Tuesday, April 15, 2014

L is for the Low Countries

Answer: They’re north of Paris and high on the European map but they’re close to sea level. 
Question: What is The Low Countries?


If I were a contestant on Jeopardy!, I would know the question to that answer. I also would know that the “Low Countries” is a collective name for Belgium, the Netherlands and sometimes, but not always, Luxembourg referring to the fact that many of the lands are at or below sea level. I would also know that in Dutch “the Netherlands” literally means “the Low Lands” and in French the name for the Netherlands is “le Pays Bas”, which means “the Low Country.” And I know— but now I’m just beating a dead horse.

In the 21st century everyone is looking to China as the hub of fashion manufacturing and trade. But in the 14th-16th centuries the hub was found in the Low Countries, specifically, Flanders (in modern-day Belgium). The busy port cities of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp traded in the textile industry turning the wool of English sheep into clothing, fabrics and rugs to be sold to the rest of the known world. This trade brought great wealth to the region and made Flanders a desirable region. Sort of like Shanghai, without the smog.

A merchant-based middle-class arose in these areas and like good middle-class people, the merchants of the Low Countries wanted beautiful homes, fashionable clothes and great food. Some of them even wanted awesome art collections and privately assembled the finest paintings, sculptures and artistic what-not available in the Low Countries and beyond.

Answer: They controlled the Low Countries for 100 years and liked good food and wine. 
Question: Who are the Dukes of Burgundy?

Through the convoluted system of acquiring sovereign territories by the method of certain royals marrying other certain royals, Flanders and the rest of the Low Countries passed from some Frankish and Lotharingian rulers to the wealthy Dukes of Burgundy. Living in a region famous for wine grape growing and Bresse chickens, the Burgundian Dukes of Valois-Burgundy used the wealth of the Low Countries to pay for their lifestyles complete with good food, good drink and great art. In exchange, the Flemish merchants and other residents of the Low Countries were introduced to Burgundy’s fine food, drink and art and were inspired to adopt this lifestyle. In short order, the wealthy merchants were regularly enjoying the food, drink and art collecting lifestyles of the Burgundian Dukes. The merchants and the aristocracy lived life equally well. Sort of like China without the aristocracy.

Answer: After the Burgundian Dukes, they controlled the Low Countries.
Question: Who are the Hapsburgs, Spanish, French and Dutch?

After the Duchy of Burgundy ran out of ruling Dukes, the Low Countries were passed like a wealthy hot potato between the various kings of the Hapsburg Empire, Spain, France and the Netherlands, eventually gaining independence in 1815 (the Netherlands) and 1830 (Belgium).

Although the Burgundian Dukes have not controlled the Low Countries for over 600 years, their legacy of eating and drinking well remains in the area, especially Flanders whose residents still pride themselves on being “Burgundians”. Which is nothing like China.