Low Countries  

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This page Low Countries is part of the Belgium series  Photo: Antwerp quays in the South of Antwerp, at the former Zuidersluis
This page Low Countries is part of the Belgium series
Photo: Antwerp quays in the South of Antwerp, at the former Zuidersluis

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The Low Countries is the coastal region of north western Europe, consisting especially of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the low-lying Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta. 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 includes Luxembourg.

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 lordships until 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 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"), and has the same meaning and origin as the term "low countries". ("Belgium" was re-named only in 1830, to distinguish it from the Netherlands. It had previously also normally been referred to as one part of the geographic "Netherlands", the so-called "Southern", "Spanish" or later "Austrian Netherlands" which remained in the hands of the heirs of the Burgundian Dukes until the French Revolution.)


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.

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.

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 Austria and thus became known as the Austrian Netherlands. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830) temporarily united the Low Countries again.

Art of the Low Countries

Art of the Low Countries

Art of the Low Countries is painting, sculpture, architecture, printmaking, and other forms of visual art produced in the Low Countries, and since the 19th century in Belgium and the Netherlands. It includes the traditions of Early Netherlandish painting and the Renaissance in the Low Countries. During the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painting prominently represents the artistic culture of the northern Netherlands while Flemish Baroque painting and the art of Peter Paul Rubens is the cornerstone of art in the southern Netherlands.

Paintings produced anywhere in the Low Countries during the 15th and early 16th century are collectively called Early Netherlandish painting (in Dutch Vlaamse primitieven, Flemish primitives—also common in English before the mid 20th century). Later art and artists from the southern Catholic provinces are usually called Flemish and those from the northern Protestant provinces called Dutch, but art historians sometimes use 'Netherlandish art' for art produced in both areas between 1400 and 1830.

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.

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 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.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Low Countries" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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