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About this book

This introductory overview of the Low Countries’ history traces their development since Roman times, providing equal weighting to the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Paul Arblaster looks at political, cultural and social history, including the rise of the merchant classes, the Renaissance and Golden Age, and the two world wars of the twentieth-century. The final chapter has been expanded and revised to take into account developments since 2011. This third edition is thoroughly updated and revised throughout and benefits from our recently refreshed series design.

This timely and engaging narrative provides an invaluable starting-point for students of History focusing on the Low Countries, European Studies and Dutch studies.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
The earliest historical record of the Low Countries is in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, a self-serving account of his conquest of the Gaulish tribes in what are now northern France and Belgium. This was the beginning of a period of Roman domination that was to last for five centuries, deeply influencing the social, political, economic, cultural and religious landscapes of the Low Countries. In a much-quoted passage at the beginning of his Commentaries, Caesar wrote, ‘The Belgae are the bravest of them all’, with the much less often quoted continuation, ‘living furthest from the culture of the province, being least visited by merchants, … and constantly warring with the Germans’. He delineates the lands inhabited by these Belgic Gauls as the area bordered southwards by the Seine and the Marne, westwards by the ocean, and northwards and eastwards by the Rhine. This corresponds to all of present-day Belgium and Luxembourg, roughly the southern half of the Netherlands, part of north-eastern France, and Germany west of the Rhine.
Paul Arblaster

2. Roman Rule, 57 BC to AD 455

Abstract
The earliest historical record of the Low Countries is in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, a self-serving account of his conquest of the Gaulish tribes in what are now northern France and Belgium. This was the beginning of a period of Roman domination that was to last for five centuries, deeply influencing the social, political, economic, cultural and religious landscapes of the Low Countries. In a much-quoted passage at the beginning of his Commentaries, Caesar wrote, ‘The Belgae are the bravest of them all’, with the much less often quoted continuation, ‘living furthest from the culture of the province, being least visited by merchants, … and constantly warring with the Germans’. He delineates the lands inhabited by these Belgic Gauls as the area bordered southwards by the Seine and the Marne, westwards by the ocean, and northwards and eastwards by the Rhine. This corresponds to all of present-day Belgium and Luxembourg, roughly the southern half of the Netherlands, part of north-eastern France, and Germany west of the Rhine.
Paul Arblaster

3. From Pagans to Crusaders, 456–1100

Abstract
The Germanic kingdoms that came into being in the wake of Roman rule were transformed by Christianization. The Low Countries, unified and divided as parts of larger kingdoms, provided the powerbase for the emergence first of the Merovingian dynasty and later of the Carolingians. Under the Carolingian and the Ottonian Empires the Low Countries became centres of trade and learning for wide areas of northern Europe By the middle of the fifth century the Salian Franks dominated all of what had been the Roman Low Countries. Shortly after Valentinian III’s death (in 455), the Frankish war-leader Childeric obtained imperial recognition as ruler of Belgica Secunda. The federated Germanic warriors may not have fully understood the principles of Roman government, but they whole-heartedly desired its continuation. According to Gregory of Tours, writing a century later, Childeric was soon forced out into exile, but eight years later he was able to re-establish his leadership of the Franks in northern Gaul. Once he had done so, he had little interest in his initial powerbase in the Low Countries, pressing south to Paris and Orleans.
Paul Arblaster

4. The Rise of Princely Rule, 1056–1231

Abstract
As the poverty and chaos of the tenth century gave way to increasing wealth and security, trade expanded and towns grew. A new type of urban life developed, which was more concentrated in the Low Countries than anywhere else north of the Alps. This period saw the emergence of the counts, dukes and bishops of the Low Countries as independent rulers of separate principalities. The main sources of revenue of the territorial princes were feudal dues, judicial fines and tolls on trade. Their power rested on control of farmland, woodland, jurisdictional rights, roads and waterways. Seemingly paradoxically, the growth in the power of princes went hand in hand with the towns gaining large measures of internal self-government.The first of the principalities of the Low Countries to take clear shape was the county of Flanders. This was one of the most successful feudal principalities, with barons and knights proliferating but the count’s administration keeping a tight hold on his rights and revenues. Control was maintained through the workings of the count’s feudal court, the systematic organization of the territory into castellanies held directly from the count, and the count’s position as ‘advocate’ or ‘guardian’ of almost every important church and monastery in Flanders. Around 1100, the count of Flanders could field an army of 1,000 knights, comparing very favourably with the count of Hainaut’s host of 700, the king of France’s 500, or the 300 that the bishop of Liège could raise. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Flemish counts, lords and knights played significant roles in the affairs of France, England and the Empire, as well as in the Holy Land.
Paul Arblaster

