As with all ethnic groups, the ethnogenesis of the Dutch (and their predecessors) has been a lengthy and complex process. Though the majority of the defining characteristics (such as language, religion, architecture or cuisine) of the Dutch ethnic group have accumulated over the ages, it is difficult (if not impossible) to clearly pinpoint the exact emergence of the Dutch people; the interpretation of which is often highly personal. The text below hence focuses on the history of the Dutch ethnic group; for Dutch national history, please see the history-articles of the Netherlands. For Dutch colonial history, see the article on the Dutch Empire.
In the first centuries CE, the Germanic tribes formed tribal societies with no apparent form of autocracy (chiefs only being elected in times of war), beliefs based Germanic paganism and speaking a dialect still closely resembling Common Germanic. Following the end of the migration period in the West around 500, with large federations (such as the Franks, Vandals, Alamanni and Saxons) settling the decaying Roman Empire, a series of monumental changes took place within these Germanic societies. Among the most important of these are their conversion from Germanic paganism to Christianity, the emergence of a new political system, centered on kings, and a continuing process of emerging mutual unintelligibility of their various dialects.
The conversion of the Frankish king Clovis
to Christianity would have great significance in helping shape the identity of the future Dutch people.
The general situation described above is applicable to most if not all modern European ethnic groups with origins among the Germanic tribes, such as the Frisians, Germans, English and the North-Germanic (Scandinavian) peoples. In the Low Countries, this phase began when the Franks, themselves a union of multiple smaller tribes (many of them, such as the Batavi, Chauci, Chamavi and Chattuarii, were already living in the Low Countries prior to the forming of the Frankish confederation), began to incur the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire. Eventually, in 358, the Salian Franks, one of the three main subdivisions among the Frankish alliance settled the area's Southern lands as foederati; Roman allies in charge of border defense.
Linguistically Old Frankish or Low Franconian gradually evolved into Old Dutch, which was first attested in the 6th century, whereas religiously the Franks (beginning with the upper class) converted to Christianity from around 500 to 700. On a political level, the Frankish warlords abandoned tribalism and founded a number of kingdoms, eventually culminating in the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne.
However, the population make-up of the Frankish Empire, or even early Frankish kingdoms such as Neustria and Austrasia, was not dominated by Franks. Though the Frankish leaders controlled most of Western Europe, the Franks themselves were confined to the Northwestern part (i.e. the Rhineland, the Low Countries and Northern France) of the Empire. Eventually, the Franks in Northern France were assimilated by the general Gallo-Roman population, and took over their dialects (which became French), whereas the Franks in the Low Countries retained their language, which would evolve into Dutch. The current Dutch-French language border has (with the exception of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais in France and Brussels and the surrounding municipalities in Belgium) remained virtually identical ever since, and could be seen as marking the furthest pale of gallicization among the Franks.
The medieval cities of the Low Countries, which experienced major growth during the 11th and 12th century, were instrumental in breaking down the already relatively loose local form of feudalism. As they became increasingly powerful, they used their economical strength to influence the politics of their nobility. During the early 14th century, beginning in and inspired by the County of Flanders, the cities in the Low Countries gained huge autonomy and generally dominated or greatly influenced the various political affairs of the fief, including marriage succession.
While the cities were of great political importance, they also formed catalysts for medieval Dutch culture. Trade flourished, population numbers increased dramatically, and (advanced) education was no longer limited to the clergy; Dutch epic literature such as Elegast (1150), the Roelantslied and Van den vos Reynaerde (1200) were widely enjoyed. The various city guilds as well as the necessity of water boards (in charge of dikes, canals, etc.) in the Dutch delta and coastal regions resulted in an exceptionally high degree of communal organization. It is also around this time, that ethnonyms such as Diets and Nederlands emerge.
In the second half of the 14th century, the dukes of Burgundy gained a foothold in the Low Countries through the marriage in 1369 of Philip the Bold of Burgundy to the heiress of the Count of Flanders. This was followed by a series of marriages, wars, and inheritances among the other Dutch fiefs and around 1450 the most important fiefs were under Burgundian rule, while complete control was achieved after the end of the Guelders Wars in 1543, thereby unifying the fiefs of the Low Countries under one ruler. This process marked a new episode in the development of the Dutch ethnic group, as now political unity started to emerge, consolidating the strengthened cultural and linguistic unity.
The Act of Abjuration
, signed on 26 July 1581, was the formal declaration of independence of the Dutch Low Countries.
Despite their linguistic and cultural unity, and (in the case of Flanders, Brabant and Holland) economic similarities, there was still little sense of political unity among the Dutch people.
However, the centralist policies of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries, at first violently opposed by the cities of the Low Countries, had a profound impact and changed this. During Charles the Bold's many wars, which were a major economic burden for the Burgundian Netherlands, tensions slowly increased. In 1477, the year of Charles' sudden death at Nancy, the Low Countries rebelled against their new liege, Mary of Burgundy, and presented her with a set of demands.
The subsequently issued Great Privilege met many of these demands, which included that Dutch, not French, should be the administrative language in the Dutch-speaking provinces and that the States-General had the right to hold meetings without the monarch's permission or presence. The overall tenure of the document (which was declared void by Mary's son and successor, Philip IV) aimed for more autonomy for the counties and duchies, but nevertheless all the fiefs presented their demands together, rather than separately. This is evidence that by this time a sense of common interest was emerging among the provinces of the Netherlands. The document itself clearly distinguishes between the Dutch speaking and French speaking parts of the Seventeen Provinces.
Following Mary's marriage to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, the Netherlands were now part of the Habsburg lands. Further centralized policies of the Habsburgs (like their Burgundian predecessors) again met with resistance, but, peaking with the formation of the collateral councils of 1531 and the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, were still implemented. The rule of Philip II of Spain sought even further centralist reforms, which, accompanied by religious dictates and excessive taxation, resulted in the Dutch Revolt. The Dutch provinces, though fighting alone now, for the first time in their history found themselves fighting a common enemy. This, together with the growing number of Dutch intelligentsia and the Dutch Golden Age in which Dutch culture, as a whole, gained international prestige, consolidated the Dutch as an ethnic group. This group partly assimilated Frisian and Lower Saxon populations in the north and east of the Republic.
By the middle of the 16th century an overarching, 'national' (rather than 'ethnic') identity seemed in development in the Habsburg Netherlands, when inhabitants began to refer to it as their 'fatherland' and were beginning to be seen as a collective entity abroad; however, the persistence of language barriers, traditional strife between towns, and provincial particularism continued to form an impediment to more thorough unification. Following excessive taxation together with attempts at diminishing the traditional autonomy of the cities and estates in the Low Countries, followed by the religious oppression after being transferred to Habsburg Spain, the Dutch revolted, in what would become the Eighty Years' War. For the first time in their history, the Dutch established their independence from foreign rule. However, during the war it became apparent that the goal of liberating all the provinces and cities that had signed the Union of Utrecht, which roughly corresponded to the Dutch-speaking part of the Spanish Netherlands, was unreachable. The Northern provinces were free, but during the 1580s the South was recaptured by Spain, and, despite various attempts, the armies of the Republic were unable to expel them. In 1648, the Peace of Münster, ending the Eighty Years' War, acknowledged the independence of the Dutch Republic, but maintained Spanish control of the Southern Netherlands. Apart from a brief reunification from 1815 until 1830, within the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (which included the Francophones/Walloons) the Dutch have been separated from the Flemings to this day.