A history of the Netherlands must first explain how and why a Netherland nation came into being. It seems strange that in a tiny corner of the great plain of northwest Europe, open to invasion from all sides, there should exist a nation quite distinct from its far more powerful neighbors. It is even more remarkable that this small nation has proved strong enough to maintain itself as a separate political entity and to carry its own civilization to the far corners of the earth.
The European territory of the kingdom of the Netherlands covers only 13,700 square miles, an area about equal to that of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The country derives its name from its geographic location: "Nederland" is the lowland as opposed to the "overland," the high land of the interior. Originally the term was used in a vague sense. Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungen epic, is called the "helt von Niderland" by a German poet of the early XIIIth century. Here, "Niderland" stands for the great plain of the lower Rhine, which the poet distinguishes sharply from the mountainous area of the middle Rhine, the scene of his hero's chief exploits. Gradually the meaning of, the term was restricted to the delta of Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt, and in Dutch medieval chronicles these lands are referred to as the "low lands along the sea," our "Low Countries."
The medieval scribe who, around 1350, styled himself the "cleric from the low lands along the sea," recognized as his fatherland only the country of Holland, a narrow strip of land from the mouth of the Scheldt to the Zuiderzee. Even a century later, the name applied solely to the western coastal provinces of Belgium and of the Netherlands. Flanders, Brabant, Holland, and Utrecht were included, but the northeastern districts from Guelders to Groningen were considered definitely foreign. To the coastal inhabitants these districts were part of the "Overland" or "Oostland"--the great eastern plain between the Zuiderzee and the Oder--and their inhabitants spoke, not the vernacular "Dutch," but a foreign tongue, the "Low Saxon" or "Overlandish." In the XVIth century the union of the present states of the Netherlands and Belgium was realized. From then on, the name of "Netherlands" or "Low Countries" is applied to the whole of that area, and the latter term even now indicates the combined territory of both states. The name "Netherlands" was first used politically in 1539. As at that time most historians wrote in Latin, a classical form had to be devised.