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The Low Countries (Dutch: de Lage Landen, French: les Pays-Bas) make up a coastal region in north western Europe, consisting especially of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers where much of the land is at or below sea level. Historically the term low countries was purely geographical and implied all land downstream the big rivers including parts of modern-day northern France and western Germany, but today the term is typically fitted to modern political boundaries and used in the same way as the term Benelux, which also includes Luxembourg.
The region politically had its origins in Carolingian empire, more precisely most of it was within the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia. After the disintegration of Lower Lotharingia, the Low Countries were brought under the rule of various lordships until they came to be in the hands of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. Hence, a large part of the low countries came to be referred to as the Burgundian Netherlands also called the Seventeen Provinces up to 1581. Even after the political secession of the autonomous Dutch Republic (or "United Provinces") in the north, the term "low countries" continued to be used to refer collectively to the region. The region was temporarily united politically between 1815 and 1839, as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, before this split into the three modern countries of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The name of the modern country the Netherlands has the same meaning and origin as the term "low countries" because "nether" means "lower". The same is found in the name of this country in other European languages, for example German Niederlande, French, les Pays-Bas, and so on, which all literally mean "the Low Countries". In the Dutch language itself (known in Dutch as "Nederlands", meaning "Netherlandish") no plural is used for the name of the modern country. So Nederland (singular) is used for the modern nation and de Nederlanden (plural) for the 16th century domains of Charles V. (However, in official use the name of the Dutch kingdom is still Kingdom of the Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden), a name deriving from the 19th century origins of the kingdom which originally included present-day Belgium.)
"Belgium" was renamed only in 1830, after splitting from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in order to distinguish it from its northern neighbour. It had previously also commonly been referred to as one part of the geographic "Netherlands", being the part which remained in the hands of the Hapsburg heirs of the Burgundian Dukes until the French Revolution. Politically, before the Napoleonic wars, it was referred to as the "Southern", "Spanish" or later "Austrian" Netherlands. It is still referred to as part of the "low countries".
The Low Countries were part of the Roman provinces of Gallia Belgica, Germania Inferior and Germania Superior. They were inhabited by Belgic and Germanic tribes. In the 4th and 5th century, Frankish tribes had entered this Roman region and came to run it increasingly independently. They came to be ruled by the Merovingian dynasty, under which dynasty the southern part (below the Rhine) was re-Christianised. By the end of the 8th century, the Low Countries formed a core part of a much expanded Francia and the Merovingians were replaced by the Carolingian dynasty. In 800 the Pope crowned and appointed Charlemagne Emperor of the re-established Roman Empire.
After the death of Charlemagne, Francia was divided in three parts among his three grandsons. The middle slice, Middle Francia, was ruled by Lothair I, and thereby also came to be referred to as "Lotharingia" or "Lorraine". Apart from the original coastal County of Flanders, which was within West Francia, the rest of the Low Countries were within the lowland part of this, "Lower Lorraine". After the death of Lothair, the Low Countries were coveted by the rulers of both West Francia and East Francia. Each tried to swallow the region and to merge it with their spheres of influence. Thus, the Low Countries consisted of fiefs whose sovereignty resided with either the Kingdom of France or the Holy Roman Empire. While the further history the Low Countries can be seen as the object of a continual struggle between these two powers, the title of Duke of Lothier was coveted in the low countries for centuries.
Gradually, separate fiefs came to be ruled by a single family through royal intermarriage. This process culminated in the rule of the House of Valois, who were the rulers of the Duchy of Burgundy. In 1477 the Burgundian holdings in the area, the Burgundian Netherlands passed through an heiress—Mary of Burgundy—to the Habsburgs. In the following century the "Low Countries" corresponded roughly to the Seventeen Provinces covered by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549 of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, which freed the provinces from their archaic feudal obligations.
After the northern Seven United Provinces out of the seventeen declared their independence from Habsburg Spain in 1581, the ten provinces of the Southern Netherlands remained occupied by the Army of Flanders under Spanish service and are therefore sometimes called the Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht following the War of the Spanish Succession, what was left of the Spanish Netherlands was ceded to Austria and thus became known as the Austrian Netherlands. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815–1830) temporarily united the Low Countries again.
In Dutch and to a lesser extent in English, the Low Countries colloquially means the Netherlands and Belgium, sometimes the Netherlands and Flanders—the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium. (This version does not include Luxembourg.) For example, a 'Derby der Lage Landen' (derby of the Low Countries), is a sports event between Belgium and the Netherlands.
Before early modern nation building, the Low Countries referred to a low-lying triangular river delta for the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems. This wide area of Northern Europe roughly stretches from French Gravelines and Dunkirk at its southwestern point, to the area of Dutch Delfzijl and German Eastern Frisia at its northeastern point, and to Luxembourg and French Thionville in the southeast.
The Low Countries were the scene of the early northern towns, new-built rather than developed from ancient centres, that marked the reawakening of Europe in the 12th century. In that period, they rivaled northern Italy for the most densely populated region of Europe
The Low Countries shared a great number of characteristics:
- Most were coastal regions bounded by the North Sea or the English Channel. The countries without access to the sea linked themselves politically and economically to those with access to form one union of port and hinterland. A poetic description also calls the region the Low Countries by the Sea.
- All of the regions depended on trade and manufacturing and the encouragement of the free flow of goods and craftsmen.
- The regions mainly spoke Germanic with Dutch and Luxembourgish as dominant languages, although Romance languages also played an important role. Secondary languages included French (Luxembourg, Brabant around Nivelles), Romance-speaking Belgium (cf. the Bishopric of Liège), the Romance Flanders (i.e. Cambrai, Lille, Tournai), and Namur (Walloon).
- Most of the cities were governed by guilds and councils along with a figurehead ruler; interaction with their ruler was regulated by a strict set of rules describing what the latter could and could not expect from them.
- Netherlands (disambiguation)
- Greater Netherlands
- Seventeen Provinces
- Burgundian Netherlands
- Early Netherlandish painting
- Burgundian Circle
- Lower Lorraine
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- Paul Arblaster. A History of the Low Countries. Palgrave Essential Histories Series New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 298 pp. ISBN 1-4039-4828-3.
- J. C. H. Blom and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries (1999)
- B. A. Cook. Belgium: A History (2002)
- Jonathan Israel. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477–1806 (1995)
- J. A. Kossmann-Putto and E. H. Kossmann. The Low Countries: History of the Northern and Southern Netherlands (1987)