Renaissance and Reformation The Spanish Netherlands, 1598–1700
by
Luc Duerloo, Guido Marnef
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0224

Introduction

The Dutch Revolt split the Habsburg possessions in the Low Countries into two new and very different polities. The northern provinces broke away to form the Dutch Republic. South of the great rivers, Alexander Farnese succeeded in restoring Habsburg rule with a blend of compromise and conquest. The entity that was thus called into being corresponded more or less to present-day Belgium (without, however, the prince-bishopric of Liège, but still with those parts that would eventually be annexed by France) and has been variously described as the Spanish, Southern, Catholic, Royal or Habsburg Netherlands. In contrast with its northern neighbor, its regime was based on the twin pillars of a monarchy tempered by traditional liberties and the religious monopoly of Roman Catholicism. Initially a composite state of eleven principalities, it witnessed a period of limited independence under the Archdukes Albert and Isabella (1598–1621) before its reintegration in the Spanish monarchy. Over the course of the 17th century, the Spanish Netherlands suffered severely from their geopolitical position. In the hands of a declining monarchy and surrounded by three of the major powers, they became one of the habitual battlegrounds of early modern Europe. As a consequence, the Spanish Netherlands have often been depicted as languishing in the shadows of the Dutch Golden Age. Their fate was anchored in the popular imagination as the Ongelukseeuw (the Century of Misfortunes). Without necessarily belittling the setbacks and the suffering, historians have come to question the almost uniformly dark hues in which the period was customarily represented. Their exercise in revision has revealed a country with an agrarian sector that was experimenting with new forms of crop rotation, had one of the highest levels of urbanization in Europe, and was known throughout the continent for the arts and luxuries it produced. Reconstituted into a bulwark of the Catholic Reformation, the Spanish Netherlands played a pivotal role in propagating the teachings of the Council of Trent. Their sense of mission found its artistic expression in the Flemish baroque. With a strange twist of fate, they also became the birthplace of the Jansenist controversy.

General Overviews

The grand narrative that Belgian historians put together after the country’s independence typified most of the early modern period in terms of foreign occupation. Events were depicted in sharply contrasting colors. Having failed to wrest their independence from an oppressive regime, the southern provinces were subjected to Spanish absolutism and religious bigotry. By branding the powers in Madrid (and subsequently in Vienna) as alien, historical research has generally tended to avoid the broader context of the composite monarchies to which the Southern Netherlands belonged. Instead, it concentrates mainly on subjects where the regional or local autonomy came into play. More recent scholarship has taken a more nuanced stance, but that has not necessarily led to a broadening of horizons. For those who have little or no previous knowledge on the subject, three collaborative works offer introductions that cater for various needs. Blok 1977–1983, a multivolume general history of the Netherlands, provides the most extensive treatment of the period. A synthesis that is solely devoted to the Spanish Netherlands, Janssens 2006 is somewhat shorter but more up to date, and it benefits from the input of scholars from outside the Low Countries. The concise History of the Low Countries (Blom and Lamberts 2006) mainly aims at an audience of undergraduates.

  • Blok, D. P. Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden. 15 vols. Haarlem: Fibula-Van Dishoek, 1977–1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collaborative effort of Belgian and Dutch scholars reflecting the state of historical research at the time of publication. The chapters about the Spanish Netherlands are to be found in Volumes 6 to 8, with bibliographical essays at the end of each volume. Somewhat older, but more or less in the same league as Janssens 2006.

  • Blom, J. C. H., and Emiel Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries. New York: Berghahn, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A handbook for undergraduate students that was originally published in Dutch in 1993. The English translation came out in 1998, the paperback edition in 2006. The chapters on the Spanish Netherlands are by Paul Janssens. A brief sketch of the international situation precedes longer sections on the internal political development, the economy, religion, and art. A worthy first introduction to the subject.

  • Janssens, Paul, ed. La Belgique espagnole et la principauté de Liège, 1585–1715. 2 vols. Brussels: Banque Dexia, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume was conceived to reflect the state of historical research on the period and written for the historian as well as for an informed reader by a team of Belgian specialists and three leading foreign scholars (Jonathan Israel, Robert Muchembled, and Geoffrey Parker). It contains a valuable bibliographical orientation at the end of the second volume. This is an obvious starting point for any newcomer to the subject who has a command of Dutch or French. Dutch version:België in de 17de eeuw: De Spaanse Nederlanden en het prinsbisdom Luik (2 vols., Brussels: Dexia Bank, 2006).

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