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History of Belgium

Early History

The oldest primitive stone instruments found on the area of today's Belgium date 800,000 BC. Circa 400,000 BC, Neanderthals are claimed to be living on the edge of the Meuse river, near the village of Spy. From 30,000 BC onwards the inhabitants were Homo sapiens. Neolithic remains can be found today at Spiennes where there was a flint mine. The first signs of Bronze age activity in Belgium date from around 1750 BC. From 500 BC Celtic tribes settled in the region and traded with the Mediterranean world. From c. 150 BC, the first coins came into use.

The earliest named inhabitants of Belgium were the Belgae (after whom modern Belgium is named). The population covered a significant area of Gaulish or Celtic Europe, living in northern Gaul at the time of the Roman occupation. The distinction between the Belgae to the North and the Gauls to the south of them is disputed, but it seems clear that the Gauls were the dominant group in the area until the Roman and Germanic influence came to dominate. The arrival of Germanic tribes from the north and east, is cited by Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico. Linguists have proposed that there is evidence that the Belgae had previously spoken an Indo European language intermediate between Celtic and Germanic. This language or group of languages is sometimes referred to as the Nordwestblock.

In 54 BC, the Belgae were over-run by the armies of Julius Caesar, as described in his chronicle De Bello Gallico. In this same work Julius Caesar referred to the Belgae as "the bravest of all the Gauls" ("horum omnium fortissimi sunt belgae"). What is now Belgium flourished as a province of Rome. This province was much larger than the modern Belgium and included five cities: Nemetacum (Arras), Divodurum (Metz), Bagacum (Bavay), Aduatuca (Tongeren), Durocorturum (Reims).

At the northeast was the neighbouring province of Germania Inferior. Its cities were Traiectum ad Mosam (Maastricht), Ulpia Noviomagus (Nijmegen), Colonia Ulpia Trajana (Xanten) and Colonia Agrippina (Cologne). Both provinces include what are now known as the Low Countries.

Early Middle Ages

After the Roman Empire collapsed (5th century), Germanic tribes invaded the Roman province of "Gallia". One of these peoples, the Franks, eventually managed to install a new kingdom under the rule of the Merovingian Dynasty. Clovis I was the most well known of the kings of this dynasty. He ruled from his base in northern France, but his empire included today's Belgium. He converted to Christianity. Christian scholars, mostly Irish monks, preached Christianity to the populace and started a wave of conversion (Saint Servatius, Saint Remacle, Saint Hadelin).

The Merovingians were short-lived and were succeeded by the Carolingian Dynasty. After Charles Martel countered the Moorish invasion from Spain (732 - Poitiers), the King Charlemagne (born close to Liège in Herstal or Jupille) brought a huge part of Europe under his rule and was crowned the "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire" by the Pope Leo III (800 in Aachen).

The Vikings were defeated in 891 by Arnulf of Carinthia near Leuven. The Frankish lands were divided and reunified several times under the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, but eventually were firmly divided into France and the Holy Roman Empire. The parts of the County of Flanders stretching out west of the river Scheldt (Schelde in Dutch, Escaut in French) became part of France during the Middle Ages, but the remainders of the County of Flanders and the Low Countries were part of the Holy Roman Empire.

As the Holy Roman Emperors lost effective control of their domains in the 11th and 12th centuries, the territory more or less corresponding to the present Belgium was divided into mostly independent feudal states:

  • County of Flanders
  • Marquisate of Namur
  • Duchy of Brabant (see also Duke of Brabant)
  • County of Hainaut
  • Duchy of Limburg
  • Luxemburg
  • Bishopric of Liège

During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Rheno-Mosan or Mosan art movement flourished in the region moving its centre from Cologne and Trier to Liège, Maastricht and Aachen. Some masterpieces of this Romanesque art are the shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, the baptistry of Renier de Huy in Liège, the shrine of Saint Remacle in Stavelot, the shrine of Saint Servatius in Maastricht or, Notger's gospel in Liège.

Burgundian and Habsbourgian Netherlands

By 1433 most of the Belgian and Luxembourgian territory along with much of the rest of the Low Countries became part of Burgundy under Philip the Good. When Mary of Burgundy, grand-daughter of Philip the Good married Maximilian I, the Low Countries became Habsburg territory. Their son, Philip I of Castile (Philip the Handsome) was the father of the later Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire was unified with Spain under the Habsburg Dynasty after Charles V inherited several domains.

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