In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Low Countries

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Book Series

Medieval Studies Low Countries
Frederik Buylaert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0111


The medieval Low Countries roughly correspond to the territories of modern-day Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg, including parts of northern France and western Germany. For the better part of the medieval era, however, this multilingual region did not know any political coherence. It was originally transected by the Rhine frontier between the Roman Empire and the Germanic polities, and in the early Middle Ages, this region was peripheral to both the West and East Francian kingdoms (later France and the German Empire, respectively). In consequence, it saw the emergence of twenty-odd principalities, between the 10th and the 13th centuries, that were nominally subject to either the French Crown or the German emperor but that were, in practice, highly independent. Collective identities were primarily defined within the framework of this patchwork of autonomous counties and duchies. From the 11th century onward, this part of the North Sea area gained more coherence from a socioeconomic point of view. Combining a wide variety of landscape types and a large number of navigable rivers, much of what would later become the Low Countries became densely urbanized, and it has been argued that the intense circulation of people, capital, and goods within those urban networks gave birth to protonational sentiments that would eventually flower into a “Netherlandish” identity. This is a fiercely contested subject, however, and it is only with the birth of a new political union at the end of the Middle Ages that scholars can identify with certainty the emergence of a mode of thought that transcended the perspective of a single principality. Thus, the concept of the Low Countries carries the danger of anachronism for most of the medieval era. The political genesis of the Low Countries must be situated in the 15th century, when the Valois dukes of Burgundy came to hold the various principalities between France and the German Empire in a personal union. This aggregate of principalities was subsequently inherited by the Habsburg dynasty, which completed the process of territorial expansion and which redefined this personal union as an autonomous and indivisible legal entity within the German Empire. Nevertheless, the unity of the Low Countries was destroyed with the Dutch Revolt, when military operations led to a durable separation between the northern and southern Netherlands, from 1585 onward. The northern provinces together formed the Dutch Republic, which eventually gave birth to the modern state The Netherlands. The southern provinces remained under Habsburg control, and although much territory was lost to France in the early modern era, the bulk of the southern Netherlands eventually came to constitute the modern-day state of Belgium. In that sense, the medieval phase of the Low Countries’ history only truly ends in the late 16th century.

General Overviews

A considerable number of general overviews are available, widely ranging in format and style. The best book-length introductions are still Blockmans and Prevenier 1999, which is a synthesis of the classic general interpretation developed in Prevenier and Blockmans 1986, and the more voluminous Blockmans 2010. Blok, et al. 1977–1982 provides a more extensive alternative, whereas de Schepper 1994 offers an article-length introduction. These works give the standard interpretation of the history of the Low Countries, with its claim that regional differentiation primarily developed along the lines of a highly urbanized coastal area (especially the provinces of Holland, Zealand, Flanders, Artesia, and Brabant) and a more rural society in the inland hinterland (Luxemburg, Hainaut, Guelders, Namur, and so on). For a rare contrasting view, see Israel 1995. Because the historiography on this part of northwestern Europe was largely shaped within the framework of the 19th- and 20th-century states Belgium and The Netherlands, close attention should be paid to the metahistorical analysis contained in Tollebeek, et al. 2002.

  • Blockmans, Wim. Metropolen aan de Noordzee: De geschiedenis van Nederland, 1100–1560. Amsterdam: Bakker, 2010.

    Powerful and detailed work of synthesis that, despite its anachronistic subtitle, covers the entire urban network that eventually became integrated into the Burgundian Low Countries. The economic component deserves special attention, as it explains the shifts in the urban network of the Low Countries largely from a Smithian perspective that focuses on the shifts in international trade networks (thus providing an alternative to the Brennerian perspective in van Bavel 2010, (cited under the Urban and Rural Economy) with its stress on sociopolitical tensions over the organization of production).

  • Blockmans, Wim, and Walter Prevenier. The Promised Lands: The Low Countries under Burgundian Rule, 1369–1530. Translated by Lizabeth Fackelmans. Edited by Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

    English translation of In de ban van Bourgondië, originally published in 1988 (Houten, The Netherlands: Het Spectrum). Accessible, inexpensive, and updated synthesis of Prevenier and Blockmans 1986, while lacking the plethora of maps and illustrations of the original.

  • Blok, Dirk P., Walter Prevenier, Daan J. Roorda, et al., eds. Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden. 15 vols. Haarlem, The Netherlands: Fibula-Van Dishoeck, 1977–1982.

    The successor of the so-called Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden (12 vols; Utrecht, The Netherlands: de Haan, 1949–1958). Authored by prominent scholars, this work was the cornerstone of scholarship on the Low Countries in the late 20th century, and it must be noted that it still provides key texts for several topics in social history.

  • de Schepper, Hugo. “The Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands.” In Handbook of European History, 1400–1600. Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation. Vol. 1, Structures and Assertions. Edited by Thomas A. Brady Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, 499–534. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994.

    Article-length discussion of the genesis, evolution, and collapse of the political union of the Burgundian and Habsburg Low Countries.

  • Israel, Jonathan I. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

    This work’s claim that the late-16th-century split between the northern and the southern Netherlands was a natural development rather than the unpredictable consequence of military operations has received much criticism, but it is the only coherent challenge to a historiography that stresses the differentiation between the highly urbanized coastal areas in the west versus the more rural inland areas in the east.

  • Prevenier, Walter, and Wim Blockmans. The Burgundian Netherlands. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    English translation of De Bourgondische Nederlanden, originally published in 1983 (Antwerp, Belgium: Mercatorfonds). Seminal monograph that established a new framework for scholarship on the late medieval history of the Low Countries. The book broke up the prevalent separation between the Burgundian and Habsburg phases of the history of Low Countries by ignoring a dynastic caesura in 1477 and presented a coherent interpretation that ranged from ecology to culture.

  • Tollebeek, Jo, Tom Verschaffel, and Leonard H. M. Wessels, eds. De palimpsest: Geschiedschrijving in de Nederlanden, 1500–2000. Hilversum, The Netherlands: Verloren, 2002.

    The various contributions in this volume supply rich and analytical discussion of the various historiographical approaches and programs that constituted the history of the Low Countries in the previous five centuries, with references for further reading.

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