5. Princes and Parliaments, 1231–1384

Abstract
The Cathars (‘the Pure’) emerged in the eleventh century as a dualist alternative to Christianity. They drove to extremes the distinction between the flesh and the spirit, teaching that the physical world was entirely evil, and that the height of sanctity was to starve oneself. A favourite argument was that a good creator would not have made wolves. Outside southern France it was a minority cult. In the Low Countries their numbers were never large, but the appearance of Cathar groups was persistent. In 1155 the bishop of Cambrai declared a clerk named Jonas no longer to be in good standing with the Church because of his Cattorum heresi. In 1162 Louis VII of France, trying to put pressure on Flanders, wrote to the pope that heresy was rife there. In 1163, 11 Flemings were arrested near Cologne and after much questioning and disputation were burned as heretics, the penalty under criminal law.
Paul Arblaster

6. The Low Countries United, 1384–1559

Abstract
The dynasty founded by Philip the Bold of Burgundy lasted only a century in the male line, dying with his great-grandson in 1477. Nevertheless, the House of Burgundy set its mark on the Low Countries like no lineage since the Carolingians. In one form or another, the link between the Low Countries and Burgundy was to last for 300 years.Philip the Bold was the youngest son of King John the Good of France. He earned his nickname at the battle of Poitiers (1356), after which he spent four years in English captivity. In 1363 his bravery in his father’s cause was rewarded with the duchy of Burgundy. In 1369 he married Margaret of Male, heiress of Flanders, and from 1384 he ruled the county on her behalf. In 1385 Philip arranged a marriage between his own children (John and Margaret) and those of Albert of Bavaria (Margaret and William). As a result, Philip’s grandson could lay claim to Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut when the Bavarian line failed. In the meantime, other weddings and financial arrangements had led to Burgundian rule over Brabant and Limburg, and Namur. But all this lay in the future; Philip himself was more occupied with France than with the rest of the Low Countries. He was effectively regent of France during the minority, and later the madness, of Charles VI. Despite this focus on France, Burgundian rule was soon extended to Brabant and Limburg, although only collaterally. In return for Philip the Bold’s support against the duke of Guelders, the childless Duchess Joanna bequeathed Brabant to her niece Margaret of Male on condition that it not become part of the Burgundian dominions but pass instead to a cadet. This happened in 1406, with Philip the Bold’s younger son Anthony of Burgundy becoming duke of Brabant.
Paul Arblaster

7. The Low Countries Divided, 1559–1648

Abstract
The new bishoprics set up in 1559 were resented by the great abbeys and collegiate churches, now obliged to submit to bishops and pay for their maintenance. At the same time, the king’s reliance on the advice of Cardinal Granvelle to the exclusion of other councillors of state irritated the great noblemen of the Low Countries. The intensification of persecution after 1550 drove Calvinists to desperation while alienating the civic magistracies who saw inquisitors infringe upon their jurisdictions. Very few of the powerful elements in society were entirely happy with royal policy in the 1550s and 1560s. Added to this, Antwerp’s commerce was meeting its first major setbacks. The Portuguese spice trade had left the city in 1548, as Spanish America had replaced Central Europe as the main source of silver. The English cloth trade went elsewhere in 1564, after a trade dispute, and in general the city was going through a recession.
Paul Arblaster

8. From Delftware to Porcelain, 1600–1780

Abstract
By the sixteenth century the northern provinces dominated the shipping and fisheries of the Low Countries, and Dutch linen weavers and brewers were exporting internationally. In the decades of the Revolt, financial and commercial expertise and a range of new industries moved north. Tin-glazed pottery, for example, made in Antwerp since before 1512, was produced in Delft from 1584. In English it soon came to be called Delftware. Delft blue was among the closest European imitations of Chinese porcelain in the seventeenth century, before real porcelain began to be manufactured at Meissen in 1711. By 1670 there were 28 faïence factories in Delft alone, with more in Haarlem, Rotterdam, Gouda and elsewhere. Other ceramics, particularly Dutch tiles, were produced at Middelburg and Leeuwarden.
Paul Arblaster

