Low Countries Explained

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 in the hands of a noble or of a noble house.

Therefore, 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 writers rather than having a useful diplomatically or geographically accurate and well-defined meaning. This is analogous to the way the literal and purely geographic term Eastern Europe came to be used as a euphemism for "countries behind the Iron Curtain" or "Eastern Bloc", and was converted into a political term instead. In the case of the term "Low Countries," it became, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant as a geo-political term.

Nonetheless, in modern English usage, the term is occasionally to be found, and it then means the Kingdom of Belgium and (European mainland 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 to the sovereign states of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, for which an alternative term, Benelux was employed after the Second World War, but only to describe them as a trading union.

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, newbuilt 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.

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 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 became an object of desire between the rulers of 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.

Gradually, separate fiefs came to be ruled by a single 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 present-day Belgium.

See also