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Low Countries

The ‘Low Countries’ (sometimes the ‘Lowlands’) is a term used by modern historians to refer to the large historical region on the North Sea coast around the estuaries of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse and Rhine, which more or less corresponds to the modern-day Benelux, but also includes parts of modern-day France and Germany. In the Middle Ages it was a border region with the frontier between the kingdom of France and the German Empire running through it, more or less following the course of the river Scheldt. In the late Middle Ages the Low Countries included five dioceses, Cambrai, Thérouanne, Tournai and Liège, in the south, and Utrecht, in the north. The bishops of Liège and Utrecht ruled over relatively important parts of their bishoprics also as secular rulers, while the other bishops were had much smaller secular territories attached to their see, mostly limited to the city (the bishops of Cambrai also ruled over the Cambrésis). The rest of the Low Countries was ruled over by territorial princes. The most important principalities were the county of Flanders (which belonged politically speaking largely to the kingdom of France, but its territory included also some imperial fiefs), the duchy of Brabant, the counties of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland (all in the Empire, the latter three ruled over jointly by the Avesnes dynasty since 1299, and from 1356 by their successors, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs). Other principalities included the small duchy of Limburg, and the counties of Namur, Looz (from 1366 directly ruled by its former feudal lord the bishop of Liège), Luxemburg (from 1354 a duchy), Gueldres (from 1339 a duchy), Juliers (from 1336 a margraviate, from 1356 a duchy), and Cleve. To the north-east were regions like Frisia, which did not have territorial rulers but over parts of which the counts of Holland and the bishops of Utrecht claimed overlordships. Following the accession of the Valois dukes of Burgundy in Flanders in 1384, the successive Burgundian dukes were able to extend their political influence over the bishoprics and add many of the territories to what is often called the ‘Burgundian State’, which also included many territories in and around Burgundy (the duchy of Burgundy, the Franche-Comté, Nevers, Mâcon and Auxerre). This gradual Burgundian unificiation continued earlier personal unions, such as those between Holland, Zeeland and Hainault (union between Holland-Zeeland and Hainault in 1299); between Flanders and Namur (from 1263); and between Brabant, Limburg and Luxemburg (Brabant and Limburg united from 1288/89, union with Luxemburg in 1355). The Low Countries were linguistically divided between Romance (French) and Germanic (Dutch) speaking areas, but the linguistic frontier did not follow the Franco-German border. Many of the principalities, and all four southern bishoprics, included both Dutch- and French-speaking areas.


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