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The Low Countries, in Dutch De Nederlanden, are the historical lands around the low-lying delta of the Rhinemarker, Scheldtmarker, and Meusemarker rivers, including the modern countries of Belgiummarker, the Netherlandsmarker, Luxemburgmarker and parts of northern Francemarker and western Germanymarker.

Historically the region has its origins in Middle Francia, more precisely its northern part which became the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia. After the desintegration of Lower Lotharingia the Low Countries were brought under the rule of various stronger neighbours, such as the Burgundian Netherlands, French Netherlands, Spanish Netherlands and Austrian Netherlands. At times they reached a form of unity as the United Seventeen Provinces, and later the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Geo-political situation

The Low Countries as seen from space

The term is not particularly current in modern contexts because the region does not exactly correspond to the sovereign state of the Netherlandsmarker, Belgiummarker and Luxembourgmarker, 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 as a triangle roughly stretching from French Gravelinesmarker and Dunkirkmarker at its southwestern point, to the area of Dutch Delfzijlmarker and German Eastern Frisia at its northeastern point, and to Luxemburg and French Thionvillemarker in the southeast.

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 Italymarker.

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 Seamarker or the English Channelmarker. 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
  • Most spoke Middle Dutch out of which later would evolve Dutch. However some regions, such as the Bishopric of Li├Ęgemarker, the Romance Flanders (around Cambraimarker, Lillemarker, Tournaimarker), the French-speaking part of Brabant around Nivellesmarker and, Namur, where French or Walloon 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 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 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 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 Francemarker 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 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 Austriamarker 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 Netherlandsmarker 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 also refers to the united kingdom of 1815 - 1830/39, which included present-day Belgium.

See also


  • 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)

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