The Low Countries (Dutch: de Lage Landen, French: les Pays-Bas) is a coastal region in western Europe, consisting especially of the Netherlands and Belgium, and the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers where much of the land is at or below sea level. This wide area of Western Europe 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.
Most of the Low Countries are coastal regions bounded by the North Sea or the English Channel. The countries without access to the sea have linked themselves politically and economically to those with access to form one union of port and hinterland.
The Low Countries were the scene of the early northern towns, newly built rather than developed from ancient centres, that marked the reawakening of Europe in the 12th century. In that period, they rivaled northern Italy for the most densely populated region of Europe. Most of the cities were governed by guilds and councils along with a figurehead ruler; interaction with their ruler was regulated by a strict set of rules describing what the latter could and could not expect from them. All of the regions mainly depended on trade, manufacturing and the encouragement of the free flow of goods and craftsmen.
Germanic languages such as Dutch and Luxembourgish were the predominant languages, although Romanic languages also played an important role. Secondary languages included French (Luxembourg, Brabant around Nivelles), Romance-speaking Belgium (cf. the Bishopric of Liège), the Romance Flanders (i.e. Cambrai, Lille, Tournai), and Namur (Walloon).
Historically, the term Low Countries arose at the Court of the Dukes of Burgundy, who used the term les pays de par deçà (roughly, "the lands over here") for the Low Countries as opposed to les pays de par delà (roughly, "the lands over there") for the Duchy of Burgundy and the Free County of Burgundy, which were part of their realm but geographically disconnected from the Low Countries. Governor Mary of Hungary used both the expressions les pays de par deça and Pays d'Embas (roughly, the "lands down here"), which evolved to Pays-Bas or Low Countries. Today the term is typically fitted to modern political boundaries and used in the same way as the term Benelux, which also includes Luxembourg.
The name of the modern country the Netherlands has the same meaning and origin as the term "low countries" due to "nether" meaning "lower". The same name of these countries can be found in other European languages, for example German Niederlande, French, les Pays-Bas, and so on, which all literally mean "the Low Countries". In the Dutch language itself (known in Dutch as Nederlands, meaning "Netherlandish") no plural is used for the name of the modern country. So Nederland (singular) is used for the modern nation and de Nederlanden (plural) for the 16th century domains of Charles V. (However, in official use the name of the Dutch kingdom is still Kingdom of the Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden), a name deriving from the 19th century origins of the kingdom which originally included present-day Belgium.)
In Dutch, and to a lesser extent in English, the Low Countries colloquially means the Netherlands and Belgium, sometimes the Netherlands and Flanders—the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium. (This version does not include Luxembourg.) For example, a "Derby der Lage Landen" (Derby of the Low Countries), is a sports event between Belgium and the Netherlands.
"Belgium" was renamed only in 1830, after splitting from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in order to distinguish it from its northern neighbour. It had previously also commonly been referred to as one part of the geographic "Netherlands", being the part which remained in the hands of the Habsburg heirs of the Burgundian Dukes until the French Revolution. Politically, before the Napoleonic wars, it was referred to as the "Southern", "Spanish" or later "Austrian" Netherlands. It is still referred to as part of the "low countries".
The region politically had its origins in Carolingian empire; more precisely, most of it was within the Duchy of Lower Lotharingia. After the disintegration of Lower Lotharingia, the Low Countries were brought under the rule of various lordships until they 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 Low Countries were part of the Roman provinces of Gallia Belgica, Germania Inferior and Germania Superior. They were inhabited by Belgic and Germanic tribes. In the 4th and 5th century, Frankish tribes had entered this Roman region and came to run it increasingly independently. They came to be ruled by the Merovingian dynasty, under which dynasty the southern part (below the Rhine) was re-Christianised.
By the end of the 8th century, the Low Countries formed a core part of a much expanded 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 middle slice, Middle Francia, was ruled by Lothair I, and thereby also came to be referred to as "Lotharingia" or "Lorraine". Apart from the original coastal County of Flanders, which was within West Francia, the rest of the Low Countries were within the lowland part of this, "Lower Lorraine".
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 (987–1498) or the Holy Roman Empire. While the further history the Low Countries can be seen as the object of a continual struggle between these two powers, the title of Duke of Lothier was coveted in the low countries for centuries.
Gradually, separate fiefs came to be ruled by a single family through royal 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 in 1581, the ten provinces of the Southern Netherlands remained occupied by the Army of Flanders under Spanish service and are therefore 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.
After the Second World War, Benelux was the name used for the trading region of the sovereign states of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
One of the Low Countries' earliest literary figures is the blind poet Bernlef, from c. 800, who sang both Christian psalms and pagan verses. Bernlef is representative of the coexistence of Christianity and Germanic polytheism in this time period.
The earliest examples of written literature include the Wachtendonck Psalms, a collection of twenty five psalms that originated in the Moselle-Frankish region around the middle of the 9th century.