclamation of 9th Frimaire, An III, ratifying the end of the Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly in France and the Lowlands” (165), which would place the Tristero on the progressive side of historical events, and second, when Oedipa reads in the typescript that Genghis Cohen gives her that is “supposed to be a translation of an article from an 1865 issue of the famous Bibliotheque des Timbrophiles” (172) that the French Revolution led the aristocratic backers of the Tristero to split from the movement and cut it off from its heritage, where it remains in limbo, at least as far as the reader is concerned, until the 1840s, when the typescript asserts it is connected to mid-nineteenth-century anarchist movements, again placing it on the progressive side of history.
The side of history, conservative or progressive, that the Tristero is aligned to thereby appears to change, and our reading of the novel should take that possibility into account.
Eve, Martin. “Historical Sources for Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Peter Pinguid Society.’” Pynchon Notes 56–57 (2009): 242–245, DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/pn.18,
Marnef, Guido. “The Towns and the Revolt.” The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt. Ed. Graham Darby. New York: Routledge, 2003: 84–106.
Meeüs, Adrien de. History of the Belgians. New York: Praeger, 1962.
Motley, John Lothrop. The Rise of the Dutch Republic. Vol 3. London: J.M. Dent, 1909.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Company, 1966.
About the Author:
Albert Rolls is presently adjuncting. His Thomas Pynchon: The Demon in the Text was published in 2019, and he is presently working on a study of Pynchon’s representation of revolution, or resistance, in Pynchon’s early novels.