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The Low Countries (Dutch: de Lage Landen, French: les Pays-Bas) is the coastal region of north western Europe, consisting of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, around the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers where much of the land is at or below sea level.
Historically, due to the lack of clear geographical boundaries except for the North Sea in the west, 'low countries' implied all land downstream the big rivers including parts of modern day northern France and western Germany, but after the economical and political emergence of the Flemish and Dutch fiefdoms (the Seventeen Provinces) in the 15th and 16th century, the term became synonymous with the seceding Northern Netherlands into the Dutch Republic, and the remaining Southern Netherlands, nowadays Belgium and Luxembourg.
The term is particularly appropriate to the era of the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe when strong centrally governed nations were slowly forming and territorial governance was in the hands of a noble or of a noble house. But today the term is still frequently used to signify Belgium and the Netherlands as a whole, especially in a cultural and non-political context.
Historically, after the Roman denomination of it as Gallia Belgica, the region politically had its origins in Middle Francia, more precisely its northern part which became the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia. After the disintegration of Lower Lotharingia, the Low Countries were brought under the rule of various stronger neighbors. Their possessions can be renamed into the Burgundian Netherlands and the succeeding Habsburg Netherlands, also called the United Seventeen Provinces (up to 1581), and later for the Southern parts as the Spanish Netherlands and Austrian Netherlands, whereas the northern parts formed the autonomous Dutch Republic. At times they reached a form of unity as the United Seventeen Provinces in the 16th Century, and later the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in the 19th Century. The name of the Netherlands itself ("nether" meaning "lower", hence, "lower lands"; Dutch Nederland, German Niederlande), along with French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish names for the Netherlands, les Pays-Bas, i Paesi Bassi, Países Baixos and los Países Bajos (literally translated "the Low Countries"), is based on this historical context.
Geo-political situation 
The term is not particularly current in a geo-political sense, because there is in use for the region consisting of the sovereign states of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg an alternative term, Benelux. This term was employed after the Second World War, to describe the region as a trading union.
However, in Dutch and to a lesser extent in English, the Netherlands and Belgium, or sometimes the Netherlands and Flanders - the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium - are commonly referred to as the Low Countries. This is very common in a cultural context or colloquially, and the meaning doesn't comprise Luxembourg. A 'Derby der Lage Landen' (derby of the Low Countries) for example, is a sports game between Belgium and the Netherlands.
Before early modern nation-building, the Low Countries referred to a wide area of northern Europe, a low-lying triangular river delta for the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems. This area 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 mark the reawakening of Europe in the 12th century. In that period, they became one of the most densely populated regions of Europe, together with northern Italy.
A collection of several regions rather than one homogeneous region, all the low countries still shared a great number of similarities.
- Most were coastal regions bounded by the North Sea or the English Channel. The countries not having access to the sea linked themselves politically and economically to those that had access, so as to form one union of port and hinterland. A poetic description also calls the region the Low Countries by the Sea.
- Aside from Romance-speaking Belgium (cf. the Bishopric of Liège, the Romance Flanders (i.e. Cambrai, Lille, Tournai), the French-speaking part of Brabant around Nivelles and Namur, where Walloon is traditionally spoken), the region is Germanic with Dutch and Luxembourgish the dominant languages, although French has historically played an important role as it still does in Luxembourg.
- Most of the regions depended on a lord or count in name only, the cities effectively being ruled by guilds and councils and, although in theory part of a kingdom, their interaction with their rulers was regulated by a strict set of liberties describing what the latter could and could not expect from them.
- All of the regions depended on trade and manufacturing and the encouragement of the free flow of goods and craftsmen.
Historical situation 
The Low Countries were part of the Roman provinces of Belgica, Germania Inferior and Germania Superior. They were inhabited by Belgic tribes, before these were replaced by Germanic tribes in the 4th and 5th century. They were governed by the ruling Merovingian dynasty.
By the end of the 8th century, the Low Countries formed a part of 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 Low Countries became part of Middle Francia, which was ruled by Lothair I. 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. The further history of the Low Countries can be seen as a continual struggle between these two powers.
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 of the seventeen declared their independence from Habsburg Spain, the provinces of the Southern Netherlands were recaptured (1581) and are 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.
Linguistic distinction 
In English, the plural form Netherlands is used for the present-day country, but in Dutch that plural has been dropped; one can thus distinguish between the older, larger Netherlands and the current country. So Nederland (singular) is used for the modern nation and de Nederlanden (plural) for the domains of Charles V. However, in official use the name of the Dutch kingdom is still Kingdom of the Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden); the plural has not been dropped. In the official use though, the meaning is slightly different; since it refers not only to Dutch territory in Europe, but also to territories in the Caribbean. The name Kingdom of the Netherlands also refers to the united kingdom of 1815 - 1830/39, which included present-day Belgium.
See also 
- Netherlands (disambiguation)
- Greater Netherlands
- Seventeen Provinces
- Burgundian Netherlands
- Early Netherlandish painting
- Burgundian Circle
- Lower Lorraine
- 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)