Common Names for the Low Countries

That part of Northwestern Europe forming the deltas and hinterlands of the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers has been known by many names. And for many Americans, the term “Low Countries” itself is not well known or understood.

This multiplication of terms, names, and labels has had the unfortunate side effect of confusing many would-be students of history.

This is a glossary of terms commonly used in historic and scholarly sources to describe the region during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This glossary is a work in progress.


Ancient Source, Used by Renaissance Humanists

The Batavi were a Celtic tribe from the Rhine & Maas delta particularly noted in historical accounts for their rebellion against Rome. In the early sixteenth century, the term was popularized as a founding myth of the Hollander – and later, Dutch – people, who would later see in the story of the Batavians an antecedent for their own revolt against Habsburg Spain.

The term saw widespread use, notably as the title of the eminent humanist Hadrianus Junius’ history Batavia and by the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, who gave their primary settlement (moderm-day Jakarta, Indonesia) the same name.

Belgica (or Belgae or Belgium)

Ancient Source, Used by Renaissance Humanists

A Latin term used to describe the region, this term was taken from a the Celtic confederation of the Belgae (who lived south of the Batavi) who were described in the accounts of Julius Caesar. “Belgica” and its variants would be the most common terms used by Renaissance humanists when describing the Low Countries in their Latin-language texts.

Note that the modern state of Belgium did not exist in its current form until well into the modern period – in the wake Napoleon’s reordering of national boundaries and the subsequent 1830 Belgian Revolution.


Modern Term

A modern portmanteau created from the first letters in the three modern countries that make up the region: Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg. The term was originated by journalists describing a customs agreement between the countries late in World War II, but now is used to refer to the region more generally.

Dutch Republic

Chiefly a Modern Description of the Early Modern State

The Dutch state formed from the rebellious northern provinces during the Dutch Revolt is properly – and formally – called the “Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.” To refer to it as the “Dutch Revolt” is to use a shorthand, much as “America” substitutes for the longer “United States of America.”

While this nascent state only settled on a republican form of government ca. 1588, some historians date the birth of this new entity to the 1581 Plakkaat van Verlatinghe (the “Act of Abjuration) or even the formation of the 1579 Union of Utrecht.

Flanders and Holland

Pars Pro Toto Terms Used Modernly and Historically

Pars pro toto is a Latin term for “a part taken for the whole.” This is a figure of speech used when a larger subject is referred to or named for one of its component parts. Referring to the entirety of the Low Countries as Flanders or Holland is such an example.

As seat of much of the powerful and resplendent Burgundian state (along with neighboring Brabant, to be fair), the region was commonly referred to as “Flanders” through the late medieval period. In the wake of the Dutch Revolt, the economic ascendancy of the province of Holland resulted in the Dutch state as a whole being referred to as simply “Holland” – a practice that continues to this day.

Low Countries

Historic and Modern Term

The most general and widespread term for this region of northwestern Europe is the Low Countries. Etymologically, the “Low” in the term is a historical reference from the early medieval period when the region was more closely connected to broader Germanic culture. The coastal “Low” was in contrast to the upriver “Middle” and more mountainous “High” German regions and dialects.

Over time, as Flemish and Dutch languages – and culture – developed, the term “Low Countries” lost its connotations with wider German language and culture and began to be references specifically to the region as it is recognized now.

Netherlands (or De Nederlanden)

Historic and Modern Term

Netherlands, or Nederlands, is simply another word for Low Countries (Neder= “low”). In the medieval and early modern eras – before the modern states of the Netherlands and Belgium existed – all of the Low Countries were referred to as the Netherlands, or Low Countries.

This historical unity is reflected in the modern Dutch usage of De Nederlanden to refer to the historical region as a whole (as well as de Lage Landen).


Historic and Modern Term

Identical in usage to the Low Countries or the Netherlands, Pays-Bas is the French-language term for the region (used commonly in the French-speaking Walloon region – both historically and in modern Belgium).

The term itself has its origins in the medieval Burgundian state, whose rulers and statesmen would refer to les pays de par deçà (“the lands over here”) for the Low Countries and les pays de par delà (“the lands over there”) for the Burgundian territories to the south which gave the state its name. Over time, the term evolved into Pays d’Embas, which in turn was truncated to Pays-Bas.

Seventeen Provinces

Historic Term Still Used by Modern Scholars

Charles V, the grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, set to expanding his inheritance of the old Burgundian lands by consolidating his control over the remaining provinces and states of the Low Countries. By 1548, he had united the region under his dominion and politically separated them from much of the bureaucracy of the Holy Roman Empire.

His Low Countries domain was seventeen provinces in total, and thus the name. However, the exact reckoning of those provinces varies. It seems contemporaries were certain that there were, in fact, “Seventeen Provinces,” but the exact list would vary – a reflection of the complexity and fluidity of inheritance and sovereignty in the sixteenth century.

In modern scholarship, the use of “Seventeen Provinces” largely coincides with the use of the term “the Habsburg Netherlands” to describe the region between the 1477 Battle of Nantes (i.e. the traditional end of the Burgundian state) and the 1566/1568 start of the Dutch Revolt.

Spanish, Royalist, or Southern Netherlands

Chiefly a Modern Description of the Southern Provinces

Contemporaries referred to the whole of the region as “the Netherlands” and “the Low Countries.” After the rebellion and independence of the northern provinces, those in the south continued to be the “Habsburg Netherlands” much as they had been for many decades prior.

However, as that latter term is chiefly used to refer to the period before the Dutch Revolt, it is problematic for historians, who chose instead to refer to the continued Spanish rule in the southern provinces such as Flanders and Brabant as wither “Spanish,” “Royalist,” or “Southern.” All three of these terms will be generally interchangeable in histories of the era and place.

United Provinces

Historic Shorthand Popularly Used by Contemporaries

An abbreviated version of the Dutch Republic’s full, formal name, the phrase “United Provinces” was widely used by historic contemporaries when writing about the Dutch state and its war with Spain. For this reason, modern scholars will frequently use in addition to, or replacement of, the “Dutch Republic.”

Now you have a better understanding of the many varied terms the region has been called – both by modern scholars and by the historic contemporaries of the epochal change happening during the era in the Low Countries.

Now learn who some of the key figures of the Renaissance Netherlands were.