Originally the term Netherlands referred to a much larger entity than the current Kingdom of the Netherlands. Charles V of Hapsburg was the lord of seventeen provinces roughly covering the current Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and a good part of the North of France (Artois). Most of these were fiefs under the Holy Roman Empire, of which Charles became Emperor himself. Two, Flanders and Artois, were French fiefs. The French king and the Holy Roman Emperor agreed to release all seventeen from the largely nominal and by then anachronistic ties to both realms. This was called the Pragmatic Sanction of 1548. Seven northern provinces claimed their independence in 1581 as a republic called the United Provinces:
- Overijssel (with Drenthe and Lingen)
- Gelre (with Zutphen) (after 1543)
- Flanders remained mostly part of the south, but later lost half its territory to France in the wars with Louis XIV
- Luxemburg remained part of the south but half of it became an independent entity after the Napoleonic wars
- Hainaut, Namur and Mechelen remained part of the south
- Artois, Tournai and Douai became French later.
In the days of Charles V, there is no doubt that the economic, political and cultural center was the south, although Holland was gradually gaining importance in the 15th and 16th centuries. In fact, the south was one of the leading economic regions of Europe at the time.
To distinguish between the older, larger Netherlands from the current country, Dutch speakers usually drop the plural for the latter. They speak of Nederland for the current country and de Nederlanden for the domains of Charles V. In other languages, this has not been adopted.
The fact that the same term Netherlands has such different historical meanings can sometimes lead to difficulties in expressing oneself correctly. For example, composers from the 16th century are often said to belong to the Nederlandse School. Although they themselves would not have objected to that term, today it may wrongly create the impression that they were from the north. In fact, they were almost exclusively from the south.