9. The Rise of the Liberal Order, 1780–1878

Abstract
The first cracks in the old regime were opened in Boston. British treatment of neutral shipping during the American Revolutionary War (1776–82) led to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–84). From a military point of view, it simply showed up how far the Republic had declined from its world-power status of the Golden Age. International finance reached new heights, most spectacularly with loans to the new United States and to Russia, but manufacturing was stagnant and trade was at a standstill. From 1780 to 1781 the Baltic carrying trade fell from over 2,000 vessels to a mere 11. Even when the American War was over, in 1782, the Republic was obliged to continue the fight with England until France would make peace. The Prince of Orange, the Republic’s military leader, had been against the war from the start and was blamed for the disastrous course of events. By the 1780s there were ‘Patriots’ in the Netherlands who drew their inspiration from the American Revolution. The traditional Regent opposition to Orangist control made common cause with the demands of the Patriots.
Paul Arblaster

10. Fin de Siècle, 1878–1914

Abstract
At the end of the nineteenth century, Belgium was the archetypal ‘modern nation’, in much the same way that the Netherlands was to be a century later. In 1910 the French diplomat Henri Charriaut wrote of Belgium as a ‘social laboratory’ in which all the crucial issues affecting the various great nations of Europe were apparent and inspired ‘a perpetual fever of reform’ (La Belgique moderne, p. 1). In the same year a lengthier book, based on four years of research and entitled Land & Labour: Lessons from Belgium, was published in London. The author was Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, a New Liberal intent on improving the life and dignity of working people by such means as temperance, social insurance, co-operative societies, small-holdings and allotments. All these were characteristic of Belgium, although Rowntree did lament that Belgian temperance societies, ‘only seek to check the consumption of spirits. They neither preach nor demand from their members abstinence from wine and beer.’ (p. 417). One unintended effect of the success of the Belgian temperance movement’s campaigns against spirits was in stimulating Belgian brewers to experiment with varieties of strong beer, to the extent that Belgian beer is now recognized by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity. Rowntree was particularly taken with the idea of cheap workers’ season tickets on a dense light rail network, so that countryfolk working in industry need not crowd into urban tenements. Nor was he the only English reformer captivated by the Belgian model. According to Catherine Webb, ‘the seed for the future establishment of maternity centres in England’ was brought back from Co-operative Women’s Guild tours of Brussels and Ghent (The Woman with the Basket, 1927, p. 168).
Paul Arblaster

11. World Wars and Decolonization, 1914–60

Abstract
On 2 August 1914 the German army invaded Luxembourg. On the same day the Belgian government was presented with an ultimatum demanding the free passage of German troops. The German government insisted that these were not hostile acts, but necessary military manoeuvres. The government of Luxembourg maintained a policy of ‘strict neutrality’, meaning it co-operated with the forces of occupation but under formal protest of duress. A number of Luxembourgers abroad enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. The invasion of Belgium (which had rejected the ultimatum) began on 4 August. This infringement of Belgian neutrality, which had been guaranteed by all the Great Powers, was the deciding issue that brought Britain into the war – much to the surprise of the Kaiser, who had thought the British unlikely to fight for a ‘scrap of paper’. Despite desperately fierce fighting, the fortifications of Liège and Namur proved no match for German artillery. A zeppelin attack on Liège was the first aerial bombardment of a city.
Paul Arblaster

12. The Present Time, 1960–2018

Abstract
From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, a series of measures transformed welfare provision in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Universal old-age pensions, mandatory unemployment insurance, family allowance payments and a range of other entitlements were funded by employer/employee contributions. The trade unions reached the peak of their power, securing a range of new rights for their members. The Netherlands in 1976 adopted a law on disability benefit which is possibly the most generous ever to have been drafted. State-managed solidarity was also extended to those without social security contributions, creating locally and centrally funded institutions to provide universal basic coverage for those who otherwise slipped through the net.
Paul Arblaster
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