Low Countries

Low Countries

Low Countries, region of NW Europe comprising the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The northern parts of the Netherlands and Belgium form a low plain bordering on the North Sea, but S Belgium and Luxembourg are part of the Ardennes plateau. The name Low Countries is a political and historic term rather than a strictly geographic concept. One of the wealthiest areas of medieval and modern Europe, it has also been a chronic battle site. For a history of the Low Countries, see articles on the individual nations and provinces (e.g., Flanders; Brabant, duchy of; Holland). See also Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish.

The Low Countries, the historical region of de Nederlanden, are the countries on low-lying land around the delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse (Maas) rivers. The term is more 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 at the hand of a noble or noble house.

As such, the Low Countries were swapped around by inheritance leading to such historical terms as Burgundian Netherlands, French Netherlands, Spanish Netherlands and Austrian Netherlands. With the reorganization of the region during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the term Low Countries gradually became more appropriate to romantic descriptions by authors versus useful diplomatic or geographically accurate and well-defined meanings. This is analogous to the way the literal and purely geographic term Eastern Europe became used as a euphemism for "Countries behind the Iron Curtain" or "Eastern Bloc", and morphed into a political term instead. In the case of the Low Countries, a geo-political term, for all intents and purposes, became irrelevant.

Nonetheless, in modern English usages, the term will occasionally be found, by which is meant the Kingdom of Belgium and (European main land part) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Sometimes the French Netherlands are also included in this definition.

Geo-political situation

The term is not particularly current in modern contexts because the region does not very exactly correspond with the sovereign states of The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, for which an alternative term, the Benelux was applied after World War II.

Before early modern nation building, the Low Countries referred to a wide area of northern Europe roughly stretching from Dunkirk at its southwestern point to the area of Schleswig-Holstein at its northeastern point, from the estuary of the Scheldt in the south to Frisia in the north. The Low Countries were the scene of the early northern towns, built from scratch 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 of 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 politically and economically linked to the ones that had so as to form one union of port and hinterland. A poetic description also calls the region the Low Countries by the Sea
  • Most spoke Middle Dutch out of which later would evolve Dutch. However some regions, such as the Bishopric of Liège, the Romance Flanders (around Cambrai, Lille, Tournai) and Namur, where French was the dominant language are often considered as part of the Low Countries as well.
  • Most of them 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 them depended on trade and manufacturing and encouraging 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 Celtic 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 9th century, the Low Countries formed a part of Francia and the Merovingians were replaced by the Carolingian dynasty. In 800 the Pope crowned and anointed Charlemagne Emperor of the re-established Roman Empire.

After the death of Charlemagne, Francia was divided in three parts between 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 became an object of desire between the rulers of West Francia and East Francia. They each tried to swallow the region, and merge it with their spheres of influence.

As such, the Low Countries consisted of medieval fiefs, whose sovereignty resided with either the Kingdom of France or the Holy Roman Empire. The further history of the Low Countries is a permanent struggle between these two powers until today.

Gradually, separate fiefs were ruled by the same family through 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 some of the Seventeen Provinces 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: the official name of the Dutch kingdom is still Kingdom of the Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden), in official use, the plural has not been dropped. The name Kingdom of the Netherlands refers to the united kingdom of 1815 - 1830/39, which included the present Belgium.


  • 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)

See also

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